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Common Core’s challenges and opportunities

You can’t improve learning outcomes for students without improving instruction

common-coreIt is an exciting time in education. We have an opportunity to ensure that all students develop the skills and understanding necessary to succeed in a highly literate world.

While this has been a goal of educators for many years, there is now a unifying approach to making sure that the expectations for students are not dependent upon their zip code.

By addressing the need for change and reflecting the best of international standards, Common Core finally offers us a chance to get it right.

Yet, implementing Common Core is not without challenges. Higher standards demand more from students and far more from their teachers. While there has been increasing rhetoric in the political arenas, we are also seeing wide spread acceptance from teachers.

In an effort to raise achievement, various approaches have come in and out of favor over the years. We have tried tighter curricula specifications, prescribed structures for math and literacy blocks, scripts for teaching and increased accountability. All have had minimal impact on learning outcomes for students.

(Next page: Dispelling Common Core myths)

Schools have failed to take into account that it is the quality of the teacher that has the greatest impact on student learning. Though external accountability measures are unlikely to bring about change unless there is sufficient internal capacity to make this happen. You can’t improve learning outcomes for students without improving instruction.

Across the country, there is a substantial need for more teacher and leader professional development around the Common Core. Meeting the raised expectations of higher standards will require teachers to educate in profoundly different ways – not just in understanding what the new standards include and how they differ from the states’ old standards, but also how to make the instructional shifts needed for students to succeed.

There is an assumption that teachers arrive ready to engage students in learning effectively, but we all know that is far from the reality. Many teachers do not have access to the high-quality professional development needed throughout their careers to keep up with shifts in societal needs and in teaching practice.

As our company partners with schools across the country, we work in classrooms with devoted teachers committed to providing the best for their students who are struggling to meet the demands of multiple initiatives and more rigorous standards. However, in many cases, teachers lack the confidence to make the professional judgments needed to ensure that their teaching reflects students’ needs.

Often, they also lack the confidence of school leaders charged with providing teachers with the support they need to succeed. When a principal says, “my teachers can’t do that,” it sets their educators up for failure. In many cases, no one has actually spent time showing them what to do or what is important. Unless we include the support teachers need to grow to the next step, then that is an unfair assessment.

(Next page: Understanding student literacy trends)

In 2010, our company partnered with the New York City Department of Education to lead one of its five pilot programs for improving English Language Arts and literacy outcomes. While working with 20 middle and high schools to focus on literacy and increase the comprehension of text complexity, we found several trends:

  • Teachers had low expectations of their students as readers
  • Students received very few reading assessments
  • Teachers rewrote the texts and read them to students to ensure they understood the content

This, of course, does little to improve student literacy. Therefore, through the pilot we provided citywide workshops for teachers around analyzing the complexity of texts used and providing students with the strategies necessary to access increasingly complex texts. Schools were supported by school based professional development.

According to the New York City Department of Education, the results of last year’s Common Core aligned state tests show that New York City public school students outperformed students in other large urban school districts in New York State. Where teachers made shifts in practice, students were able to engage more deeply with texts, write logical arguments based on substantive claims and cite relevant textual evidence.

One consequence of implementing more rigorous standards has been a decline in average standardized test scores. This would call for substantially more professional development around the new standards, the investment of dollars, time and often times, a profound culture change. If we want to dramatically change the trajectory for many of our students now, we first need highly skilled teachers and leaders.

Sheena Hervey is Chief Academic Officer of Generation Ready.

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