Monday, December 9, 2013

Why I Support Common Core

The debate over the Common Core standards, in many ways, has been helpful in stimulating conversation about what kind of standards our state—and country—needs in order to prepare students for college and career.  As helpful as this debate has been, however, it has perhaps overestimated the impact of any single standards framework.  Researchers such as Chester Finn and Tom Loveless have tried to remind us of the myriad implementation and assessment factors that can mitigate the quality of a standards framework. As Finn recently noted, Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.”  This is not to say that standards aren’t important.  Of course, we know that they are.  Within the structure of a coherent curriculum, reinforced by a rigorous system of assessment, and, most importantly, in the hands of a good teacher, good standards can help promote exceptional teaching and learning in our schools.  

So what are we to think about Common Core?  I make no secret of my support the CC ELA Standards.  I think they are rigorous and, accompanied by thoughtful curriculum and instructional planning, can help encourage students to think deeply, to read deeply, and to write and speak more often and with more consideration of the text.  The shifts that CCSS seeks to advance reflect a push back against an overreliance on certain instructional tendencies—such as assigning too many anecdotal writing tasks; covering too much material in not enough depth; and, my biggest pet peeve, overloading students (and parents) with arts and craft projects, arbitrary, disconnected field trip experiences, or hours of rote homework exercises.  Practices such as these have somehow become tolerated, if not sanctioned, ways of doing business in our schools.

CCSS promulgates what I like to call “evidentiary questioning” from teachers and “evidentiary thinking” from students.  CCSS emphasizes the importance of engaging in this kind of thinking within a single text or, in many cases, in multiple texts/text sources.  Throughout the grades, students are asked to summarize, integrate, synthesize, and compare and contrast key ideas between and among multiple sources.  These are skills underemphasized in our schools, in our current standards, and, most importantly, in our current state assessment.   

CCSS’ emphasis on multi-text analysis advances a notion of research that I think can go a long way in shaping quality teaching and learning in our schools.  Typically, research is operationalized in our curricula in terms of overly artistic “poster projects” in the elementary grades or, in middle school, a quarter-long “research paper”.  This approach to research is often treated as an entity unto itself, disconnected from what students are reading and writing about.  While both CCSS and the current Indiana framework contain standards that call on students to write written responses to text, CCSS, and particularly the consortia’s sample test items, place a more concerted emphasis on the potential impact of short, focused research and writing projects that are linked to what students read.  Such expectations, which are consistent throughout CCSS and the associated sample test items, require students to draft writing pieces that analyze key ideas, themes, characters, and lessons in multiple text sources.  PARCC’s item guidelines say as much: Passages should contain "discernible and significant points of comparison that invite questions beyond superficial observations."  This expectation is nonexistent on ISTEP+.  

If a school principal is looking to help paint a picture of what CCSS is all about, spend an afternoon with teachers studying and discussing the myriad sample items released by PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  These assessment prototypes highlight an important point that I mentioned briefly at the outset:  The efficacy of a standards document ultimately depends not only on the clarity, rigor and coherence of the standards document itself, but also on a rigorous, aligned system of assessment that can bring out the best of what the standards have to offer. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, state tests—many of them bereft of any high-cognitive questions or tasks (see this2012 RAND study)—have been used as a basis for a number of high-stakes decisions from school performance ratings to teacher evaluations. With state tests driving policymaking the way it has, teachers and administrators’ knowledge of the kind of reading, writing and thinking embodied on the state test serves as an equal if not more important factor in shaping curriculum and instructional practices than the standards themselves. 

And here's where CCSS supporters and critics alike seem to miss the point: With state tests driving instruction in such a powerful way, the quality of the standards--whether they are rated as an "A" by groups like Fordham or deemed "world class" or "internationally benchmarked" by the spate of oft-cited curriculum "experts"—is inextricably linked to the quality of the state test.  So when we consider whether to adopt CCSS or not, we need to mindful that this decision accounts for only half (or maybe less) of the equation. 

Indiana is a particularly salient example of how a state test can mitigate the quality of a state standards framework. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe the IN standards are well written and rigorous. But, while ISTEP+ isn’t a bad test, it’s not a good one either. The way I see the standards being implemented in many classrooms has more to do with the kinds of questions and tasks that appear on ISTEP+ than the standards themselves. So despite all the talk about how effective the IN standards are, the limitations of ISTEP+ have had a significant mitigating effect on how the standards are being implemented.  Contrastingly, the items we see coming out of the consortia suggest that these assessments will engender the rigorous approach to reading, writing and research set forth in CCSS.  Let me expound on this point further. 

While ISTEP+ does a mostly adequate job in using short constructed response items as a basis for assessing comprehension, its restricted response items, in some cases, don’t hinge on students’ reading of the text, particularly when we compare these items to the evidence-based and technology-enhanced sample items released by the consortia.  

One of the premises on which the CCSS debate has been framed is that students should be reading quality texts.  However, on ISTEP+, there are no authentic texts used; items often reflect one standard instead of multiple standards (this further perpetuates a "checklist mentality" to standards coverage); and ISTEP+ writing prompts do not require students to analyze, synthesize or trace ideas or themes in more than one source to draft an extended response.

Despite well-written informational and opinion writing standards in Indiana's current framework, ISTEP+'s extended writing tasks reflect zero, yes ZERO, explanatory or opinion writing.  All extended writing tasks on ISTEP+ are focused on source-free narratives and, while the prompts require students to cite "details," none of the details are connected to what students read.  No wonder narrative and evidence-free writing dominates most classrooms!  

PARCC and Smarter Balanced seek to rectify this problem.  Here is one of the item guidelines PARCC provides to test writers: "Many writing prompts typically used on large-scale assessments have required students to respond to a quote or brief passage disconnected from reading grade-appropriate complex text(s). The Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy, particularly Writing Standards 8 and 9, require students to demonstrate their ability to write using and analyzing texts. Consequently, PARCC desires innovative writing prompts that clearly demonstrate that students can use what they have read to compose, whether they are composing narrative or analytic writings."

Yes, I know, we haven't seen a full test yet from either consortia and there are concerns about cost, technology glitches, accountability measures and overall school readiness.  But, for the first time since the advent of standards-based reform, these tests offer us an opportunity to privilege the kind of thinking that good standards frameworks, like those in Massachusetts and Indiana, have been seeking to encourage.  In fact, given the way questions and tasks are designed, the consortia assessments make it finally okay to teach to the test!

Having outlined the reasons why I’m in support of CCSS, I do have some minor concerns about the standards that are important to mention.

First, and this may seem too cosmetic, but I wish the CCSS would have included specific instructional examples meant to operationalize what the standards look like in the context of the classroom.  This is a helpful feature of the current IN standards framework.  While there are lots of resources that have been released which make it easier for teachers to understand and implement the standards, including examples within the document itself could have helped to clarify the standards and provide teachers a jumping off point for their planning and collaborative discussions.  I make this point understanding the hidden irony.  Can you imagine the outcry from critics of the Common Core—critics who already claim that CCSS is overly prescriptive—if it had included specific instructional examples?!

A second problem relates to CCSS’ precise indications for the amount of literary and informational text that should be taught.  I understand the rationale for including these percentages was to mimic the percentages of reading passages that appear on NAEP, but doing so is silly and, more consequentially, it has unnecessarily distracted from the effort to underscore the more important curricular point which is that students should be using a diversity of challenging literary and informational texts as the basis for their reading, writing, questioning, presenting, and researching.  Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the underlying premise of CCSS which is that, particularly in the elementary grades, fiction has dominated at the expense of quality informational text…informational text, by the way, that many students find equally if not more interesting and engaging than fiction.  Students’ exposure to more informational texts is important in order to support a unique set of writing, reading, and research tasks, many of which one could find explicitly enumerated in both the CCSS and the current Indiana standards framework.  Students’ ability to compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic, or explain how an author uses evidence to support his/her assertions relies on multiple exposures to and strategic teaching of quality informational text.  (Both of these examples are taken from the 4th and 5th grade CCSS, respectively.) 

Informational texts are not only important to develop students’ reading skills.  Students ability to write text-based opinion or informational pieces require that they can deeply comprehend these text types, work with their features, and use their structures as a model for their own writing.  A look at most state standards documents—Indiana included—suggests that these skills have long been thought of as important to the K-12 English curriculum (this is a point often overlooked in the outrage against the focus on informational texts).  In my mind, CCSS’ emphasis on informational text simply calls us to refocus on these kinds of texts and skills, particularly at the elementary level where important science and social studies topics—the source of many informational texts—have gotten squeezed out of the curriculum. 

A third problem with CCSS has less to do with the standards themselves and more to do with how the standards are being implemented.  I have seen various examples of schools or districts, and even individual teachers, opting to implement the standards in ways that misconstrue the meaning of the standards or worse belie the standards altogether.  Critics have pointed to these examples as a way to explain what CCSS represents.  I don’t believe it was ever the intent of the standards to prompt teachers to excise literary classics such as Huck Finn or the Great Gatsby, nor do I believe CCSS is surreptitiously trying to spur schools to abandon the teaching of cursive or creative writing.  CCSS is no more responsible for these kinds of practices than the IN Standards have been for the long list of misapplied ideas, programs, and adoptions educators felt compelled to make during Indiana’s 20-year history of standards-based reforms. 

I have also seen “Common Core-aligned” textbooks and curriculum materials as well as professional development companies make CCSS reform appear too easy. “Tip sheets,” ready to use lesson plans and prepackaged curricula all imply that these standards require little or no change to existing practices.  In fact, publishing companies espousing to be CCSS-aligned continue to encourage a one skill, then another, then another approach to curriculum planning which belies the “challenging text first” notion that underscores CCSS.  I see CCSS as promulgating a sea change in how we teach reading skills.  Identifying key details, making inferences, discerning author’s purpose, questioning or predicting—all important skills—are taught in support of the text, not the other way around.  As KathleenPorter Magee writes: "For too long, and in too many classrooms, we’ve let great books take a back seat to reading skills and strategies.  Of course, learning skills and practicing strategies is useful, but the Common Core usefully pushes us to put skills in service of understanding and analyzing great texts, rather than as an end in themselves."  Despite such helpful advice, there are countless examples of curriculum checklists, incoherent pacing guides, and unit and lesson plans floating around that embody an atomistic approach to curriculum planning.  Early signs from the consortia suggest that this kind of fragmented approach to curriculum will not prepare students for the kinds of multi-faceted items that will encompass the new assessments. An EdWeek blogger who attended a NYC DOE-led conference indicated that the teachers in attendance were surprised "that the PARCC questions required students to employ a variety of discrete skills (rather than one isolated skill) making it much more difficult to show mastery."

In my experiences working and talking with teachers, I have found that teachers recognize that there are some fundamental shifts in thinking and practice entailed in what the standards and consortia items represent.  They recognize that implementation is more than just a new lesson plan or textbook series.  And they recognize that true “Common Core alignment” means teachers processing and discussing the standards and their shifts; taking an inventory of the types of texts used in their curriculum; and spending time figuring out how curriculum needs to change to build students’ capacity to read, write and think independently.  Those schools and districts that recognize these priorities will, in my view, find themselves poised to tackle the rigors of CCSS.

Despite the limitations of CCSS, my reading and analysis of the standards and consortia assessments leads me to stand in support of them.  Different than some, I’ve come to this way of thinking not primarily because of the myriad policy implications that exist in having a set of "national" standards, but more importantly because of the benefit this standards AND assessment framework can have on the quality of teaching and learning in Indiana’s schools.