The Common Core has been adopted in all but three states and with a presidential election quickly approaching these will continue to grow in attention.  President Obama has approved of these standards and has begun to tie federal funding to them.  As you can imagine, conservatives will now lash out against the Core standards in an attempt to manufacture yet another divide in American ideology.  If education does receive attention in the upcoming election, it will be surrounded by so much propaganda that citizens will be completely confused and misinformed by agenda driven politics.

It is true that these standards are not field tested.  There has been no pilot study or research into the impact these standards will have.  Yet, if one is knowledgeable in standards, they know that the standards in and of themselves are not the true issue.  It is the intended outcome of the standards that makes them either  beneficial for students or yet another distraction.  The issue is  not what impact will the standards have but truly how they will be measured and utilized.

What we must understand about the Common Core standards movement is that there are no perfect standard documents.  If they are too large then they drive surface level teaching and simply coverage.  If the documents are too small and vague then it renders little in regards to standards that are guaranteed and viable.  A guaranteed and viable curriculum does not spawn from isolated packaged standards with lesson plans targeting skills out of context of real content.  It does not precipitate from standards based supplemental materials that dominate  textbook adoptions.  It is certainly not aimed solely at multiple choice formatting to prepare for “high stakes” tests.  It does not come from simply having standards. So the question becomes, how do we approach this adoption of standards differently than we have in years past to ensure a guaranteed and viable curriculum?  How is one to look at the Common Core standards sensibly?

If you look at the Common Core, you will see pieces of every state standard embedded somewhere in the document.  This will be the case in every state.  The Common Core is a collection of every state’s highest quality standards  put into common language.  It is not a collection of the most common or most popular, but the standards of the highest quality.   For Kansas, they are an improvement over what currently existed. The standards also give a broad stroke rather than a prescribed mandate.  They do not define how to teach students but outline what students should be able to do in order to be college and career ready.  (With common standards, maybe state comparisons will actually be reliable!!!!!!)  There is an obvious scaffold of complexity for each grade level and a focus on text complexity for students.  The standards highlight some of the most essential skills when it pertains to literacy and they require a deep look at text and information.  The writing standards focus on strong argumentation and are inclusive of the writing process including research standards.  All of these are the bedrock to college and career readiness.

Yet, some of the more detrimental components of this movement are that there are still too many standards.  If states and districts were to adopt all Common Core standards as they are for a Language Arts curriculum there would be a total of 19 reading standards (informational and literature), 10 writing standards, 6 Language Standards and 6 Speaking and Listening standards. Within theses standards there are multiple components embedded within.  On the surface level there would be a total of 41 standards in one year and in one course.  Once one looks deeper, they would realize there are actually many more  that (as many as 74).    Any sound minded educator would tell you that although the totality of the standards are attractive, this sheer number alone is much too prodigious and full coverage would be asinine and shallow.  With all the benefits of the core,  they still could not render down a manageable number of standards.

Therefore, the question becomes…what is one to do when states adopt the core and districts must now experience another standard change?  The answer is fairly simple yet wildly unattractive in the political spectrum.  Below is an ideological and practical approach to the Common Core adoption that will drastically reduce the number of standards taught in a given school year but also ensure that the most important aspects of the standards are taught.   There is a way to avoid the pitfalls of previous curricular reforms and standard adoptions.  .   It is a school of thought called “Essentialism”.  Below is a small example and descriptions of such a formula.

First, it is important to know the structure of the Common Core reading standards.  They are organized into three clusters or bands of standards.  They are:

  1. Key Ideas and Details
  2. Craft and Structure
  3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

There are three standards in each of these clusters of varying length and sophistication.  Teachers  in Professional Learning Communities can view these three standards holistically rather than as individual entities.  They can use them as a conceptual lens to approach rich text and information rather than  skills to learn in and of themselves.  In order to do this, Professional Learning Communities can go through three very simple steps.

1.  Read through the cluster of standards individually and highlight the most important or essential components in each standard.

2.  Share  highlights with the other Professional Learning Community members and find the commonalities and differences.  Come to an agreement on what is deemed essential.

3.  Create a summary or synthesis that embodies these essential components and utilize this  as a lens for analyzing and interpreting quality text and information.

Simplistic…absolutely.  Necessary….certainly.  This summary creates a conceptual lens for the teacher and the students as they are reading, writing, and speaking.

Here is an example of this looking at 8th grade Key Ideas and Details for Informational text.

The Standards:

Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.  (CC.RI.8.1)

Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text. (CC.RI.8.2, ACT)

Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events (e.g. though comparisons, analogies, or categories). (CC.RI.8.3, ACT)

My Highlights

Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.  (CC.RI.8.1)

Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text. (CC.RI.8.2, ACT)

Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events (e.g. though comparisons, analogies, or categories). (CC.RI.8.3, ACT)

My Summary:

Cite textual evidence that supports the explicit or inferred central idea of a text analyzing the development and of supporting details.  Analyze the connections and distinctions of ideas within the text. Objectively summarize.

Rather than looking at three standards, I am looking at a way of analyzing text.  Another way of doing this is to bullet out rather than summarize.

My bullets

Cite Textual Evidence and provide objective summaries of

  • Explicit and Inferred Main Ideas
  • Development of supporting details
  • Connections and distinctions in text

Again, this is not a complicated process.  It is truly just a different way of using standards to guide instruction.   Once this is done, teachers now utilize rich text to give students opportunities to make meaning through lots of writing and lots of discussion.  It hones in on what students are to do with text and information.

The tests being created are a data point amongst many that cannot summarize the whole of what occurs in classrooms.   Tests cannot measure everything important and critical in the classroom.  Smarter Balance, the assessment consortium charged with creating the new assessments for Kansas, is creating better multiple choice items that are adaptive, more interactive, and are inclusive of performance based tasks.  From what has been created thus far, they are miles above what currently exists in the state of Kansas. Yet, the overall goal should not be to pass these tests.  This will only recreate our current reality.  If we create highly literate students with the ability to navigate through rich text and information and make meaning of it in several ways, including writing and speaking…these tests will take care of themselves.

In this adoption, we must ensure that pacing guides and standards guides in districts allow for flexibility in instruction and  content while still identifying explicitly what must be taught.  As we journey closer to this change in standards,  let’s make sure that we are not using these documents as a system of control but rather as a “guide” to foster close and deep reading of text to render meaning and connectedness for all  students.  Let’s  also make sure that these documents allow room and flexibility and ample opportunities for high quality writing to make sense of learning.  Let’s create  pacing guides that give room for deep discussion concerning  writing and reading while at the same time guaranteeing a viable educational experience for our students.  Let’s create pacing guides that allow for students to critically think through dilemmas and how to solve them utilizing such instructional approaches as Project Based Learning, Challenge Based Learning and Cross Curricular Teaching.  Let’s teach rich content and essential skills for real world citizenship and academic prosperity. Let’s make sure our students can take their learning and write as well as speak about it in intelligent, coherent and meaningful ways. Let’s avoid teaching solely for multiple choice testing.  Let’s abandon standardized instruction void of  authentic application as if the standards themselves are more important than their bearing on true real world learning.  Let’s get away from a checklist of teach and move on.

This is our charge.  It must be all of us in this battle of the authentic over the political.  The tests are a data point amongst many that cannot summarize the whole of what occurs in good as well as in poor classrooms.  Refuse to teach to the test and create meaningful, rigorous, authentic classrooms that students want to attend, not the factories that the government has attempted to create.

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