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Editor's note: This is the first post in a five-part series which takes a look at five big ideas for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, authored by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins
In our travels around the country since the Common Core Standards were released, we sometimes hear comments such as, “Oh, here we go again;” “Same old wine in a new bottle;” or “We already do all of this.” Such reactions are not surprising given the fact that we have been here before. A focus on standards is not new. However, it a misconception to assume that these standards merely require minor tweaks to our curriculum and instructional practices. In fact, the authors of the Mathematics Standards anticipated this reaction and caution against it: “These Standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business.” (p 5) Merely trying to retrofit the standards to typical teaching and testing practices will undermine the effort.
A related misconception in working with the Common Core is evident when teachers turn immediately to the grade-level standards listed for their grade or course to plan their teaching. Such an action is reasonable; after all, isn’t that what they are supposed to teach? While understandable, we advise against zeroing in on the grade-level standards before a careful examination of the goals and structure of the overall documents.
To invoke a construction analogy: Think of the grade-level standards as building materials. As a construction supervisor, we wouldn’t simply drop off materials and tools at a worksite and have the workers “go at it.” Instead, we would begin with a blueprint -- an overall vision of the desired building to guide its construction. Without an overall end in mind, teachers can create wonderful individual rooms that won’t necessarily fit together within and across floors or achieve the intended results.
The Common Core Standards have been developed with long-term outcomes in mind (e.g., College and Career Anchor Standards in English Language Arts), and their components are intended to work together (e.g., Content and Practice Standards in mathematics). This point is highlighted in a recently released publication, Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (July 2012):
“‘The Standards’ refers to all elements of the design -- the wording of domain headings, cluster headings, and individual statements; the text of the grade level introductions and high school category descriptions; the placement of the standards for mathematical practice at each grade level. The pieces are designed to fit together, and the standards document fits them together, presenting a coherent whole where the connections within grades and the flows of ideas across grades ....”
It is imperative that educators understand the intent and structure of the Standards in order to work with them most effectively. Accordingly, we recommend that schools set the expectation and schedule the time for staff to read and discuss the standards, beginning with the “front matter,” not the grade-level standards. We also recommend that staff reading and discussion be guided by an essential question: What are the new distinctions in these Standards and what do they mean for our practice? Since the standards are complex texts and demand a “close” reading, we recommend that staff carefully examine the table of contents and the organizational structure; the headers (e.g., Design Considerations; What is Not Covered, etc.), the components (e.g., Anchor Standards and Foundational Skills for ELA; Standards for Mathematical Practice), and the Appendices (ELA).
Following a thorough reading of these introductory sections, discuss the changing instructional emphases called for by the Standards and their implications. For example, the ELA Standards demand a greater balance between reading informational and literary texts, and stress the use of text-based evidence to support argumentation in writing and speaking. The Mathematics Standards accentuate the focus on a smaller set of conceptually larger ideas that spiral across the grades (as opposed to simply “covering” numerous skills) with an emphasis on meaningful application using the Practices.
We cannot overemphasize the value of taking the time to collaboratively examine the Standards in this way. Failure to understand the Standards and adjust practices accordingly will likely result in “same old, same old” teaching with only superficial connections to the grade-level standards. In that case, their promise to enhance student performance will not be realized.