10/04/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

An Uncommon Path to Common Core Implementation

School's back in session and with it comes a plethora of articles, commentaries and blogs about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). It's a "hot topic" -- current enough so that discussions about the pros and cons of the CCSS have made it to the presidential campaign trail. The CCSS are strongly supported by President Obama and the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. However, new divisions are emerging in the Republican Party on whether the CCSS are viewed as a state-led, bipartisan effort to improve learning outcomes nationwide. We may see more political fallout around CCSS as we approach Election Day.

Let's review: 45 states and three territories have adopted the Literacy and Math guidelines and districts are now scrambling to determine the best ways to prepare their teachers to incorporate the CCSS into teaching and assessments. The promise here is that this will improve student readiness for post secondary paths -- college and career. In addition, the second public draft of the CCSS Next Generation Science Standards will be available for review later this Fall.

The CCSS provide a new framework for what students are expected to learn that moves from bubble tests to measuring application of knowledge. They are an effort to remedy some of the ills attributed to the No Child Left Behind debacle.

Let's also review the dire state of college-readiness: national college persistence and graduation rates are shockingly low. In addition, for every 10 college freshmen seeking an associate degree, half need remediation and only 10 percent of those freshmen will achieve the degree in three years. And a Harvard Graduate School of Education report found that only 32 percent of students graduate high school prepared for college.

The CCSS are designed to be robust and relevant to the "what takes place after high school," reflecting the knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in college and careers. The Literacy standards, for example, require that students become critical readers, not only of fiction, but also of informational texts. They also need to become writers adept at research, analysis and argumentation. The intent is that educators don't separate writing, but integrate literacy into every discipline.

The critical question is: How do we, as educators, turn these Standards into compelling instruction?

We think that the new CCSS offer a way to value relevant and rigorous learning -- the kind that truly motivates students to become learners. We think the components of Deeper Learning -- critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication -- can be interwoven beautifully as a framework to implement the CCSS. When students experience relevancy in what and how they are learning, they are more engaged and the learning sticks. We see this everyday in New Tech Network schools that utilize a project-based learning approach as one of three key design principles to re-imagine teaching and learning.

Students are most successful when their learning is relevant and their engagement level is high. But don't take my word for it. Let's check in with a teacher who has used project-based learning to map to the CCSS and the principles of Deeper Learning.

Josh Hatala, a Social Studies and English Language Arts teacher at Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer, New York, recently introduced his students to an innovative project designed to comply with some of the CCSS. His overall goal was to enable students to take charge of their own learning.

In his project, he was able to incorporate new Standards and also tie the project to Deeper Learning skills. Information literacy and collaboration were the two key Standards addressed in Josh's class project -- "Power and Leadership" -- a recurring theme in American history. "This was a creative and innovative project where we allowed the students to take risks," explained Josh. "Students were able to approach the problem of determining power and leadership from a variety of angles and form their own investigations," he continued. "The key question asked was -- how can we identify a problem of power and leadership and create a real world solution?"

Students were given the opportunity to demonstrate their critical thinking skills by mapping their own learning to the CCSS. "We created a rubric or standards for performance with multiple indicators as guidelines for the students," he said. "While I chose and taught some of the Standards related to types of text and reading, the students were able -- through consultation with their teachers -- to select the writing and communication Standards that would appear on their team rubrics. Students had a hand in every aspect of this project and how it was to be assessed."

Students were asked to generate essential questions for the project that were interesting to them. Each student created five questions, and through negotiation with other students, agreed upon a total of eight questions for the class to examine. Teams were formed around specific interests such as laws and funding, and power relationships. According to Josh, this aspect of the project addressed the CCSS -- as well as the Deeper Learning principle of communication. PBL is a literacy-rich process that requires students to read, research, and communicate their findings, making Common Core Standards a natural fit. Josh's students read nonfiction texts, interviewed community members, and had to synthesize what they learned in order to address a problem of power and leadership.

"Some of the students decided to study American business and examined the organizational structure of modern companies," said Josh. "The students studied social movements in U.S. history for clues as to how a business would develop a horizontal leadership structure. One aspect of this project asked the students to create a business plan for a company that reflected these societal changes throughout American history."

What was the culmination of the business plan project? Josh explained that Tech Valley has an alliance with local businesses who have an ongoing interest in the school. Students made presentations to the business alliance to demonstrate their business plans. PBL requires students to analyze information to solve authentic and engaging real world problems, motivating them to do the robust and rigorous work required by CCSS. Josh's students were motivated to do the challenging synthesis described above because they were engaging with real problems and presenting solutions to business members in the community who could benefit from their work.

"The students looked primarily at local businesses," said Josh. "One company they studied was Evocative Designs -- a company that uses mycelium (the vegetative part of fungus) and agricultural by-products to create structural and building materials that are environmentally low-impact, 100 percent biodegradable and renewable. The students examined the company's leadership style and were excited to learn it was organized in teams -- similar to the way they were organized at Tech Valley High.

There were two primary learning outcomes for students in the "Power and Leadership" project -- information literacy and collaboration, both of which were mapped back to the CCSS. PBL requires students to work in teams, enhancing their listening, speaking, and collaboration skills, all part of the CCSS. Josh's students worked in teams and wrapped up their project with a presentation to business leaders.

School districts everywhere have a daunting and exciting road ahead. It would be a shame not to seize this opportunity to tie Deeper Learning to the CCSS, and truly re-imagine teaching and learning so that all our students graduate high school ready for the post-secondary paths of their own choosing.