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Teaching Students Not Standards

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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There's a lot that I like about the Common Core standards. For one, as a former high school English teacher, I'm thrilled by the literacy standards for secondary math, science, and social studies. I also think the standards for speaking, writing, listening and reading build nicely from kinder to twelfth grade, creating a space for teachers to talk and plan together across grade levels.

In fact, when I consider the importance of having standards in education, I think of this quote by JFK, "All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents." Having standards in education -- a set of skills and goals for all students -- speaks directly to this quote.

However, I think it's important to clarify that we don't really teach standards. We teach children. Standards are simply guidelines, and these guidelines will and should adjust and modify according to the needs of an individual student and the groups we teach. Unfortunately, this may not be what's happening with the Common Core.

And, Suddenly, a Wrong Turn

A recent New York Times' article indicated that critics of these new standards are beginning to emerge where there were once allies. In the article, a Long Island high school principal's support of the new standards has significantly waned, and she had this to say as to why:

"We see kids...they don't want to go to school anymore."

I can't disagree with this. I'm seeing it, too. So why might this be happening, and why the increasing number of critics? My hunch is that it is not about the document itself, but more about the implementation.

The new standards are meant to give teachers freedom when designing the learning -- more choices in the text and content they use, and the context in which the lesson is taught. Though when you think about the words of the Long Island principal and the overall growing resistance, it leads me to believe educators throughout our land are not being given the freedom and voice that was intended. Dictation and distortion of the Common Core might be, in fact, gaining the upper hand. And this upper hand is mightier, I'm afraid, in schools located in low-income communities of color.

Four Pitfalls with Educational Standards

I'd like now to call out exactly how I've seen this dictation and distortion of education standards play out in schools and I'd like to offer up some suggestions for taking action:

Pitfall #1: The Hyperfocus

This is when one standard or two or three receive an inordinate amount of talk and focus at a school. Perhaps there was a workshop all the teachers attended, or a vendor provided materials on this standard in hopes that the school would purchase more. (Vendors and publishers will push for hyperfocus on certain standards -- those they can re-brand from older standards or those they already have materials for, for example.)

Taking action: We need to speak up and say when we see an imbalance, when there is an obvious hyperfocus on a particular standard. Here's a example of something I recently had to say, "Hey, we are talking a lot about close reading of complex text, but the standards also call for reading a large variety of grade-level texts, which we know can greatly improve reading skills. How are students being provided with this? We need an instructional balance here."

Pitfall #2: The Delusion

Ah, the curriculum race. (I've got to cover all these puppies by June!) We've seen it, we've done it, and no one gains a thing from it. In fact, I can cover every standard the state or government asks me to but if my students hate reading and writing more when they leave my English class then I've failed at my job. (Re-read the quote from the Long Island principal.)

Taking action: Coverage is surface-learning, at best, and what students don't get a chance to apply, they will soon forget. Dig deep. Real learning happens when we choose depth over breadth. This will mean we don't "cover" every single standard in a school year. And that's okay. Start conversations about the reality of not having time to go deep with every standard (these are guidelines not a checklist). To get conversations about deeper learning started, begin re-introducing the language of whole-child education, such as "relevance," "curiosity" and "love of learning." Propose more fieldtrips and hands-on projects with the rational that experiential learning is the kind of learning that sticks.

Pitfall #3: The Misfit

Pre-packaged, teacher-proof curricula can do a huge disservice to students. Who is telling us what the standards should look like in the classroom? This is an important question. Is it educational consultants, publishers, workshop contractors? How and why did they choose this focus, this standard, this text? Does it speak directly to the lives and academic needs of our students at our specific school site? One-size-fits-all, packaged materials will not serve all students at all schools. Period.

Taking action: It's fundamental that teacher and student voice guide in the development of standards-inspired curriculum. Advocate for plenty of planning time so teachers at your school site can create lessons and units together -- starting first with the needs and assets of the students they serve, then using the standards as a guideline to plan relevant and engaging content and activities. When ample time and space is given for teaching planning, there's no place for packaged curricula.

Pitfall #4: The Distortion

This is when an assessment or standardized test at a school becomes The Thing. One sign of this: academic intervention or remedial courses have taken the place of theater, art, and music classes. Also, if I sit in regularly at school meetings and begin to hear, "testing," assessment," "teachers," "accountability," and "standards" more than I hear "students, "learning," "relevance," and "engaging," I know this distortion has taken hold.

Taking action: The politics are dancing and we need to call attention to this (be brave!) Begin by encouraging your school team to create a definition together on what it really means to learn and the true purpose of having an education. This hopefully will begin to guide the discussion back to what matters most: the students. We need to comprehensively evaluate students: what they say, do, create, and write in a school year, not just one time and in one sitting. Advocate for all assessments to be used and valued, such as performance and formative (not just summative). Schools can also fall prey to pre-packaged assessments, just like curricula. Discourage this and strongly encourage they be designed to the specific learning taking place.

Yes, We Can

With these new standards, we will have to have courage. Some of the boilerplate curricula I was handed and instructed to implement while in the classroom I should have flatly refused to use or I should have at least advocated for its modification; it was so alienating of my students -- a true disservice to them (I wish I could go back in time). That was a mistake by me, by a number of us with the state standards. So now we have an opportunity to be the voice of reason when we are given not-so-great curricula and when we see a hyper or distorted focus on a particular standard or with a particular test.

Don't get me wrong. I'm fine with standards. I like the guidance and the specificity. But this time around, we need to insist that trust be given to teachers to do their jobs.

Let's get students excited about learning again.

When it comes to CCSS implementation at your school, what's working? What's not? Please share with us in the comments section below.

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Joe Beckmann's picture
Joe Beckmann
Retired teacher educator - UMass, EDC, various school systems

When pseudo-academics would invent standards, I'd hand them out to my students, or forward their online links, so they could know what they were "supposed to know," and merrily move along discussing what they "want to know." Sometimes there was an overlap, sometimes not. Of course, my students were in secondary or post-secondary, so they could read the "standards" and make their own decisions, but, frankly, teams as early as grade three could do the same. Most of those "common core" really haven't changed that dramatically - particularly at those grade levels - since the 1960's, except for more tech now, but, at least in my experience, the kids were always more eager to teach me about tech than I was to teach them.

Holly Folsom Dolan's picture

As I learn more and more about the CCSS, I am excited to work with them. I am very concerned, however, about how they will be assessed. While I agree with many of your points, teachers, students, and schools still have to face an assessment reality. Last year, for the first time in my career, I was evaluated based on student test scores. What do you suggest for those of us who will have our evaluations (and eventually our pay) tied to these assessments? The CCSS are intended to empower teachers and students, but how do we capitalize on that when we are faced with more testing than ever before?

Brian's picture

I agree with the statement that teachers need to speak up. This could not be more true then now in the educational field. More decisions and curriculum are made by non-educational people, i.e., lawmakers. Societal norms now determine what needs to be taught. The reason some many lawmakers do not turn to the educators is because they feel "they have nothing to say." We need to learn how to articulate what we want to say. Then maybe we will be included more in the decision making.

Jennifer B.'s picture

Educators in my district have had many complaints about the Common Core Standards, and how overwhelming they appear at first. We were told that the standards always needed to be displayed in our classroom, and kept up to date with our lessons. As elementary school teachers, we did not understand how posting CCS and having our students repeat them would benefit student learning. Many educators felt as if administration was having us teach standards, rather than ensuring student learning. Instead of becoming discouraged and overwhelmed by focusing solely on the standards we became proactive and made the CCS student friendly. Together we created I can statements to go along with the standards so our elementary students would have a better understanding of what was expected of them and what we were aiming to accomplish. If we embrace the standards, we do not let them defeat us. We as educators know what is best for our students, so it is important that we take the CCS and make it would for our students and teaching strategies.

Coach Jai's picture

I definitely think the focus has changed from the students to more about the CCSS that we are trying to tackle. I find it frustrating as an educator that everything I hear is about assessments, data, growth, accountability, etc. While I know that these are important ideas, I am struggling to understand exactly what I am to teach and how. The way we will assess the students this year is under emergency contract. Who knows what I will be teaching next year? I know that my students are just as frustrated with all these changes just like I am. I just want to scream, just let me teach!

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