The Real Promise of the Common Core Standards (Part 2)
In my previous Perspective, I began a conversation about the implementation of the Common Core in the US. I offered the following as the framing issue to be addressed: “The impact of the Common Core on student learning in the US will be determined not only by the quality and relevance of the standards but also by how we approach their implementation.”
In this piece, I will examine some barriers to success that can be pointed out from our recent past experience. In no small way, the eventual impact of the Common Core Standards on the connection of learning to schooling in the US will be determined at least as much by how we approach the challenge of implementing the Common Core as by what we choose to focus on doing. A list of possible barriers could be longer than the one that follows, but these five potential challenges represent a good place to start.
Standards in Today’s World—Moving Targets
The very nature of getting agreement on, writing down, and codifying standards for student learning today is tricky business. The half-life of scientific knowledge, our means of communicating in our everyday lives, and the incredible diversity of our nation combine to make a standards movement in 2013 very different from those occurring 25, 50, or 100 years ago. Put another way, what we know and how we act on our knowledge changes at a pace that makes today’s best approximation of learning standards a continuously emerging phenomenon. Some learning standards can become dated in a time frame that is shorter than the cycles we design for developing and implementing new ones.
As a case in point, more than one reputable person or organization in the field of learning already challenges this set of Common Core Standards as being not so “cutting-edge” as others portray them to be. This criticism comes prior to the full implementation of Common Core, so imagine how it may escalate over time. One certainty about learning standards in today’s world is that the issues of relevancy and current fit will spark ongoing conversation. The more we see implementing the Common Core as an event of great magnitude, rather than as a part of how good practice is supported everyday in classrooms where learning is the core activity for adults and students, the more we put our work at risk of not achieving sustainable longterm impact.
Teaching and Learning in Isolation
America’s teachers spend the vast majority of time practicing their profession in isolation. We have organized schooling in unimaginative ways that hold isolated practice in place as though we had compelling evidence that doing so was our best pedagogical approach. What we know from research on how humans learn, however, is that many of our schooling practices occur in environments that would be rated as weak, marginal, or average at best.
In addition to the isolation in practice that teachers experience everyday, there is a second isolating factor present in American schooling important to covering the barriers to successful Common Core implementation. We have organized our curricula, our school days, and our course offerings according to subject area fields. The Common Core has been developed by educators who know that their successful implementation requires teachers to work together across subject areas, courses, and fields of knowledge. Stated plainly: Those who developed and advocate for the Common Core know that their successful implementation will require teachers to work across traditional boundaries of subject areas and courses of studies in order for the standards to impact student learning at levels that will make a true difference.
Sorting and Selecting the Winners
America’s public schools have always been a proposition balanced on the fulcrum of what’s best for the “majority." As a result, some have described our traditional approach as “one-size-fits-all." Resources in the operation of schooling, as in all endeavors, are limited. Our need to efficiently use scarce resources consistently conflicts with issues such as the personalization of learning and equity for all learners. Understanding this inherent conflict will not necessarily cause the task of making hard decisions about allocating scarce resources easier, but knowing the nature and causes of the conflict should help us to have a clearer vision of alternatives as we make those decisions.
What we know about human learning and what we can observe via the outcomes of schooling, both past and present, is that this “one-size-fits-all” approach leads to winners and losers relative to educational success. Schools have played and still can play an important role in sorting and selecting students in a vast variety of ways. The sort-and-select practice of schooling is deeply institutionalized and is not easily overcome. The measuring sticks for identifying winners and losers in schooling are typically based on “how much” and “how fast” someone learns. “How much” and “how fast” are indicators of performance in many aspects of life, but they certainly are not the only ones. Better standards, no matter how good they are, cannot in and of themselves guarantee equity for all learners if we apply the new standards in the classroom in the same ways that we applied their predecessors. The issue of equity is inextricably tied to how we use standards as well as to the integrity of the standards, so getting that part right in implementing the Common Core is vital to success.
Assessment—Keeping Score or Informing Practice
The lag time between implementation of standards for learning in the US and the large-scale assessment of student performance measured against those standards typically is very short. This fact is one that handicaps successful standards initiatives because often, the need for course correction does not show up until we have begun to assess learning. By that time, needed adaptation may not be feasible, or, at best, adaptation attempts get portrayed in the worlds of policy and politics as yet another sign of a failing system of schooling.
The rush to judgment that seems always to accompany large-scale school reform in the US is driven by the mindset that we have about keeping score. Despite all claims otherwise, as soon as the assessment scores of the past 20-25 years have been released, the scorecards have shown up in newspapers, realtors’ offices, television commercials, and politicians’ campaign speeches. It does not take long for the labeling to begin—labeling of students, teachers, schools, and communities. While the scorekeeping phenomena is occurring, someone is cajoling and coaxing educators to embrace these movements, assuring them that the true purpose of assessing student progress is to inform their practice rather to affix labels. It has become hard, if not impossible, for educators to believe that message of intent.
Moving to Scale—Models and Programs
The approach to moving good ideas from first adopters to all classrooms, schools, and districts has followed a similar pattern for many years. Typically, new standards are implemented in situations where high levels of systemic capacity already exist or in situations where significant attention is paid to building systemic capacity as part of the implementation of the new ideas. The approach typically is designed to produce models based on the first adopter exemplars for wider dissemination to other schools and districts. Often, when these models and programs are rolled out to a much larger set of users, we have ignored the lack of systemic capacity in schools and districts, pushing forward on the implementation of “the model,” behaving as though systemic capacity were an unimportant variable. Sometimes the result of this approach has been to abandon good models for the wrong reasons. Even worse, by ignoring the issue of the relationship of systemic capacity for adult learning that leads to improved educational practice to the quality of the reform effort (in this case new standards), we tend to conclude that the group of educators who did not successfully implement the model or program was somehow not as smart, as committed, or as virtuous as those who benefitted from an entirely different degree of systemic capacity as those models and programs were developed.
In my last entry next week, I will offer examples of people and organizations who are applying generative and adaptive actions to school reform and from whom we can learn in our efforts to implement the Common Core.