Interview With Two Contributors to the Common-Core Literacy Standards
In this blog, part of the series on the implementation of the Common Core, we talk with Catherine Snow, Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the validation committee for the Common Core State Standards, and Sue Pimentel, founding partner of the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners and lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for ELA and literacy.
Marc Tucker: Sue, let me begin with you. You played a central role in developing the Common Core standards for English literacy. What do you see as the biggest implementation challenges?
Sue Pimentel: Teachers aren't being given enough time to work together to develop the materials and teaching techniques that will be necessary to effectively implement the Common Core nor are they being given enough time to observe and critique each other's teaching. Teachers will not learn how to do what they need to do spending just a couple of hours in workshops. They need to be working in teams in their schools to improve the materials they use, the lessons they teach, and the methods they use. Presently, there are not enough high quality materials and professional development resources, aligned to the Common Core, available to the teachers. The time needed to transform the way students are taught stands in stark contrast to the rush to evaluate teachers based on old assessments that are not aligned to the Common Core. It doesn't seem fair and is creating a great deal of distrust of state officials — who are in fact trying very hard to help teachers implement the new standards. Indeed, tying the new Common Core assessments so soon to teacher evaluation is clearly alienating teachers from the standards themselves.
Catherine Snow: I think it is clear to anyone with a grain of common sense that there should have been a five-year amnesty on consequences for testing when implementing the Common Core. This would have allowed for developing the aligned materials. It would have been fairer and smarter to help teachers focus on teaching and learning instead of assessment and accountability. Even in states that have been way out in front of this, there has been massive oversimplification of what the Common Core is. You don't get the sense that teachers have been touched and inspired by the visionary version of the Common Core. 'Experts' advising teachers have reduced the standards to a handful of stereotypical mantras, short-circuiting their complexity and richness. So teachers get a very distorted, reductionist version — Give students complex texts and make them close read and then everything will be fine. This ignores the exciting parts of the Common Core — the integration of reading and writing, the notion of cross-disciplinary projects. It flies in the face of developmental theory: you can't give 9th grade students, who have been exposed to a completely different educational regime, the texts associated with much more rigorous standards, and expect them to do close reading immediately. Introduce these tasks in the first grade and build them up instead of imposing a full-blown version on teachers and students who are totally unprepared for it.
MT: We have the standards and new tests aligned with the standards are being developed. What seems to be missing is the filling in the sandwich, the curriculum.
CS: Exactly so. All great teachers need is a reading list, but the vast majority need much more. They need a really good curriculum that scaffolds teachers step-by-step so they have a chance to develop the skills and knowledge they need to be successful at a high level. We should provide curricular units that bring together rich resources for kids to read and supplementary resources for teachers to read, organized around big questions that are likely to be engaging. For example, if you are spending six weeks on tidal pools, you would have computers for research, 150 books in the classroom about tidal pools and a purpose: 4th graders will teach 2nd graders a lesson on this topic.
SP: I really like what New York State has done and when I look across the country I think it's the best effort on the curriculum front. Many schools and districts in other states are using the materials although some in New York are not. The materials start with a topic that in many cases integrates content from science, social studies and reading. Students read and write about materials of all kinds related to that topic. They closely read some grade-level texts together, independently read others and they create projects related to it. As they engage, their knowledge grows and their vocabulary grows. Students bring that knowledge to bear on future readings so they can handle texts on similar topics that are more complex. One characteristic of a good text set built around a topic is that they include texts written at many different levels, so whatever their strength as a reader, students are able independently to access some texts, build their knowledge, and contribute in class. Teachers need text sets like that.
MT: Let's return to the question of professional development.
SP: There is an irony here. The approach of too many states and districts has been precisely the form of instruction that the Common Core argues against. Too often teachers are corralled into school gymnasia and told either a) they have to do things entirely differently or b) they are doing the Common Core already and no change in practice is necessary. Neither is true, and neither will work. The approach has to be from the bottom-up. We need to find ways to involve teachers in collegial groups in their schools tasked with working through the curriculum, and developing lessons, teaching techniques and tools that will bring the Common Core standards to life.
CS: The best teachers in the school need to lead these development groups and demonstrate the lessons. Everyone needs an opportunity to see others' teaching. Teachers have to have time to talk to one another about it! We are not talking here about 20-minute planning periods. I think we have to do something about how the school day is organized. We have to treat teachers like the professionals they are. That would generate the impetus we need.
SP: We are unlikely to succeed unless we look hard at how we organize schools. Teachers can't do something different unless they are given time to figure it out, and provided good feedback along the way. We have teachers doing lots of things they don't need to be doing such as proctoring the lunchroom, monitoring the playground, and supervising bus duty. We need to change that so teachers can focus on their primary responsibility.
MT: What's the bottom line?
CS: Without some big changes in the way the Common Core is being implemented, this really elegant vision could crash and burn through poor implementation or premature assessment, and then it will be 20 years before anyone gets the courage to try again. I think Secretary Duncan made a serious error by linking it to Race to the Top — he opened it up to the critique by the right that it is a Federal effort. If a few states can implement it really well, maybe that will be enough to save it.
SP: I want to underscore the point made earlier that we need to unhook assessment from teacher evaluation for a while. By waiting and checking to make sure that assessments are good and we are getting good information from them, teachers won't feel that assessments are the enemy and will embrace their primary function — to improve achievement.
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