Trying to explain the philosophy of the Common Core State Standards to those who are not in the field of education is like asking a lawn care expert to explain why a new lawn treatment will or will not work on your lawn.
Think about it... For at least one point in our lives, most people have experienced walking on grass, sitting on it, touching it and some of us even maintain our own lawns. Often, we are successful in sustaining a weed-free lawn. On the other hand, there are times when we fight the dandelion and clover battle continuously. That’s when the expert is called in. He shows up while you aren’t home, sprays his magic solution on the lawn, and leaves some written material for you to read, and hopefully, the weeds go away. Then, you try to read the information and decipher what treatment was applied, but it sounds a little complicated. A few weeks later, when you notice that the “solution” didn’t work, you call the company. When he comes back again, this time, you are home. As you talk to him about your lawn and the treatment he is going to use, your eyes glaze over as he explains his process. This is getting much more complex. He then goes back to his truck, sprays on some more magic solution, and you hope for the best.
As I do my best to explain the difference between “the way we used to teach” and the Common Core State Standards, I kind of feel like the lawn care guy! After all, most people who ask have gone to school or have experienced some type of schooling. They have created a picture in their mind as to what school should “look like.”
Usually, I am commenting on a LinkedIn post, someone is asking a legitimate question, wondering if their child is going to be affected negatively when their school implements the CCSS during the upcoming school year and they don’t want to hear about the political issues. They just want to know the difference between how they learned as a child and how their child is now going to be taught. Those of us who are responding to the posts are educators. We are doing our best to give helpful information and resources to the person who wrote the post in a manner that is understandable, yet we are failing miserably!
I have reflected on this and asked myself, “Why can’t we explain the answer in a simple manner to their question... ‘What is the difference between the way we used to learn and CCSS?’” I have come to the following conclusions:
-The educators who are answering the questions took several years to learn the information that they are trying to convey in just a few short paragraphs. They acquired this information throughout their schooling, experiences with students and colleagues and through professional learning opportunities. To explain all that one knows in a few short paragraphs is just about impossible.
-The CCSS are not only a document; they carry a philosophy that shapes a systemic approach to teaching and learning. This is a shift in thinking for those who are “outside of education and are looking in” and have not observed how students acquire knowledge through the lens of an educator. This is difficult to explain in writing, and challenging to describe without insulting the reader or listener... Remember the statement I made earlier... Most everyone has had a school experience, so most think they “know about” school.
-Our jargon and the language of the standards are problematic for those who are not in the field of education. As educators, we have difficulty understanding this. We are our own worse enemy in this department. We don’t know what they don’t know. When parents and community members read the standards, they don’t know how to apply what they are reading to what school will “look like” in the classroom. To an outsider who has heard horror stories about standardized testing and political posturing in the schools, the standards merely look like a list of items created with fancy language on which our students will be tested.
I will say that I am an advocate of the CCSS. The thinking and process skills that are embedded in the standards will build capacity in our students so they can be successful for the future. I believe that all states should be implementing the standards so all teachers could speak a common language of instruction for the benefit of our students. That could possibly be our first step in establishing some semblance of equity in the education system in our nation.
I am eagerly anticipating the date when the Common Core State Standards must be implemented in our schools. I’m wondering what will happen. Hmmm. In fact, I have two questions… (and yes, I am having a little fun with these questions!)
1. Why do we use the term “Common” Core State Standards if they really aren’t that “Common?” After all, there are several states that made the decision not to adopt the Common Core State Standards. I suggest we re-name them the “Un-Common” Core State Standards…sort of like the Un-Cola.
2. Are there Common Core “police” who are going to check up on school systems to see if they are really implementing the Common Core State Standards? Remember SNL’s skit that involved the “land shark?” Will there be a Common Core “shark?”…sorry…I couldn’t resist THAT one!
All kidding aside, the transition to the Pa Common Core State Standards in Math and English Language Arts Standards started during the 2010-2011 school year with full implementation required by July 1, 2013. That means that by the 2013-2014 school year, teachers will be required to teach using the Common Core State Standards!
Some teachers feel prepared while others do not. The Common Core State Standards are worded differently than the Pa State Standards. Students will be required to process and think deeper and broader than ever before. Teachers will become facilitators of learning as they empower students to reason and apply what they know while synthesizing information from a number of sources.
This way of teaching will be new for teachers and students. Parents and our community members will need to understand these changes, too. All stakeholders will eventually realize that the educational system is changing.
In order for this to happen, Standards-Based Professional Learning will need to become a priority. It is time that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania begins to recognize this. Presently, each school district in our state is not required or held accountable for any standardized level of professional learning. This means that on days set aside for Professional Learning (inservice days), anything can happen. For example, some districts spend their time wisely and teachers learn strategies they can implement immediately. Other districts plan poorly and teachers don’t know where to report until the last minute or are given activities to do that have no meaning or purpose. If an initiative such as the Common Core State Standards is so important, why don’t we place a priority on educating our teachers, afterall, don’t our teachers deserve to be informed on the latest reforms that influence student achievement?
Learning Forward, formerly known as the National Staff Development Council, has developed Standards that outline the characteristics of effective professional learning. Learning Forward’s vision for high quality professional learning is, “Every educator engages in effective professional learning every day so every student achieves.” A list of the Standards for Professional Learning can be found at www.learningforward.org.
For the past two years, Learning Forward PA has been advocating for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to adopt the Standards for Professional Learning into Policy. Personal visits have been made to the Department. Presently, PDE is not interested in doing so at this point in time. When LFPA inquired as to the type of response the Department of Education would provide when Pa teacher was found to be in “need of improvement” according to the new teacher effectiveness program, the present plans to help the teacher improve are to place the teacher in an online course. Although PDE has partnered with a reputable online learning company, I am fearful that when this online course is administered in this isolated manner, it will not meet the standards for effective professional learning; especially for a teacher who is in need of improvement.
LFPA is not willing to give in so easily. LFPA is determined to advocate for this cause on behalf of the teachers and students so that all will feel comfortable with any initiative that is imposed upon our teachers. In fact, if districts want to adopt the Standards on their own through a school board vote, they can do so by contacting Learning Forward PA (www.learningforwardpa.org).
This year, the initiative is the Common Core State Standards. Next year, the initiative could be something different. Whatever the initiative is, effective, Standards-Based Professional Learning will be needed to make it happen. Will YOU be willing to advocate?
Dr. Frances A. Miller,