This blog is co-authored by Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor, co-directors of the national Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, where their current focus is on systemic reforms to enhance school and community efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students.
As more states move to implement the Common Core State Standards, we should applaud the movement's potential benefits, but also recognize its limitations. It is essential to note that the current focus is only on school curricula, and so far only on a few facets. While an enhanced curriculum represents a major step forward for many states, it clearly doesn't amount to a whole child approach. Moreover, like many other school improvement plans, the Common Core largely ignores barriers to learning and teaching, thus impeding teachers' capacity to effectively engage all students.
States concerned with whole child development are expanding the curriculum by developing standards for social and emotional learning. This presents a great opportunity for schools to build on existing natural opportunities in arts, music, and other areas for promoting social and emotional learning. But broadening the focus on healthy development is not, itself, enough.
The Common Core State Standards include a brief "application to students with disabilities." They are silent, however, about the many problems that students, at some time or another, bring with them to the classroom that impede their learning and interfere with efforts to teach. In some districts, many students face restricted opportunities associated with poverty and low income, difficult family circumstances, excessive mobility, lack of English language skills, violent neighborhoods, substance abuse, inadequate health care, and lack of enrichment opportunities. Such problems are exacerbated as youngsters internalize the frustrations of confronting barriers and the debilitating effects of poor school performance. They are further compounded by teachers who often are ill-prepared and poorly supported to address the problems in a potent manner.
Common Core Standards for learning supports can enable schools to provide an equal opportunity for all students to succeed at school and beyond. In their absence, however, the new curriculum standards probably will widen the gap between educational haves and have-nots and undermine any commitment to develop the whole child. That would hardly be a recipe for enabling better teacher and school performance.
For Common Core State Standards to fulfill their potential, schools need strong teachers focused on the whole child, aligned with a unified and comprehensive system for addressing barriers to learning and teaching and re-engaging disconnected students. This reality calls for a shift in school improvement policy and practice from a two- to a three-component approach: in addition to (1) instruction (including curriculum and teaching); and (2) governance and management; strategies must incorporate (3) supports that address barriers to learning and teaching. All three components are essential, and efforts to revamp schools cannot afford to marginalize any of them. This is being demonstrated by trailblazing work across the country (e.g., Gainesville City Schools, GA.)
Continuing to ignore standards for learning supports perpetuates the myth that teachers alone are responsible for, and capable of, closing the achievement gap, increasing graduation rates, and ensuring that students are career and college ready. This convenient mythology takes a lot of relevant actors off the hook for their responsibility to enhance equity of opportunity for all students. As such, it also contributes to the undermining of public education. The simplistic fix is enticing, but it avoids the more complex reality that only a comprehensive effort can ensure that all children get the whole-child education they deserve, and our nation needs.
The Broader Bolder Approach to Education thus joins the many others endorsing efforts to embed Common Core Standards for a Learning Supports Component into school improvement policy and practice.