Friday, October 3, 2014

On the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards have been generating substantial changes in many states in the way teachers instruct and students learn academic content and skills in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and other technical subjects. These changes have been less noticeable in the schools where for years teachers have been emphasizing the 21st Century habits of mind that the Common Core promises: deeper understanding of essential topics, content and skill mastery over coverage, critical thinking and problem solving, insightful analysis of text, and practical application of learning.   

Large changes in educational practice can lead to controversy and misunderstanding, and the Common Core has been no exception. Some states have considered pulling out of the initiative.  A recent Huffington Post blog made an important point that the Common Core may be suffering a bit from "brand identity" right now, but "image-conscious states unfortunately are likely to lose the benefits to their economies that are reaped by those that address academic standards." A new survey by Scholastic, Inc. suggests that states where the Common Core has been in place the longest have more teachers feeling prepared to teach revised lessons based on the standards. This makes sense.  New Jersey school districts have been implementing the Common Core since its adoption by the State Board of Education in 2010.  Four years later, we are finding the same thing within our own state: NJ districts that have been working at this initiative the longest, and with the most purpose, are more prepared to deliver Common Core-based lessons.

The Newton Public Schools have been at the forefront of Common Core implementation since its inception. Through Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, our teachers have been unpacking the standards, developing student learning objectives, crafting unit plans, and developing benchmark assessments that teach and assess the Common Core as well as the other NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards. PLCs are not just faculty meetings by a different name. They require collaborative efforts by teachers to achieve productive outcomes based on instructional objectives. We have revised daily and weekly schedules to provide teachers the kind of time to engage in this vital work. Our faculty members believe this work is an essential aspect of their professional practice, in the same way that diagnosing and treating illness is for physicians or that analyzing case law and writing briefs are for attorneys.  The teacher's business is creating and delivering standards-based lessons and assessing the learning that results in order to revise instruction.

Still, some parents have voiced concerns about the new standards, as instructional practices are quite different compared to when we all went to school. New Jersey has had rigorous content standards for nearly 20 years now, and the Common Core just takes that up another notch. The NJ Department of Education has developed Common Core resources for parents which are intended to debunk some of the myths that have arisen about the new standards. 

I encourage parents and community members with questions or concerns about the Common Core or the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests to contact me or your school principal for further discussion.

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