Ed HughesOn Saturday, September 28, the Madison School Board held the first of our quarterly board retreats. We get together on a Saturday for an extended discussion of a few topics of particular interest. Our focus this time was on the much-misunderstood Common Core academic standards for literacy and math.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are the product of an initiative undertaken by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The groups assembled a team of teachers, school administrators, and other experts to work out a set of English and math standards for students from kindergarten through high school. (The plan calls for eventually developing similar standards for other subjects, like social studies and science.) Wisconsin was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core State Standards for math and English.

The discussion at our board retreat focused on the English Language Arts and Literacy standards. They consist of an extensive and highly structured listing of skills related to literacy that students should master by the end of each grade. The skills build on each other – the standards for writing for seventh grade students, for example, call for more sophisticated skills than the similar standards for sixth grade students, but build on those sixth grade skills and presuppose that seventh grade students have mastered them.

Here is an example of a writing skill for students in seventh grade: “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization and analysis of relevant content.”

Here is another writing skill for seventh grade students that elaborates on the first skill: “Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables) and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.”

As this second example illustrates, the Common Core State Standards emphasize research skills and the presentation of information through means other than written text, such as tables, charts and multimedia.

The standards are written in terms of results – skills students should have mastered. They don’t tell teachers how to teach, any more than a listing of the skills needed to pass a driver’s license test determines what happens in a driver’s ed course. Nor do the standards prescribe required textbooks or other learning materials.

In general, the standards accelerate the teaching of skills so that our students will be learning them in earlier grades than is currently the case. There is also much more emphasis on what is called content-rich nonfiction and informational texts.

The standards are designed to empower students to:

  • Demonstrate independent and self-directed learning
  • Value evidence, reason logically, and think conceptually and abstractly
  • Analyze and use data
  • Comprehend as well as critique
  • Construct and present viable arguments
  • Use media and technology strategically
  • Persevere in making sense of and solving problems
  • Understand and appreciate different perspectives and cultures
  • Develop the skills and dispositions necessary to the responsible exercise of citizenship in an advanced democratic republic

The Common Core State Standards cannot simply be plugged into our current curriculum. We’re working on a three-year plan for implementation of the standards in the district. This year, the first of three, we’ll work on teachers gaining a deep understanding of the standards and the shifts in instruction that they will require. Next year, groups of teachers will work on developing plans for units of study that are aligned with the standards. During the 2015-16,school year, we’ll work with and refine the aligned units of study and associated ways of measuring students’ mastery of the standards.

While the Common Core State Standards identify the skills that students should be learning, they say nothing about how those skills should be taught. We as a district have also begun work on a teaching strategy known as "Close Reading" within a Gradual Release of Responsibility model where the responsibility for learning is shifted from the teacher to the student. This gradual release model supports students becoming independent learners, capable of being successful on their own with increasingly complex texts.

During the retreat, we had a hands-on example of a lesson on the close reading of a text, in this case an eight-grade level science text on measuring water quality. Thankfully, board members’ work on the assignment was not graded.

The focus of close reading is to empower students to read a relatively complex, factually dense text and both master its factual content and draw logical inferences from that content. (It was observed that “close thinking” might be a better description of the task then “close reading.”) An advantage of the exercise is that all the information students need is found in particular text that is being studied. This is a great leveler – no students are advantaged in performing the particular task because their parents have been able to provide them particularly rich experiences outside of the classroom.

A complementary approach to close reading is the instructional practice known as gradual release. This entails enabling students to take more and more control of their learning so that the teachers’ active involvement in their students’ learning of a skill gradually recedes as their students’ facility with the skill increases.

During this school year, our teachers will be working on close reading and gradual release as instructional practices. These are not mandated by the Common Core. But as our teachers increase their mastery of these skills, they will be better positioned both to appreciate the value and logic of the Common Core State Standards and to incorporate the standards into their classroom practice.

There are a number of misperceptions about the Common Core. Indeed, it seems that zealots from right and left have seized on the Common Core State Standards as somehow embodying whatever aspects of K-12 education excite their concern.

First, there is nothing about the standards themselves that requires or necessitates high-stakes testing. There is an effort underway to develop standardized tests, known as Smarter Balanced Assessments, which will be used by states that have adopted the Common Core and that will replace the WKCE in Wisconsin. Since the WKCE has so little utility for us as a test, this would be a good thing. But any effort to attach high-stakes significance to the results of the test or to narrow a school district’s curriculum in order to emphasize just what will be on the test are dangers that are independent of the substance of the tests, let alone independent of the learning standards themselves.

Some observers have pointed out that the efforts to develop the Smarter Balanced Assessment, roll it out, and attach consequences to the test’s results have gotten ahead of the work necessary for teachers to become familiar with the Common Core State Standards and to develop and implement teaching strategies keyed to the new standards. This may be a valid criticism. But it is not a criticism of the standards themselves.

Second, the Common Core does not “federalize” K-12 education. It is up to each individual state whether or not to make use of the standards. In Wisconsin, it is up to individual school districts, though the fact that the Smarter Balanced Assessment will replace the WKCE will certainly provide an impetus to align teaching with what will be on the test. The Common Core State Standards also have nothing to do with what some label as intrusive student data tracking.

I have difficulty grasping what’s behind this Tea Party objection to the Common Core on the ground that it is some sort of federal mandate. Is there something ideologically-tinged about literacy standards or math standards? Do we want states to define their own grammar or proper sentence structure, or enable them to switch to a base-nine number system?

Third, the standards have nothing to do with the dangers of the privatization of our public education system, real though those dangers are. While some companies are likely to profit from developing and scoring the Smarter Balanced Assessments, the idea that the Common Core State Standards are nothing more than a scheme for some big corporations to vacuum up more educational dollars is a notion based far more on paranoia than evidence.

Finally, Governor Walker’s recent statement that the standards are not rigorous enough for Wisconsin probably says more about the governor’s unfamiliarity with the standards than about their relative rigor. The Common Core State Standards are not perfect and could appropriately be the target of a number of valid criticisms. That they lack the minimum rigor necessary for Wisconsin is not among them.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out the Common Core State Standards yourself: mmsd.org/commoncore