Wednesday, November 12, 2014

At the "Core": Reflections & Considerations on Common Core

I've had many conversations about Common Core State Standards (CCSS) with fellow teachers, concerned parents, and curious friends.  Throughout these conversations, several things kept coming to my mind, so I've had this blog post in my heart for quite some time. With that said, I want to establish that this post is NOT with any single person or conversation in mind.  It is simply a list of ideas that I think should be clearly explained when it comes to Common Core.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but I think being able to intelligently discuss issues and explain ourselves is part of what learning and growing is all about.  So here it goes...

Establishing a Context
In this blog post, I am just talking about the standards themselves.  Historically, states and educational institutions have often received funding or been encouraged to receive funding for this or that initiative.  Many people focus on this funding issue, but my primary concern is always what is best for our students.  So for the purpose of this post, I'm focusing discussion on standards only.

Why Do We Need Standards?
Education has long pursued standards-based instruction.  Standards provide a framework for teachers of various grade levels and content areas to teach approximately the same thing.  Standards help teachers know what is developmentally appropriate for their students; in other words, standards guide instruction.  They do not tell teachers how to teach; they merely explain what students at various developmental levels can be expected to do after thoughtful, meaningful, strategic, explicit instruction has occurred in class. 

But Doesn't It Encourage "Teaching the Test"?
With the focus on standardized test results these days, there has been a concern over "teaching the test" in recent years.  Implementing rigorous standards does not encourage teaching the test.  Believe me, there is no way to "teach a test" that focuses on strategic thinking because students are expected to apply the content they've learned, not regurgitate it on the test.  There is no guarantee how questions will be asked from test to test, thus teachers must prepare their students for a plethora of ways in which they can use the content they are learning.  In fact, implementing rigorous standards is the antithesis of teaching the test.  When students understand a standard or idea completely, there is no need to teach the test.  Students will be able to perform at the caliber expected because they actually understand the content at a higher level than ever before.  In fact, this is real-life preparation...when was the last time you were asked for the formula for calculating area of a rectangle or some other shape?  But don't gardeners, farmers, carpenters, etc. use this formula and others like it every day?  This is just one example, but the point is that - when taught correctly, meaningfully, and with appropriate intensity - students are prepared to use their knowledge in solving real-life issues.  This is the true "test" in life. 

What about Differentiation?
I've heard far too many people insinuate that there is no way to differentiate with these new standards.  I am terribly concerned about this perspective because I'm afraid it reflects a misunderstanding of how the standards work together.  Firstly, the new standards are built around anchor standards, or key ideas that students should be able to understand and apply to be successful in college or in their careers.  These anchor standards remain the same from kindergarten through twelfth grade because they begin with the end in mind.  They are expectations for content knowledge when a student graduates high school; think of it like a panoramic lens.  Using this metaphor, if we "zoom in" to each grade level, there is a related standard or group of standards that build toward that end goal.  It's like breaking down the steps of the anchor standards into smaller, achievable pieces that a student can gradually master year after year, until finally he or she is capable of demonstrating the anchor standard.  So let's say a student in grade 5 is struggling with a concept related to reading informational text.  There is a related, slightly easier standard that provides the scaffolding for that informational text standard all the way from the kindergarten level!  His or her teacher needs to determine at what grade level (or level of complexity) the student is performing and start there to accommodate and differentiate that student's work.  It's like using the standards as a spectrum for meeting students' current and desired achievement levels.  As the student demonstrates more and more understanding of the concept, the teacher can encourage him or her forward to reach the grade 5 standard.  Contrary to this opinion, I find that differentiating is easier than ever before because of how each grade level builds upon the same anchor standards with greater complexity from year to year. 

What's Up in Alabama?
Another important foundation to establish is that Alabama's current instructional standards are not the CCSS.  Alabama chose to implement standards called College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS).  CCRS includes the Common Core State Standards and adds to those standards, including concepts and content that were determined should remain from our previous courses of study (standards).  I have heard others say that Alabama has standards that are easier than CCSS.  I would argue that they aren't because of what's in our standards (CCRS)...let's consider this for a moment.  If Alabama's standards (CCRS) include everything in the CCSS plus additional standards, then ours are at least equivalent to, if not more than, CCSS simply by quantity alone.  However, more is not always better, but the quality stands firm as well since the wording of the standards is the same as the CCSS. 

My Personal Opinion of the Standards
As mentioned previously, the focus in this post has been with students in mind.  I teach a diverse population of students (and collaborate frequently with other educators), and I have found that these standards are the best thing to happen for education in a long time.  Yes, they are challenging, but don't we want to produce a generation of students that is ready for jobs that haven't even been invented yet?  Yes, it is a change, but don't we want to grow with our students and challenge our own thinking and professional practice?  These standards establish high expectations for our students, and quite honestly, for teachers as well.  They shift the focus from assessment-driven thinking to real-world problem solving.  I have found that most teachers are in agreement, but as with any undertaking, anything worth having is worth working for.  Ultimately, we all want our students to be well-prepared for the futures that await them.  I believe we are on the right path. 

I will post additional thoughts related to these ideas at a later time, but since so many questions and comments were being exchanged, I felt it was timely to share these foundational ideas now.