07/10/2012 03:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

Common Core Needs a Team Effort

The campaign for Common Core has shown great sensitivity to the supports that teachers will need to teach with greater rigor, but it has been largely silent about the much greater supports that inner city students will need before they can benefit from the challenging curriculum. There has been little evidence that Common Core advocates understand the research by the Consortium for Chicago School Research which explains why we must teach many students to be students before they can meet college prep standards. In Chicago, for instance, teachers voiced satisfaction with the professional development they received to promote teaching for "rigor and relevance." But, the disorderly classroom climate in many schools undercut teaching and learning. In fact, disorder grew worse when a Gates-funded curriculum was implemented.

Finally, the Education Sector's Getting to 2014 (and Beyond): The Choices and Challenges Ahead presents a tough-minded analysis of the socio-emotional supports that students will need. The best contribution is Robert Balfanz's "Doing It All: Raising Graduation Rates and Standards." Balfanz cites the lessons learned from success stories in Massachusetts and Alabama, as well as the more typical problems that were exemplified by California, which saw its graduation rate decline when standards were raised.

Balfanz noted that improved standards can increase graduation rates for students who struggle because they are bored or do not believe their lives will be different after graduating. But, he was blunt in describing the needs of the 15% of high schools that produce half of the nation's dropouts. "We need to acknowledge, that if we continue to concentrate the neediest students in a subset of schools that are not designed for success, we will neither be able to raise performance levels nor graduation rates for these students." Typically, their freshman classes "are multiple years behind grade level in math and English and have already begun to disengage from school. They may struggle with chronic absenteeism, behavior problems, and course failure in middle grades."

The first step towards creating environments where the toughest schools can succeed is investing in early warning systems to address chronic absenteeism and other barriers to success. Then, we must provide high-quality, well-planned, and aligned interventions. But, Balfanz reminds us, "this will also require new thinking about ways to recruit a second shift of adults into schools and funding streams to provide the adult capacity needed to enable and propel all students to attend, behave, try, and believe."

Balfanz then observed that "no one is angrier than a 16-year-old eighth-grader," and that "middle school must be reinvented." He concludes:

This is where low-income students, in particular, fall off the track to graduation. Here the Common Core provides an invaluable tool. Establishing exactly what middle schoolers need to be able to do enables greater freedom -- and even experimentation -- with how they learn it. One can imagine multiple ways to tap into middle-grade students' desire for camaraderie, adventure, and performance by centering the acquisition of core academic skills in the context of engineering, entrepreneurship, civic engagement, and the arts, and acknowledging their demonstration with intellectual merit badges.

Finally, Balfanz makes an astute proposal for recruiting the human capital necessary to implement Common Core without writing off urban schools:

What if instead of a fourth year of college, young adults -- in return for enhanced financial aid -- did a year of national service in high-needs schools, serving as tutors, mentors, and success coaches? This could both create the manpower needed to keep more students on track in more demanding middle and high school courses and serve as a final accelerator, by providing the national service corps members with the 21st century skills of teamwork, communication, and problem-solving that employers are seeking.

I know from experience that remediation, "dumbing down" instruction, and focusing excessively on basic skills are counter-productive. We cannot disrespect high school students with 5th grade skills by treating them like elementary school children. We must build on their strengths, especially their moral consciousness and their desire to make the world better. Yes, we must build the instructional scaffolding necessary for low-skilled students to tackle high-quality lessons. But, school systems must also be willing to address chronic absenteeism and chronic disorder before we can systematically teach for mastery. Once we establish the conditions necessary for building respectful learning cultures, students will rise to the occasion. To create such skills, however, we need to recruit twenty-somethings into the team effort that is teaching and learning.