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Jim Pellegrino on Common-Core Implementation

pellegrino.jpgIn another piece in my blog series on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, I interview Jim Pellegrino, Co-Director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute, Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor and Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Marc Tucker:  You see a tight connection between standards and curriculum, on the one hand, and between curriculum and assessment on the other.  How do you see these connections playing out now, as the Common Core is being implemented?

Jim Pellegrino: In most countries with very effective education systems, examples of high-scoring student work are released after the exams are given, along with the prompts.  So everyone can see what student work that meets the standards looks like.  It is a very transparent system.  There are tight connections among the standards, the curriculum and the assessments.  But, here in the United States, we are afraid that, if we do that, it will look as though the state is prescribing a curriculum, and the state does not want to be accused of imposing a curriculum on the schools.  We try to distance assessment from curriculum, to sanitize it so it can't be too closely aligned with any specific curriculum and any set of materials.  When we do that, we make the whole process less transparent.  Other countries are more comfortable with saying, "here's a curriculum that does what we want it to do and an assessment that is designed to assess the extent to which the student has mastered that curriculum."  The teacher's job as a professional is defined as creating lessons that will enable the teacher to help his or her particular students master the curriculum and do well on the exams.

MT: It seems to me, it's not just a matter of transparency but also a matter of effectiveness.  If you can't share examples of what meets the standards, isn't it a less effective system?

JP: Yes, if you don't know what your target is, it's a lot harder to shoot at it!

MT: So, if, for political and cultural reasons, we can't have a state curriculum, what can we do to help teachers develop powerful curricula that are aligned with the standards?

JP:  Standards are a jumping-off point but they are never enough.  Teachers need a collaborative process to create lessons, curricula and instructional practices that incorporate Common Core ideas.  To make that possible, leadership and teachers have to have the time and they don't see that happening.  Instead, teachers are offered workshops, which don't result in learning or opportunities to practice and be critiqued, which would lead to improved practice.  As part of that process they also need access to examples of student work that reflect what the Common Core is really about.  It is only through extensive discussion about the standards and student work that reflects the ideas that underlie the Common Core that teachers of English, history, mathematics and the sciences will be able to understand what they have to do and develop the skills and knowledge needed to do it.  You also have to have contrasting cases of good and inadequate student work so teachers can begin to envision what the work looks like because, in fact, few have seen it before.

MT: I gather that you are working in your own university on the development of resources that you think teachers will need to teach the Common Core effectively.  What is the nature of your work?

JP: Teachers need resources that will enable them to translate the ideas in the Common Core into actual lessons, activity structures and ways to monitor student progress.  Our work here at Project READI is focused on the ELA standards for grades 6-12, creating exactly those kinds of models and resources for teachers and students so they can engage in evidence-based argumentation as that applies to instruction and literacy in many disciplines.  The aim is to get students to make a compelling argument based on information drawn from many sources.  But we know that most teachers have not themselves been asked to do this.  So our project includes teacher networks that help them engage in the very practices that their students will engage in. 

MT: How does it work?

JP: Project READI is focused on reading, in particular on evidence and argumentation in the disciplines in grades 6-12.  We have a model for what it means to read for understanding.  We define it in terms of being able to make evidence-based arguments using multiple sources and texts, where text is defined as print, graphics, media and so on, because we see text as sources of information.  The project is as much about teacher learning as student learning.  We've developed exemplary materials and identified existing texts and other sources that teachers can use to develop the skills we're looking for in the subjects they teach.  The program is built around a learning progression framework.  We've created an elaborate teacher network that engages teachers in learning about these kinds of practices.

MT:  Why is it important to do this?

JP: Every one of us lives in a world in which all kinds of claims are being made about all kinds of things, everything from cures for diseases to solutions for major public policy challenges.  We don't want to tell our students what to think, but we want them to think clearly, to make reasoned judgments, be able to evaluate different claims, different arguments. We want them to be able to distinguish an historical argument that is based on facts from one that is not, and to sort out the quack scientific claims from those that are in fact grounded in evidence; that is the form of literacy that the 21st century demands.   

MT: How would you sum up the current state of implementation of the Common Core?

JP: It is being implemented in a very spotty fashion.  People who run workshops on the Common Core simplify it in ways that distort it, that fail to convey what it is all about.  The Common Core is being reduced to barebones formulas that suck the meaning out of it, so it can be implemented quickly.  Educators are being pressured to implement the Common Core quickly because the new exams aligned to the Common Core are coming and some officials, especially in the U.S. Department of Education, want to use the tests and the Common Core to drive tough-minded accountability systems.  But that will undermine the whole effort.  California made the right choice: to delay the exams and do what's right for teachers, and not do what the federal government is pushing for.  The Common Core, if it is properly implemented, will raise the game for millions of American students, by transforming a curriculum that is largely based on learning basic facts and procedures, into one that includes the basics, but goes far beyond that to focus on giving students the skills they need to think clearly, to reason well, to use what they know to come up with original insights, to create the future.  These are skills that many teachers need, too.  It will take years of determined effort to get there.  The Common Core will have to be treated like a text that needs a lot of discussion and interpretation among professional teachers, school by school, over a period of years.  They have to have time for that conversation, and support from school leaders, central office staff and academics like myself.  There will be no shortcuts.

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