Professional Learning

Teacher Leadership and the Common Core State Standards?

The pushback against Common Core includes teachers who believe they should have a voice in defining the standards, curriculum, and assessment.

October 29, 2014

Teacher leadership has officially come into vogue in the education sphere. Everyone from central districts and federal offices to teachers unions and universities is either partnering with teacher-centered groups or creating their own. Among many of the education reform ideas, teacher leadership has had a billion definitions, which few people agree upon, but it's not a silver bullet -- it's James Bond's Golden Gun. With the right elements in place and the right people making sure these elements are working, any other initiative can easily work with teachers at the fore.

Even an initiative as divisive as the Common Core State Standards.

The CCSS debate still boils the blood of many a pundit and educator. If anything, politicians, think tanks, and philanthropists have had to respond to the pushback from all sides of the debate's spectrum. With all that has been going on, teachers on the ground have had to implement the standards to some fidelity. The idea of fidelity becomes difficult when there's a serious conflict between what experts think teachers should do in the classroom and what teachers actually do in the classroom.

But this also assumes that teachers in the classroom aren't themselves experts, an idea often exacerbated by policy makers who strip their policies of ongoing teacher input. As such, the average teacher who sees the standards might first ask if educators developed it. Regardless of whether or not teachers agree with each other on pedagogy, most teachers I speak to would feel comforted by the idea that teachers had a hand in developing, testing, and giving feedback for the standards they taught. That's why my advice is as follows (set to a well-known tune about the benefits of sharing).

Give It Away (The Standards Themselves)

Let teachers delve into them. Despite the objections of many think tanks, the standards ought to have another set of eyes screen them and see if they make sense for our students who are struggling the most. This must be in the context of trust and response on the part of the district assigning this work to a task force of teachers. If there is a large disconnect between what the experts say should happen in the classroom and what teachers are doing, why not hand it over to the teachers and make them the experts?

Side note: I've seen some teacher groups try to advocate for the CCSS as well. The best ones always ground their work in what's happening in the schools, not what’s happening in ivory towers or hotel conferences. The work of the school must be central.

Give It Away (The Curriculum)

When teachers in New York City (full disclosure: I'm one) were told that we would receive curriculum, we didn't get the books until a month into school. Most of the teachers I know didn't even use half the books until January. Why? For one, curriculum maps aren't developed in the middle of the year, but rather during the spring and summer, well after we've administered the state exams. This gives us time to reflect and have conversations with one another about how best to approach what we're teaching. Secondly, we still have to look at the material in the new books and align our maps to them. Even with multiple overviews of the new curriculum, it failed that first year because whoever was responsible didn't get it to us on time.

I teach math, and perhaps this scenario looks different for English Language Arts curriculum, but my point is that all of this can be avoided if teachers are allowed to work on curricula with their colleagues and with the support of administration and other staff. This idea that teachers have to get scripted lessons and unit plans handed down to them from their district doesn't help teachers own their profession.

Give It Away Now (The Assessment)

Even the testing ought to have teachers at the lead. If we're intentional about the process of a teacher's work (pedagogy, curriculum, and standards), then assessment of this work needs to align with the other work they do. This might be the hardest part to transform since our current accountability systems rely heavily on assessment -- mainly because it's the easiest to quantify. Yet if we believe in differentiation and ownership for students, then we have to show even more trust in teachers with the right supports and contexts. We need an array of different assessments, and eventually, we'll need to look at those various assessments to review a student's entire body of work, not simply for the three-hour block they get for the four major subject areas.

If the CCSS is to succeed, it won't be because of the flashy commercials, the stickers and t-shirts, or any sort of rally organized around it. This will come from our foremost practitioners of the CCSS, whether they agree with it or not. Then again, I also believe we'd see a sea change in how educators see it overall. Of course, I also believe that, if these three processes are followed, the need for the Common Core might be diminished.

After all, part of the premise for the CCSS is that teachers don't know what to teach. The better question ought to be: "What if teachers decided what could be taught?"

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