23 February 2014

Why Wisconsin's Common Core State Standards Benefit Students and Teachers

Wisconsin Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were created a number of years ago to provide guidance and structure in teaching of common objectives that could be applied consistently across the state.  After years of study and pilot programs across the state, the Common Curriculum was finally adopted in 2010.

Yet today, only two years after beginning their implementation, the Common Core Standards are under scrutiny and may be dismantled by the presiding legislature.  A number of criticisms have been leveled at the CCSS including that they exert centralized state control in favor of localized leadership, that they demand more than the students can attain, that they are overly focused on test results, and that they leave little flexibility for adaptation.
Back in the 2004-2005 school year in the Milwaukee Public Schools system (MPS), I was selected by my principal to be a member of the early piloting program gearing up for the adoption of the Common Core Standards in mathematics.  The Milwaukee Mathematics Partnership (MMP) represented an ambitious effort combining the expertise of leaders from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), MPS, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).  In order to implement a new set of objectives, the MMP assembled representatives from UWM and MATC to train Math Teacher Leaders (MTL) who in effect would act as liasons in their schools.  The Common Core Leadership in Mathematics (CCLM) project, as it would become know, develops school and district teacher leaders to support the transition to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.

As one of many MTLs, I was part of the early efforts in breaking apart the broad objectives that make up the Common Core in mathematics, and bringing back ideas to our schools for implementation.  Each month, the teacher leaders participated in a session that focused on one of the Practice Standards, exemplified through a specific mathematics content task related to a Common Core Content Standard.  The sessions were led by the devoted, skilled, and indefatigable teachers, researchers, and professors DeAnn Huinker, Henry Kepner, Janis Freckman, Melissa Hedges, and Kevin McLeod.  Along with the goal of implementing teaching related to the Common Core, the aim of the project was to encourage cooperation between educators, families, community members, and business leaders.  The hope was that mathematics teaching would improve across the district.

The CCSS have been from the onset academic standards and objectives meant to guide teaching and learning.  One of the very clear focal points aimed at the development of stronger ongoing formative assessments.  The academic standards were and are "a set of expectations for what students should know and be able to do in kindergarten through 12th grade."(1)  They are goals for the year that require repetitive revisiting in order to achieve.   It's dangerous and alluring to think that one summative assessment can reveal whether an objective has been met.  Unfortunately, that's not the way learning works.  Learning is a cycle.  The CCSS represent the goals in the cycle but they do not attempt to dictate how the goals should be met.

The CCSS were never designed to be prescriptive.  
While academic standards establish what students need to learn, standards do not dictate how teachers should teach, and are not a curriculum. The CCSS inform the work of teachers in the classroom and help support parents’ understanding of what their children should know and be able to do at each grade level in order to be college and career ready. Local teachers, principals,superintendents and others decide how the CCSS are to be met. Throughout Wisconsin classrooms, local educators continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of the students in their classrooms, and local school boards continue to adopt a curriculum that best meets the needs of their local community.
Instead the CCSS were meant to function as "a blueprint" drawn up in order to "improve the transition of our students from high school to postsecondary education, work, and citizenship."(2)

The CCSS present a set of objectives that can be applied consistently throughout the state in each district, in each school.  The objectives can be addressed, taught, using the methodologies as prescribed by the local school district, individual school, or specific teacher.  The goals themselves represent the the scope of the trajectory of a learner's journey.  Absent in the CCSS are recommendations for standardized testing.  Instead educators are encouraged to explore utilizing a variety of assessments that help form a learner's experience.

All of this may sound like pedagogical gobbledygook.  Herein lies the problem.  I'm not sure if there has been a consolidated attempt at explaining the nature of the CCSS.  The essential aspects of the CCSS can be made entirely clear.  While the CCSS are a set of objectives, they are not bulky contrivances for a massive bombardment of external examinations.  The CCSS stand as goals for teachers, students, parents, guardians, and community members to initiate guided learning.  The CCSS set the targets.  The journey is devised in the lesson plans and the methods of assessment schools employ to ensure the standards are met.

I understand that part of human nature is defined by quickly identifying a problem and quickly assigning blame.  In most situations, it's far more complicated than that.  In the case of the CCSS, objections have been lobbed at them from various fronts with the unified intention of repealing them.  There are alternatives to dismantling what has taken years of study, trials, time, and resources to implement.

We can keep the CCSS in place.  Most countries around the world provide centralized leadership in the form of a ministry of education or department of education.  The central office is typically in charge of defining learning objectives.  Every student across the country is required to meet those objectives in order to reach specific benchmarks.  Schools can lose their recognition or the ability to issue state-recognized diplomas if they do not aim for the state authorized objectives.  Most other countries assess the progress of students using state level examinations designed to assess whether the student has met the objectives.

The importance of this point is clear when we look at achievement levels on world-wide tests like PISA.  These tests indicate that while other countries have attained higher levels of understanding and learning and consistently demonstrate this on the exams, the US has remained fairly stagnant.  The US has fallen off the pace set by countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Finland.

One approach is to ensure that there are consistent objectives that all students should be able to meet, reminiscent of the centralized standards designed in ministries of education around the world.
We can look at countless examples from the CCSS but I'd like to just pick one to analyze in order to illustrate how teachers, students, and the public might work together.  Because an attainable, acceptable approach must work with any objective, it matters little which of the standards is chosen to deconstruct.

Here's one from Grade K:
Counting and Cardinality (3)
•  Know number names and the count sequence.
     2.   Count forward beginning from a given number within the known sequence (instead of having to begin at 1)

It's very clear that this is an open-ended and broad goal.  How many number names?  Which number sequence?  How long of a sequence?  Who defines the set of numbers, the series?

As I think is clearly evident, the objective doesn't dictate teaching methodology or assessment.  It mentions no curriculum that teachers should use.  The objective represents a long-term goal for each kindergartner.  By the end of kindergarten, each student should be able to identify numbers by name, and count in sequence.  Part of understanding the objective and teaching the objective is understanding the numbers recur in patterns.  It's a complex and subtle distinction for kindergartners but well within their abilities to grasp.

How are teachers supposed to assess whether the objective has been met?  The CCSS do not prescribe the approach only the target.  If parents and teachers are describing increased assessment because of the CCSS, it's because the approach to assessment has been misinterpreted.  The CCSS do not necessarily lead to additional written tests.  Teachers, students, and the community are instead asked to assess the objectives in a variety of ongoing (formative) assessments.  Students are encouraged to put on plays, draw pictures, construct models, and create imaginative manifestations representative of the goals.  Clearly not every assessment requires standardized style paper and pencil testing.

I'll write more about evaluation later.  What is essential in this post is that the CCSS are not meant to be restrictive or prescriptive.  They are meant to instill focus on teaching and learning.

Interestingly as the debate over CCSS heats up, the proposed changes are indicative of the way our society handles many challenges in the education sector.  A problem or challenge crops up and our leaders react.  The reaction sets off another series of challenges and again we react.  Our reactive tendencies fail because the solutions address problems that have already occurred.  We've codified reactive decisions.

I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the numerous times when I was teaching in which changes were made but given little time and even fewer tools for the implementation to take place.  Two years is simply not enough time to implement the massive changes that the CCSS represent.  The state needs more time.  Teachers need more professional development.  The community needs more time to adapt.  In this way we may act proactively.  Proactive measures would include better professional development opportunities, more teachers with better initial training, more cooperation across the spectrum including teachers, learners, parents and guardians, and the community.  Absent of fidelity in the system, the system is bound to collapse regardless of the system in place.    

While the CCSS are behemoth in their scope and size, they are not the controlling feature of a Madison-based, test-driven tyranny they have been described to be.  They are simply a set of learning objectives, a core curriculum for every learner.  They very well may be necessary to keep our educational system on pace in an increasingly competitive global educational system.

1) Transforming Teaching and Learning - report submitted to the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate
2) Blueprint developed to improve Wisconsin's Model Academic Standards
- News release from State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster
3) Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Mathematics
4) Academic Expectations for MPS Students
5) Milwaukee Mathematics Partnership
6) Stop Common Core in Wisconsin

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