Middle grades educators would have to live on another planet not to be aware of initiatives involving the Common Core State Standards, teacher accountability, and PreK–12 state achievement tests.
How do we sort through the good, the bad, and the ugly to provide optimal educational experiences for our students, manifest the values of This We Believe, and use what we know "works" for our kids?
The Common Core State Standards, a result of several years of development by content and education experts, began to be adopted by individual states in 2010. As of this writing, 45 states and three territories have adopted the Common Core English/Language Arts and Math standards.
The National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers are leading the development of the standards, with the involvement of parents, teachers, and school administrators. The stated rationale for this initiative is "to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce … . They are benchmarked to international standards to guarantee that our students are competitive in the emerging global marketplace."
What are the implications of these new standards for middle grades educators and students? Are these standards a "good thing" or a "bad thing"…and for whom?
On the Bright Side
First, let's consider some of the pluses of the Common Core State Standards.
- If we look at the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) idealistically, we see a set of mutually agreed-upon standards based on valuable knowledge and skills that can lead to improved instruction and assessment.
- The development of reliable and valid national criterion-referenced assessments (which I believe will be a logical next step) may save many states money that they can then use to target specific instructional needs.
- Teachers across the nation could work together to develop creative and engaging integrated lessons and units to share using cutting edge technology and e-tools.
- This "common" core will be beneficial for students in our increasingly mobile society. A student who moves from seventh grade in Toledo, Ohio, to seventh grade in Omaha, Nebraska, or Syosset, New York, may not have to adjust to new learning expectations.
- Clear grade-level standards in each content area will make it easier to accelerate the few exceptionally gifted students and to compact curriculum for other advanced students. (For more information on how to use the Common Core with gifted students, check out www.nagc.org/index2.aspx?id=8980.)
- It also will be easier to target the skills that struggling learners are missing and help them progress toward mastery using Response to Intervention (RTI) or other supportive approaches.
- One of the goals of CCSS is to prepare all students to be college and career ready. The standards should help teachers ensure their students have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed by providing clear goals for student learning.
- From the perspective of higher education, college instructors will have a clear idea of what high school graduates should have mastered. Teacher educators will better understand how to prepare teachers for the content they'll be expected to teach in the various grade bands (early childhood, middle grades, secondary/high school).
- One particularly promising element of the English/Language Arts standards is the addition of the standards component of Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.
For a long time, English teachers, particularly in the middle grades, have been faulted for teaching too much fictional literature, poetry, mythology, and drama. As a result, many students entering high school were deemed unprepared to cope with textbook reading and to apply the critical understanding required to succeed.
Of course, the reduction in substantive textbook use and reading in science and social studies classes in favor of short passages and test-prep materials has also contributed to this dilemma. But if we use an integrated approach and realize that these literacy skills can be taught and nurtured throughout the middle grades by all teachers, English teachers will be seen as part of a school-wide team working in students' best interests rather than as the "fall guys."
On the Dark Side
On the other hand, these aspects of the Common Core State Standards may not be so positive:
- The CCSS could be just another attempt to "teacher-proof" curriculum. Purchased materials, prescribed instructional approaches, test prep packets, and inflexible approaches to student learning may maximize corporate profits of the producers of educational materials and software.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in their May 2012 report, Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core, estimates the national cost for compliance with Common Core will be between $1 billion and $8 billion, and the profits will go almost directly to publishers.
- High-priced consultants may recommend pre-packaged one-size-fits-all professional inservice programming that might be attractive to some schools and districts. This option could ignore the clear Standards for Professional Learning put forth by Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Association, www.learningforward.org/standards/index.cfm), which emphasize job-embedded, site-specific, sustained, and supported professional development.
- We may find ourselves so standards- and test-driven that all the activities we use to develop healthy, balanced middle grades students are eliminated.
- We could end up being forced to focus on low-level learning (though the Math and Reading/Language Arts standards offer plenty of opportunities for critical and creative thinking at higher levels) because it's easier to assess. If this happens, we would be ignoring the entire 21st Century Skills perspective with its essential emphases on technology, innovation, life and career skills, critical thinking, and collaboration.
- These standards could be just another weapon with which to attack teachers of students from poor urban and rural communities who don't have the resources to help students reach these standards when they come to school already two or three years behind their middle and upper class peers.
- I'm leery of any movement that causes kids to flee the public schools, and the Common Core may contribute to this if it is not used in ways that meet students' unique individual needs as well as the collective needs of the society or the school district.
- As a former middle grades teacher of gifted students, I worry that above-grade-level standards will not be part of the formative and summative assessment process, leaving these students to languish unchallenged while their classmates struggle with materials and activities advanced students could have completed successfully years earlier.
We are seeing more and more of these students leaving public middle schools for the private, parochial, and charter schools that they and their parents believe will better accommodate their needs. Our schools cannot afford to lose these bright minds as we continue to nurture the intelligences of all our students.
The Devil in the Details
So, as with other educational initiatives, it is up to us to decide whether the Common Core State Standards will be "good" or "bad," a contribution or a detriment to our students' growth and development. Here are some guiding questions that might help us fill in the details as we wrestle with how we approach these standards:
- Do we know and understand the standards? Once we've looked at them carefully (www.corestandards.org), we need to have collaborative conversations among grade-level teams and subject departments, compare them with our existing curriculum maps, and decide what revisions, additions, and improvements would benefit our students.
- In what ways might we embed these standards in substantive integrated curriculum units rather than teaching them in isolation? For some guidelines, check out "Standards-Based v. Standards Embedded Curriculum" in the Winter 2008 issue of Gifted Child Today.
- In what ways might we combine the Common Core State Standards with best practices in technology and the nurturing of creativity and innovation? Great information is available in these areas at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website: www.p21.org. The Middle School Portal (www.msteacher2.org/events/ipad-and-apps-go-to-middle) emphasizes math and science and is another great resource in this area.
Be sure to include faculty members from art, PE, music, and areas beyond the four main content areas in these discussions. Look for free online resources for middle grades students and teachers.
- How might we identify a few realistic SMART goals for the upcoming year, realizing that substantive change takes time? Common wisdom is that it takes three to five years to fully implement a systemic change. Everyone involved will need to evaluate progress thoughtfully, regularly, and with integrity.
- Using the guidelines of This We Believe, how might we ensure that we are using developmentally appropriate practices and content that addresses not just the cognitive needs but the affective needs of our students as well?
In the end, the Common Core State Standards are neither good nor bad. How we decide to use them will determine their impact and meaning. The choice is ours.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012