Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Where Should We Go From Here? A Suggestion for Reviewing the Common Core State Standards

"Where do we go from here now that all other children are growin' upAnd how do we spend our lives if there's no-one to lend us a hand."
- "Games People Play"

Alan Parsons Project

Now that the AZ Senate has once again voted down a bill that would abolish the Common Core State Standards, it's time for all stakeholders involved - the teachers, the administrators, the parents, and the legislators - to look closely at the real issues surrounding the standards. The problem with the Common Core State Standards are not with the standards themselves.  While they are not "perfect", they are more rigorous in regards to the level of thinking and depth of knowledge they expect students to demonstrate and communicate - much more than previous state-based standards that asked students to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create without any context.  
The standards should be reviewed by members of the community to ensure these standards will appropriately and effectively prepare our children for the demands and expectations they will face in their postsecondary academic and vocational endeavors.  The complaints about how the standards were adopted and implemented are valid.  They are a true example of how poorly the change process has been implemented.
The true problem with the Common Core State Standards is the emphasis that has been placed upon them, and unfortunately this emphasis has not been academic.  They have been used as a political example of federal government intrusion.  They have been used as an economic reason to sell and purchase new textbooks and curriculum packages.  They have also been used a threat to schools to "raise the rigor" and "raise their performance" as measured by student achievement on tests.
Another key concern about the Common Core State Standards is how students and teachers have been prepared to address these standards.  While state and county education agencies have provided professional development to educators, these trainings have been costly not only fiscally but also in regards to time.  It is impossible for a one-day professional development - be it full day, half-day, or two hours before or after school - to be effective without follow-up and follow-through.  The strategies that are also being taught as part of this professional development are not only unfocused but also require every teacher to teach a certain way.  Instead of asking teachers to think deeply about how could these standards be taught, we are directly instructing them that this is the way the standards MUST be taught without any evidence or proof that these instructional methodologies, strategies, and techniques are effective.
Parents have also not been involved in the change process.  That's not just the school's fault.  Some parents truly do not have time to think about how the standards are changing the expectations for teaching and learning.  The impression and the message they are receiving about the standards are from the homework sheets students are bringing home that have been mistakenly labeled as "Common Core math" and "Common Core reading and writing" along with the 30 second news bites, talk show topics, or articles in newspapers and magazines that focus more on the debate over rather than the analysis of the CCSS.
If the Common Core State Standards are to serve their intent and purpose, then the education and political decision-makers not only in Arizona but every state that have adopted the Common Core State Standards need to refocus their attention on how to implement these standards effectively and efficiently. Here are some questions schools and their stakeholders should reflect upon and review: 1) How do the standards provide students educational experiences that will stimulate their thinking and deepen their understanding of the concepts and content they are learning? 2) How do the standards provide teachers the opportunity to think deeply - critically, creatively, decisively, flexibly, practically, and strategically - how to provide deeper, student-centered teaching and learning experiences that expand students' knowledge and extend their thinking across the curriculum and beyond the classroom? 3) How do the standards serve as a measure of student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and overall school performance not just based upon on formative and summative assessments but on authentic assessments that allow students to express and share their knowledge, thinking, and disposition in-depth, insightfully, and in their own unique way using oral, written, creative, or technical expression? These are the good questions that should drive the review of the standards.  What makes them good questions is not their form but rather their intent and purpose, which is to have us think deeply, examine and explore thoroughly, and communicate clearly deeper knowledge, understanding, and awareness - the same things we want our students to do with their learning. Forget all the rhetoric from those who support or are against the standards.  Put aside the textbooks and curriculum packages sold to the local education agency that advertise they are "aligned to and address the Common Core State Standards".  Let's look closely at these standards with a critical  - yet unbiased view to determine whether they meet their intent and purpose, which is to challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate their deeper knowledge, thinking, and disposition about the concepts and content they are learning.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Check Your Agenda at the Door! The Misconstruction of the Common Core

Today I was proud to speak before the Arizona Senate Education Committee about the Common Core State Standards.  I am against the legislative bill that would rid our state of the CCSS.  However, it might not be for the reasons that you think.

As I said in my testimony, I support the intent and purpose of CCSS, which is to challenge and engage students to demonstrate and communicate deeper levels of cognitive rigor i.e. higher order thinking and depth of knowledge.  However, I do not support the politics and economics that have sullied the intent and purpose of these standards.

The CCSS are not the problem with education.  The problem lies in the implementation and impression.  The message is being misinterpreted, which is unfortunate because it allowed us for the first time to set nationwide expectations for student learning.  How to teach the standards still lies in state and local control.  Unfortunately, that control has been turned over to the politicians who have made this another excuse to rail against our current federal administration and the textbook companies who have wrongly misconstrued, "This is now the way you need to read, write, and do math."

The CCSS has unfortunately become an extension of No Child Left Behind in that accountability is more important and vital - or essential - than academics.  The difference is that the accountability was a federal mandate that tasked the states to provide standards-based instruction at the state level.  These standards, unfortunately, were neither well-written nor cognitively demanding.  The CCSS are not only cognitively complex but also flexible enough for both students and teachers to think critically and creatively how to participate in and provide deeper teaching and learning experiences.

Unfortunately, the assessments and the focus on them have muddied the intent and purpose of the CCSS, which is to teach our children not what is the information but rather how and why the information can be used to attain a desired or specific response and result, what else can be done with the information to attain a certain outcome or solution, and - most importantly - what can you, the student, do with the information you have learned.  

Education has become more about accountability and assessment than academics.  We are teaching students to take tests that have high stakes.  However, are those high stakes placed on the students ability to demonstrate and communicate their learning clearly, correctly, and creatively or are the high stakes more placed more on the school to perform?  What's more important - that the student or the school receives an A? 

The work our children are bringing home are not because of the standards.  This is the work that the textbook companies and curriculum publishers are perpetuating as "Common Core Math" and "Common Core Literacy".  With all the work I have done with the CCSS, I have yet to see any question on a PARCC or SBAC  test that resembles anything featured on Khan Academy or published by Harcourt-Mifflin or Pearson.  There is no one way to teach the CCSS because it is not a curriculum or a program.  They are a set of performance objectives that defines what a child must know, understand, and be able to do by the end of a grade level.  How they get there should lie in the professional decisions and judgment of the educators.

If the CCSS are to fulfill its intent and purpose, then it needs to be taken away from the politicians and publishers and given to the educators who can teach these cognitively rigorous standards critically and creatively.  It is as simple as asking kids, "Why is this the answer?" to a math problem or providing a real world situation in which the mathematical practice, principle, and process can be used.  It is as simple as students thinking deeply and conveying what is the meaning and message behind the literary fiction and nonfiction texts they are reading and reviewing; explaining how authors use the conventions of writing, language, and even production to express the meaning and message; and sharing how could the student create, design, develop, plan, or produce a similar text that addresses the meaning and messages of these texts in their own unique way.  We need to teach students how to process the academic information - the data, the details, the definitions - they have researched and retrieved into deeper knowledge and thinking they can transfer and use in a variety of circumstances and conditions as well as express and share their deeper understanding and awareness in their own unique way.

That is what signifies college and career readiness - not performance on a standardized test.  That is the intent and purpose of the Common Core State Standards.  That is what unfortunately has been lost in all the politicking and commercialization not only of the standards but also education.

Do I think the Common Core State Standards are good standards?  I would say they are good not in the way they are written but rather how they challenge and engage students to think deeply and express and share their deeper knowledge, thinking, and disposition in their own unique way using oral, written, creative, and technical expression.  That's what I think makes both a standard and the questions that address it good.  Do I think they can be better?  There's always room for improvement or to go to the next level.

That's my objection to states repealing the CCSS, and that is what I expressed and shared this morning before the Arizona Senate Education Committee.  States such Arizona are having similar debates and discussions and facing similar decisions.  However, what are their other option?  Are there a better set of standards that set deeper expectations for student learning?  States such as Arizona are backing out of the CCSS without a set of or even a plan for developing academic standards and performance standards that will drive instruction, assessment, and evaluation, and that is why I stood against the bill for repealing the Common Core State Standards in Arizona.

If Arizona or any state backs out of the CCSS, I would strongly recommend against returning to the previous state standards students were addressing and also being assessed on under No Child Left Behind.  The majority of these standards are more content-driven than conceptual, teaching students who, what, where, and when rather than challenging and engaging them to think deeply and express and share how, why, what if, either / or, or even what can you create, design, develop, do, innovate, invent, plan, or produce.  Those standards were designed and developed to instruct, assess, and evaluate basic skills.  Today's students, graduates, and citizens need to learn concepts and content deeply.  Knowledge is a commodity and easily acquired, gathered, and even stored thanks to information technology systems.  The modern student needs to know how to process the knowledge they acquire and gather into knowledge, thinking, and disposition they can transfer and use in a variety of academic and real world circumstances and conditions in their own unique way using oral, written, creative, and technical expression.

Perhaps if a state wants to make their own set of postsecondary ready standards, they should look at the standards developed by national organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English and International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Science Teachers Association, the National History Standards from UCLA that teach historical content and thinking and the National Council of Social Studies, the National Arts Standards, the National Health Education Standards, and the National Standards for Foreign Language.  They could also further teaching and learning by incorporating the Framework for 21st Century Learning developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

However, if these standards are going to work, then those who develop the standards need to do what the performers who sang "We Are the World" were asked to do when they entered the studio to record the song: Check your ego - or in this case, your agenda - at the door.  

- E.M.F.