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Does the Common Core Limit Teaching?

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The 2014 PDK Gallup Poll of the public's attitudes toward public schools garnered a lot of headlines with its finding that a majority of Americans--60 percent--said they opposed the Common Core State Standards. This finding naturally caused considerable concern among supporters of the Standards. But a closer look at the findings caused even more concern, because it reflected a misunderstanding of what the standards are and their potential for advancing the kind of learning students need and teachers would like to foster.

When asked why they opposed the Standards, only 38 percent stated as a "very important" reason the idea that the Standards would create a national curriculum--the reason many politicians have expressed for opposing the Standards. Instead, the most important reason for the public's opposition was the idea that the Standards "will limit the flexibility that teachers have to teach what they think is best." Some 65 percent of the opponents said that reason was very important, and another 22 percent said it was somewhat important.

It's hard to know where this idea comes from. Teachers have repeatedly said that they like the Standards, even if they feel that they have not received enough support to implement them effectively. As Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the new president of the National Education Association, told Politico, "When I read the Common Core, ... I thought, 'That's how I taught. I wanted kids to think, give an opinion, give reasons why they believed this or that. I'm all over that. I'm good with that.'"

And schools have shown that the Common Core does not limit the kind of teaching they want to do to develop students' deeper learning competencies; instead, the Standards encourage it. Ron Berger, the chief academic officer of Expeditionary Learning (and a regular contributor to this blog), cited two examples in a recent blog post. One is from Springfield Renaissance School, a 6-12 district public school in Springfield, MA. A video on the blog shows students discussing Macbeth. The video highlights a key feature of the Common Core State Standards, using evidence from complex texts. But it also shows students demonstrating that they can think critically about the text, collaborate with peers, communicate effectively, and take responsibility for their learning. Indeed, the students lead the class.

A second example is from Polaris Charter Academy, a K-8 school in Chicago. In 2012-13, a group of seventh graders from Polaris, as part of a year-long study of the U.S. Constitution, launched a project to address the problem of gun violence in their community, based on their understanding of the Second Amendment. The students organized a citywide Day of Peace, which included producing four public-service announcements, and produced a book, "Peacekeepers of Chicago," that featured profiles of city residents who worked to end violence in the city. The project was closely aligned to the Common Core, particularly the standards for using evidence to make arguments.

(I saw a group of students from Polaris make a presentation about the project to a group of about 500 educators in San Diego in March, and can report that they blew the room away.)

As Barbara Chow, the education program director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, noted recently, there is considerable evidence that the Common Core is consistent with deeper learning. But as Berger points out, whether the Standards produce the kind of student learning that teachers like Lily Garcia want to see depends on how they are taught. As he notes:

The standards can be a force for positive change only if they are joined with fresh, inspiring teaching practices that engage and impel all students to new levels of achievement, and create classrooms where higher levels of commitment, respect, challenge, and joy in learning are the norm. This is the opportunity before us: to build and share models of innovative and effective deeper learning that support students to meet and exceed these ambitious standards. This is an opportunity to create a new vision of what teaching and learning in public schools can be.

Whether that vision comes to be will take greater public support. The PDK Gallup poll shows there is work to do on that front. Clearing up misconceptions and showing the potential from places like Polaris and Springfield Renaissance might be a good start.



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