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If We're Serious About the Common Core, Then Put It First


Carl Finer

It's no wonder many educators are uneasy about the transition to the Common Core State Standards.  In many schools, teachers have been left to cross this divide themselves. Learning the new standards, adapting or writing curricular materials, and creating meaningful assessments require a significant investment of time and brainpower.  Without adjustments in day-to-day duties or appropriate supports for teachers, the choices are untenable: Cut back on sleep or a personal life, lash out in frustration, or ignore the change altogether and just "wait for it to blow over." 

This narrative can change but only through the use of thoughtful frameworks that genuinely prioritize the instructional transition to the common standards. Here are some ideas: 

1)  Leverage the "common" to build toolkits and exemplar units:

For drowning teachers, there's hope. There's simply no need to write curriculum and assessments from scratch, nor settle for boilerplate materials (from publishers or districts) that may not be of high quality or meet the needs of individual school sites. 

In districts across the country, teams of teachers and curriculum specialists are writing and piloting exemplar units and lessons, and being given the time and fair compensation they need to do their collaborative work.  For example, projects in , Chicago, Cleveland, and Jefferson County, Ala., have brought together groups of teachers to write Common Core lessons, or set up the means of sharing the lessons of outstanding teachers district wide. 

And creative platforms have emerged at the national level to leverage the "common" in common core.  There are banks of smart, efficient frameworks to use in designing lessons and units (such as the Literacy Design Collaborative) as well as libraries of curated, high quality lessons (such as the new BetterLesson, built in partnership with the NEA).

No teacher (or even small school district) should be expected to adjust their curriculum in a bubble, and now, they don't have to—if given time and discretion to pursue these resources.

2)  Prioritize which standards to focus on first:

We should expect and embrace inefficiency during the transition. Lessons that we expect will take one day will take two. Lessons that we think are great will bomb.  Teaching materials will need to be revised.  Time will need to be built in to teach students pre-requisite skills that they wouldn't have learned under the legacy standards and systems. 

The very best teachers (not to mention engineers and other professionals) plan for these sorts of contingencies. And our school systems should work the same way. 

During the transition, key standards should be prioritized, and teachers should be expected to cover fewer standards or units.  For example, in English, instead of the traditional four units each year, teachers should be expected to cover two in the first year of the transition, with an additional unit added on each year as materials become sharper, teachers more efficient, and students come with more of the prerequisite skills. 

This wouldn't preclude teachers from moving faster. If they find themselves with extra time, they should still have the option to pilot additional units or lessons (from the sources cited above, for example) or draw from their own pre-existing material. 

I'm amazed to learn many districts aren't taking this approach, thus setting themselves up for failure.  hey are either rolling out an entire year's curriculum at once, or leaving in some of the units aligned to old standards and old state tests to "ease" the transition. Both are unrealistic about the learning process and pull attention away from the real priority: not just covering but mastering the common standards. 

3)  Eliminate non-aligned tests, and hit pause on any new tests being used for high-stakes accountability:

Just as we should be flexible in the pacing of units and lessons during the transition, we should be equally flexible with the tests that we administer. 

Give the new tests. But don't use them immediately for accountability purposes (I'd recommend a moratorium of three years). Besides the fact that the tests themselves will have bugs that need worked out, teachers and districts need the transition time to master the implementation of the new standards and to use the results to adjust their practices. Just as most teachers base the bulk of their grades on final exams or writing assignments because they shows what students have learned throughout an entire course, it wouldn't make sense to assign teachers summative grades on the common-core transition while it is still in progress. This would only encourage a fixation on test prep at the expense of mastering new teaching practices, something the common core (and the design of its tests) is supposedly attempting to remedy.   

But what about accountability?  While not quite as steady, a chair missing a leg can still stand: Good districts already have strong measures for observations, student surveys, and other factors (from family and colleague surveys to student portfolio reviews).  And for states looking at schools as a whole, the validity of using the initial assessment data to measure a school's progress would be questionable anyway.

In addition to giving careful consideration of the uses of the new tests, states and districts that are still giving legacy tests that are not aligned to the common standards should eliminate them immediately.  Any attention to old standards and old tests is a diversion from the real task at hand.

And this includes taking a fresh look at the seemingly mixed priorities of the U.S. Department of Education.  While on the one hand, the department has clearly pushed for the implementation of the common standards, federal initiatives seem to be undermining schools' efforst to transition to the new standards effectively. Consider the Teacher Incentive Fund grant program. The current round of TIF grants require measurements of "student growth," and this requirement hasn't been halted even as the common-core transition has gone forward. Thus districts that wish to keep this funding during the transition have to keep using legacy tests or scramble to create new ones, a serious misalignment and misappropriation of attention from implementing the Common Core. 

4)  Be creative in adapting how we use time and technology: 

Teachers need time to study the new standards together and to collaborate on making the shifts in their practice and their lessons. 

This will require difficult choices to be made about how time and resources are used. Can meeting time be freed up by emailing business items? Can passing periods be shortened to bank time for teachers to meet in professional learning communities? Can money spent on conference attendance be used instead to pay for subs so teachers can study together in teams at their school sites? Can noncredit bearing classes (like advisory or study halls) be reduced or shortened to make extra time?

Technology can also play a role in helping teachers efficiently adapt to the common standards, if it is designed to be simple and intuitive.  For example, nearly every day I stand at my agenda board or sit at my laptop with my phone in hand, looking up the appropriate standards using a common-core app. If this app not only listed the standards but had a function to see them annotated with a description of the standard, language I could use in writing my objective or my activities, or even a brief embedded video tutorial (like from Teaching Channel), I could learn more about what I need to do and use that learning immediately with a limited additional investment of time.      

Lastly, learning the new standards can be taken off of many teachers' plates by embedding it immediately in college teacher-prep and new-teacher induction programs. Now that the standards are truly common, anyone graduating from an ed school should leave understanding them inside and out for their subject area.  And the same is true for induction programs:  If the standards are the foundation for everything else, then learning them should supplant lesser priorities during induction.  This would eliminate the transition entirely for a large share of the teaching profession, who already have enough on their plates at the start of their careers.   

Carl Finer currently teaches English and journalism at Animo Jefferson Charter Middle School in Los Angeles. He is a UCLA Writing Project fellow and has served on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation' Teachers Advisory Panel.

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