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There Are No Miracles, but There Are Teachers: An Educator's View on the Common Core

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By Darren Burris

Ask ten fifth-grade teachers how they teach fractions, and you'll probably get ten different answers. That's the beauty of teaching: part art, part science, all creativity.

Will the Common Core State Standards change that? Will we suddenly have a nation of automatons at the front of our classrooms, delivering identical lessons?

As a teacher, I think not. To me, the Common Core represents an empowering opportunity for teachers to collaborate, exchange best practices and share differing curricula -- because a common set of standards is not the same thing as a common curriculum.

A report recently released by the Brookings Institution, "The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education," would have us believe otherwise. The report begins with this oversimplification (unfortunately perpetuated in a blog post by Peter Wood on The Chronicle of Higher Education) and repeats it throughout: "The push for common education standards argues that all American students should study a common curriculum..."

Curriculum is informed by standards, not determined by them. By equating a set of standards with the curricular experiences created by teachers for their students, you immediately undercut the craft of teaching. This flawed approach to understanding the Common Core amounts to an elimination of the power of the classroom.

Consider this Common Core State Standard from fifth-grade mathematics:

5.NF.1 Add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators (including mixed numbers) by replacing given fractions with equivalent fractions in such a way as to produce an equivalent sum or difference of fractions with like denominators. For example, 2/3 + 5/4 = 8/12 + 15/12 = 23/12. (In general, a/b + c/d = (ad + bc)/bd.)

Fifth-grade teachers across the country will determine what set of classroom experiences will allow students to fully master this standard. How many ways could 5.NF.1 be experienced?

Well ... a teacher could organize students in rows and directly instruct them on how to add and subtract fractions by filling the board with examples and having students complete worksheets at their desks.

Or a teacher could provide a pair of students with fraction manipulatives, and ask them to create equivalent fractions for a half, a third, a fourth and a fifth. After this, students could be asked to add fractions with different denominators using the manipulatives.

A teacher could ask students to reflect on how they spent their time over the weekend, and then to determine what fraction they spent sleeping, eating, playing, gaming or texting. What fraction of the time was spent eating and sleeping? How did you figure that out? How did you get your common denominator? How could you add 2/3 + 5/4?

Or a teacher could have students rotate through stations where they look up different words from the standard and make flashcards, listen to a short lesson online, and interact with a virtual applet that explores the topic. This set of independent experiences could fuel a classroom discussion that formalizes the process of adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators.

Not one of these lessons looks alike, and the student experiences would be quite distinct. But because as teachers, we are designing lesson plans to teach the same standard, we have an unprecedented opportunity to share our experiences about what's working, how it's working, with whom it's working, and which areas of growth still need support.

The Brookings Institution report misses the significant difference between the old standards and the new: the Common Core State Standards are shared in common. True collaboration among teachers could be the single most important result of common standards -- if we seize the opportunity.

As we craft our curricula from these common standards, we can connect with the best ideas from around the country to inform how we bring the standards to life in our classrooms. We should feel empowered to use evolving technologies to go beyond our classrooms, schools, districts and even states, and to start crafting and sharing curricula and experiences in order to serve all students and families well.

The Brookings report's headline-grabbing finding -- that standards will not, on their own, improve student achievement -- is nothing new. It only confirms what teachers have known since the standards movement gained steam in the 90s: standards will not in and of themselves improve achievement. Well-led collections of committed and effective teachers, not standards, transform schools.

As Kathleen Porter-Magee states in her critique of the Brookings report, "[S]etting standards alone does very little, but ... thoughtfully and faithfully implemented rigorous curricula can move the achievement needle, sometimes dramatically."

So the report should not be taken as evidence that standards are useless, or that the Common Core State Standards are a step in the wrong direction. In fact, I find its message ultimately empowering for teachers if we write ourselves into it -- empowering if:

1. We marshal the experiences and lessons learned from the classroom and bring them to bear on the national conversation about education reform.
2. We see this as an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration and the sharing of best practices.
3. We turn the conversation toward enabling and supporting quality teaching in our schools.
4. We connect the K-12 conversation to the demands of college and the workforce.

The Brookings report reminded me that there are no miracles in the hard task of closing the achievement gap, graduating college- and career-ready students, and preparing the next generation to be engaged citizens in a fast-changing, information-saturated world. I hope the national conversation now moves toward recognizing the power of holding basic standards in common; that curricula and classrooms will remain as varied as the people teaching and learning in them; and that attracting, supporting, developing and retaining quality teachers would be the closest thing to a miracle that our schools can and should hope for.

Darren Burris is a middle-school instructional coach and a high-school math teacher at a charter school in Boston. He is a former Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

This piece ran originally on The Hechinger Report.