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With Common Standards, Focus on Excellence, Not Negativity

Anitra Butler

The reading and math data from the 2009-2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, as well as reading and math data from the 2009-2013 Program for International Student Assessment, beckon a national push to adopt new standards of education. The Common Core State Standards offer many schools and communities hope for improved teaching and learning outcomes, thus making students career and college ready.

However, that hope for improvement quickly changed to despair.

According to some surveys, the confidence in the common core is slipping. In my humble opinion, it is slipping because teachers, administrators, parents and community members presume that there is a hidden agenda underlying the standards that is surreptitiously supported by private corporations and special-interest groups.

Surprisingly, public opinion about the common core deteriorated before the new assessments were officially administered. Seeing that the common standards were designed to equip students with 21st century literacy and numeracy skills, why would anyone be against them? Given the movement toward globalization and the need for enhanced talent in various professional sectors, the common core seemed to be an exceptional vehicle for generating heightened skills and capacities in critical and creative thinking for our students.

However, since the birth of the standards and the assessments associated with them, some states and local education agencies have met the standards in a state of frenzy. Moreover, many educational agencies are installing the standards with a variety of interpretations, thus causing even more confusion among teachers, administrators, and parents.

Looking on the bright side of things, by working with several schools and teachers implementing the common core for the past three years, I have begun to reevaluate my own pedagogical practice. For a decade, I believed that all students needed to master the basics of literacy and numeracy skills prior to moving into higher levels of thinking. I believed in remediation and repetition of instruction until the students acquired and mastered basic skills. The common core, however, transformed my teaching philosophy from one of back to the basics, to one of excellence. I now believe that students can be remediated, with basic numeracy and literacy skills being reinforced, when instruction is oriented around higher-level thinking. Moreover, teaching with the common standards has converted me to believe that phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency can still be taught even when using complex texts.

By maintaining a focus on excellence, schools and teachers can navigate the negative publicity associated with common core. In other words, use the standards as a gauge for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Scaffolding student understanding using digital tools and instruction that nourishes critical and creative thinking is a step toward assimilating the rigor of the common core. Of course, employing sound pedagogical practices and using reliable and valid assessments are also essential.

But many teachers, parents, and administrators are caught up in spotting hidden agendas and implementation challenges. My advice is to keep one's eye not on the politics but on the larger issue: achieving academic excellence.

Read all the entries in our latest Teaching Ahead roundtable discussion.

Anitra Butler is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education at Prince George's Community College.  She is a reading specialist, a special educator, and an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher.

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