Issue: Spring/Summer 2014
Cathy E. Freytag, Ed.D., Associate Dean for Education and Physical Education
Without question, the topic of Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) is a hot-button issue in education that – for better or worse – has impacted the general public in significant ways. Students, teachers, families and community members are affected by this educational reform, and everyone seems to have an opinion about the merits or evils of the “Common Core.” Some extol the value of rigorous, high standards for all students while others claim that the Common Core Standards movement is dictating exactly what teachers must say and what students must learn. To address the very real concerns associated with Common Core thoughtfully and responsively, it is important first to understand the intent behind these standards.
UNDERSTANDING THE INTENT OF COMMON CORE
The CCLS are a set of carefully-considered academic goals developed by classroom teachers and educators representing respected professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). While individual states have had their own learning standards for nearly two decades, there has been great disparity not only among what students are learning in Boston compared to Boise, but also among classrooms from Buffalo to the boroughs of New York City. One distinct advantage for states that voluntarily opt to embrace CCLS is that students from any district, within a state or across state lines, are being afforded a comparable, rigorous learning experience designed to facilitate deep learning and the development of essential literacy, numeracy and 21st century thinking and problem-solving skills.
DISPELLING MISCONCEPTION: “STANDARDS” VERSUS “CURRICULUM”
Many people mistakenly believe that Common Core is a mandated curriculum; this is a myth. The CCLS are framed more broadly than previous standards and highlight ways of thinking, learning and understanding more than amassing a prescribed set of factual knowledge. When appropriately understood as learning goals rather than a dictated curriculum, there is less debate about the merit of equipping students to think and reason deeply.
Much of the misconception that has muddied the waters (particularly in New York State) comes when the Common Core learning “modules” are inappropriately equated to the Common Core Learning “standards.” Modules are essentially a coordinated set of lessons designed to provide educators with resources, materials, and learning experiences that will assist in guiding students toward mastery of particular standards in English language arts and math. These modules, developed by educators and stakeholders at the state-level, are optional curricular materials that districts may choose to “adopt” or “adapt” as one possible vehicle for helping students to attain the standards.
As educators are being held accountable for student learning in increasing measure, many districts are choosing to “adopt” the modules exactly as they have been packaged. This perceived “scripting” of the curriculum has caused many teachers to feel disempowered; they sense that they are being told exactly what to say, as well as how and when to communicate specific knowledge and information to their students.
In a keynote address to teacher educators, New York State Commissioner of Education, John B. King, advocated that districts “adapt” the optional learning modules because classroom teachers know the unique needs of the diverse learners in their local classrooms better than any curriculum developer ever could (NYSATE/NYACTE Keynote address, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., October 17, 2013). Effective classroom teachers know the students in their classrooms and are aware of the gifts, strengths, values, assets and challenges that each one brings to the learning environment. These educators are in the best possible position to craft a balanced, blended approach to learning that links a range of responsive instructional approaches which may include some, all or none of the suggested materials provided in the state-developed learning modules.
RESPONDING REFLECTIVELY: A BALANCED APPROACH
Common Core, with all of its challenges, is the prevailing educational paradigm, and teachers must engage reflectively with this controversial approach to schooling if students are to be provided with appropriate, responsive educational experiences. At Houghton, we talk openly and freely about challenging topics in our teacher education courses. Pre-service teachers pose difficult questions about how to take highlyscripted materials and make them accessible to the diverse range of learners whose education has been entrusted to them, and they come away with their own responsive and respectful ideas for shaping learning experiences that remain true to the standards they are expected to uphold while engaging meaningfully with their students.
As our graduates face similar challenges in their daily practice, they remember that they have been prepared to be advocates and agents of transformation in their classrooms, communities and spheres of influence. They recall that they have been equipped with the capacity, tools, dispositions and inclination to effect positive change through education. These critically-reflective teachers can clearly examine a curricular approach, an educational mandate, or a proposal for reform and recognize the redemptive value as well as the possible disadvantage that each contains and then respond with great grace and discernment — and balance.