These are the Common Core State Standards for Math and English language arts that have been adopted by the District of Columbia and 45 states, including New York. The pages within these binders lay out the kind of learning I have seen in classrooms in Finland, Singapore, and other top-performing systems throughout the world. These standards establish high expectations for all students, regardless of whether they’re from Bed-Stuy or Beverly Hills, Bay Shore, Long Island, or Birmingham, Ala.
…I predict these standards will result in one of two outcomes: Either they will lead to a revolution in teaching and learning—or they will end up in the overflowing dustbin of abandoned reforms, with people throwing up their hands and decrying that public schools just don’t work. And the coming months will determine which outcome comes to pass.
There is reason for both optimism and pessimism.
What has me optimistic is that teachers want these standards to succeed. We recently polled our members, and 75 percent of our teachers support the Common Core standards. That’s no surprise—because teachers, including many AFT teachers, played a fundamental role in the design and review of these standards.
We’re talking about less memorization, less racing through a course of study, and more searching for evidence and conceptual understanding. All of which help students to be college- and career-ready.
I recently visited a public school on the Lower East Side that’s making this transition—the NEST+m School. I saw fourth-graders learning about Columbus’ New World expeditions in a manner aligned to the Common Core standards. It was remarkable. There was none of the “In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” that you might remember. These students were reading passages from Columbus’ diary describing his experiences in his own words. They delved deeply into multiple perspectives, including making inferences from works of art from the vantage point of both Native Americans and the European explorers of the time.
In the movies, this type of dramatic change could take place in the space of one inspirational montage set to song. But not in real life.
Teachers at NEST+m told me that it took them roughly 50 hours last summer to review and understand the standards, to work through how they shifted their approach to teaching and learning, and to develop lessons aligned to them. They’re still at it— meeting weekly to discuss what’s working and what isn’t, as they use these standards in their classrooms. And they’re getting a lot of help from faculty at Hunter College, corporate partners at Sony, and others.
It’s fantastic that those teachers have the opportunity to approach the standards that way, and that their students are already benefitting. But it’s deeply troubling to realize that what’s happening at NEST+m is by far the exception, not the rule.
And that’s what has me pessimistic. These standards, which hold such potential to create deeper learning, are instead creating a serious backlash—as officials seek to make them count before they make them work. That’s what we’re seeing here in New York, as you have witnessed in the last few weeks. And it is happening throughout the country.