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Vicki Cobb Headshot

Road Maps to the Common Core

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Sometimes I get the feeling that any change in educational policy doesn't matter to the providers of educational materials as long as change is mandated. Publishers of texts and testing products make money no matter what. The objective of No Child Left Behind was basic literacy for all, period. So the emphasis was on decoding skills. It set the bar very low and generated lots of new materials to teach phonics, etc. Now we have the Common Core State Standards which redefine an educated person as someone who can read a text and figure out the main idea, how it was put together by the author, and how knowledge and ideas are integrated. Moreover, students are supposed to incorporate these standards into their own writing. The pushback from the educational community is that now the bar is set too high; especially in light of the new standardized tests that show kids failing as expected. Veteran educators shake their heads in bewilderment. They know better than most that there is no single panacea for delivering high quality education. Just 'cause you state it as policy, doesn't mean it will happen.

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One such veteran educator is Lucy Calkins (on right, that's me on the left) of Columbia's Teachers College who is the founder and director of The Columbia Reading and Writing Project. She is an outspoken champion of the CCSS. She sees it as an opportunity to introduce students to a wealth of nonfiction literature about the real world and she spoke about it at a TC event last week, which I attended. After decades of imposing rules and packaged lesson plans on teachers, of bashing teachers as the primary problem with education, of sucking the joy of learning out of the classroom, and of attempting to standardize teaching as if children were widgets in a factory, some of us see the CCSS as an opportunity to bring creativity, collaboration, and autonomy back to the teaching profession.

Let's hope it's not too late. Enter the reality of a teacher's day. The stress is enormous and now they have to do a great deal of paperwork to justify exactly how they are meeting the CCSS. Their jobs are now dependent on how well their students perform on the standardized test. Many gifted teachers are speaking up or throwing in the towel. Lucy Calkins sees the CCSS as an opening for many approaches to instruction and a diverse curriculum -- the opposite of standardization. Since businesses now say they want creative, self-starting, innovative workers, we have to allow teachers to go back to being creative innovators themselves. We also have to experiment with different approaches and ideas with the understanding that some will prove better and others and that not everything that is done will be a home run. In other words, educators, themselves, need room to learn and grow.

The Columbia Reading and Writing Program states:

"the Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach" (CCSS, p 6). What's needed is an all-hands-on-deck effort to study how best to create pathways to achieve the Common Core. There will be no one 'right answer' to the question of how a school or a district needs to shift its priorities and methods so as to bring its students closer to the expectations of the Common Core, as schools and classrooms will come from different places and will have different resources to draw upon.

Teachers need interesting, well-written materials for the curriculum subjects they teach. They can also teach reading and writing skills through "mentor" books that are about content. In addition to books, teachers also need strategies for using books that don't come with lesson plans. They need support from curriculum people and from each other. If the skills of the Common Core are our destination, (and there is no question that we'd have a very well-educated nation if everyone met them) we need ways to implement them and try them out. In other words, we need time to develop road maps through uncharted territory and stop asking, like an annoying passenger, "are we there yet?"