11/08/2010 01:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Common Core State Standards: Challenges for High School Teachers

I recently attended a staff development on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The new standards, expected to go into full effect by 2014, will implement rigorous and homogenized academic expectations nationwide. Just as the Euro facilitates travel between France and Germany, CCSS should ease transitions for students who transfer from one state to another. The standards are also intended to ensure that all schools in America set a high bar for education.

When my administrators described and backed the standards before a group of high school teachers, their endorsements were met with a chorus of concern. One disgruntled teacher asked, "How will we ever get our students to this level?" Another balked, "This is just another way to micromanage our classrooms!" Amid their chatter, I found myself wondering, "Are these new guidelines going to help or hurt our students?"

The following excerpt is an example of a performance task from CCSS:

Students determine the point of view of John Adams in his "Letter on Thomas Jefferson" and analyze how he distinguishes his position from an alternative approach articulated by Thomas Jefferson. [RI.7.6]

I have several immediate reactions to this standard. I love that it requires students to take both an analytical and comparative approach a text. Always an advocate for interdisciplinary curricula, I appreciate and applaud the use of primary source documents to teach literacy skills. As a high school special education teacher, however, I am terrified that this task is intended for middle school English class.

Not to be misunderstood, I unequivocally support setting high expectations for our students. If America is to remain globally competitive, then challenging standards, such as those found in CCSS, are imperative. The new standards will place a heavy emphasis on critical thinking and real world application; skills that are never in short supply (consider the unrelenting challenge of capping the broken oil well). The CCSS are also more infallible than to those of previous system. For example, in New York State, a recent alteration of what constitutes a level one, two, three or four on middle school exams left educational stakeholders frustrated and confused. As far as developing uniformity and rigor across America's schools is concerned, the new standards are where it's at.

So, why might a teacher feel ennui? At my high school, concerns over CCSS emanate from the reality that many of our first year students enter school performing below grade level. For educators, re-teaching appropriate sentence structure, paragraph writing, and essay organization resembles literacy triage rather than innovative and expectation-driven pedagogy. These skills, which are often lacking in our ninth graders, are not easily made up and continue to impact student performance through their senior year. And while our students are intellectually capable of managing an arduous academic workload, teachers must address basic skills that are absent before moving on to complex material.

It is not my intent to lambaste elementary and middle school teachers for the skill deficiencies some students face upon entering high school. In the education of America's children, we [teachers] share responsibility for any student that passes through our door. However, with the implementation of CCSS, I believe success in high school is now especially reliant on students meeting academic benchmarks in earlier grades. Consider the performance task mentioned at the start of this blog. For students to analyze and compare point of view, they must initially grasp what the text means. Imagine the difficulty a student who struggles with comprehension will face when asked to identify the nuances that often indicate point of view.

As CCSS are integrated into school systems, how can teachers address a freshman student with skills deficits? Do we hold them back? Pass them along and hope for a miracle? I like the idea of a yearlong transition program for students who enter high school below grade level. I equate this idea to the system of red shirting. In collegiate sports, an athlete may choose to red shirt their freshman season because they need another year to strengthen and develop their skills. A red shirted athlete still attends practice, takes university classes, and dresses for games. The caveat? For an extension of eligibility, they forgo any actual playing time during the red shirted season.

What if students performing below grade level were afforded a similar opportunity? Could high schools implement a program in which struggling eighth graders "red shirt" the ninth grade? By allowing struggling students an extra year to develop and strengthen skills, such a program would ease the move from middle school and ensure that everyone possesses a solid academic base before starting ninth grade. At my high school, students who lack understanding in literacy and math become overwhelmed, flat line or drop out; transition programs might help prevent this. Also, liberation from the rigid four year model might allow high school teachers to approach the new standards with a sense of opportunity, not anxiety.

The Common Core State Standards provide the academic push America needs. However, for their impact to benefit students, school systems must create structures that assure foundational skills are acquired prior to entering high school. Without a base of competencies in reading, writing and math, when given a firm push, too many students will fall.