As full implementation of Common Core State Standards nears, educators are searching for answers to three questions: 1) What are the CC State Standards? 2) How will they change what I do? and 3) Why are they here? Some of the details are frustratingly elusive as various groups -- publishers, school districts, states, and universities -- jockey for positions in the first post-NCLB initiative. Here’s what we know that can fit into a blog:
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represent the most significant, widespread education reform that has ever occurred in American public schools. Currently, 45 states and three territories have adopted the standards and plan to assess students’ progress on them during the 2014-2015 school year. With these standards, all learning is linked to 10 Career and College Readiness Standards, what students need to know and be able to do in order to thrive at the college level and in the career world. It’s the first time that the country has ever had such a clear picture of the kinds of skills students should have when they leave high school. It’s a big deal.
The CC standards are organized in an intoxicatingly simple, linear fashion that acknowledges that the work of a first grade teacher contributes to the growth of a tenth grade student. This connectedness between grade levels is a welcome departure from some previous state standards that jumped from topic to topic, addressing a particular skill one year, dropping it the next, and returning to it later on or not at all.
The standards’ organization will help teachers focus on the big picture and see how their work with students is connected to a child’s academic past and future. No CCSS strand can be mastered in one year.
How Will They Change What Teachers Do?
CCSS will have varying degrees of influence for secondary teachers. For the areas of English language arts and mathematics, CCSS will replace current state standards. They will unify goals and expectations for students across the country as well as align assessments. For history, science, and technical subjects, the standards offer 10 areas of key literacy skills to overlay onto already existing state content standards. Because the content and assessments will be the same from state to state, a unified system of measure can be used to compare student growth from one part of the country to another. And states will be able to compete for Federal money, but that’s another topic.
The standards address the fact that literacy demands in college, the workplace, and life in general are getting higher, not lower, and to thrive in an information-rich, digital global age, we need a highly literate population.
For the authors of CCSS, this translates to teachers in all disciplines sharing responsibility for students’ literacy development. While English teachers might be relieved to know they will not have to carry the responsibility of literacy instruction alone, CCSS also acknowledges that the informational texts used in various subjects are complex and worthy of study. It makes sense that the best person to teach specific areas of literacy is the expert teacher of the field: scientists, historians, and other scholars. The authors believe that these skills are essential to the success of students in these disciplines.
It doesn’t mean that a science teacher is going to drop teaching the concept of velocity and start teaching essay writing, but it does mean that writing in science, a common occurrence among scientists, will benefit young scholars.
The CCSS will help solidify students’ progression to higher-level math, through real-world applications and conceptual understanding, not just procedural knowledge. It’s through concepts that students will be able to go beyond passing the weekly math test and build to a sophisticated understanding of the language of math; hence taking students to the level of achievement needed in fast tech times.
The Technology Piece
The standards also take into account our rapidly changing information age, acknowledging that entirely new genres of reading and writing could develop at any time (Twitter, Facebook updates, and multi-author blogs did not exist in 1997 when many current state standards were in development). To help address the demands of technology, the CCSS incorporates research and media skills into every subject. It’s a spot-on relevant move in an age when anyone can look up the answer to anything on the Internet.
No longer do books, or adults, hold all of the information. Students have to be able to navigate through, independently, a vast amount of information, learn and mimic new genres, and communicate with others near and far. It’s with this in mind that the CCSS focuses on key skills and concepts that will serve students for a lifetime in our ever-changing world.
Of course, we have to note that the CCSS require new kinds of assessments. Hopefully, these tests will turn our education system away from the rote memorization and test prep culture fostered by current high-stakes assessments. Instead, they have the potential to support classrooms where complex reading, writing, and critical thinking is everyday work in nearly every part of the country. Places where students question the author, evaluate claims and evidence, and consider multiple perspectives. We don’t know much about how, exactly, the assessments will look, but they promise to match the kinds of higher-order skills demanded by the standards.
They will not be simple multiple-choice tests, identifying sentence types, word origins, and the result of the Roman Empire’s war with Carthage. In an era when teachers are more often judged based on students’ test scores, this shift is huge.
Like anything else, how the CC Standards are implemented will make all the difference. The authors are very clear: CCSS does not include information about how teachers should teach. From this, I infer that they understand the complexity of teaching and learning. I suspect they know that binders of ready-made packaged programs and curriculum are worthless without a high quality teacher who’s given the opportunity, respect, and support to design learning for his or her students.
It’s this clear message that makes classroom teachers so vulnerable. We don’t know how, exactly, CCSS will be implemented at the state, district, and school levels. Will teachers get to design new units of study? Will they be offered an opportunity to collaborate around the idea of what these standards mean for their students? Will they have a chance to reflect on student progress, to refine their practice, and make meaningful instructional decisions? To believe in something, you have to own it.
If teachers don’t own it, the full potential of CCSS will get lost in the bureaucratic minefield of our public schools. My hope is that the implementation of CCSS will pair with empowering the most influential person in the classroom: the teacher.
How has your school prepared for Common Core? Please share with us in the comments section below.