Monday, May 5, 2014

The Common Core in Our Schools

The Common Core and Our Schools

Several years ago in a small rural school district, I attended a Board of Education Meeting that  drew an audience well over one-hundred citizens.  The crowd had an assortment of people, that included students, parents, and community members. At one point in the session, the Board of Education approved and moved forward with a district-wide initiative to replace the current Mathematic Curriculum with another.  This extremely important and relevant topic was presented by administration, and voted upon by the Board within a matter of thirty minutes.  Not a voice was heard from those in attendance, no mumblings,or private discussions.  The agenda item was presented and approved almost without notice.  Later in the meeting the agenda piece that had brought such a large group to the meeting of the board was presented: consideration for the district to move from its current athletic conference to another.  To say the least there was mass “gnashing of teeth and opposition” from the gallery as this was not a popular idea within the community.  The reason for such large attendance had presented itself and the “uproar” had just begun.  The next hour-and-a-half was spent entirely on this issue.  
This incident is representative to the lack of attention or weight that has been assigned  over the years to curriculum in our schools. It also provides fodder for the question: why is curriculum, and more exactly, the Common Core State Standards being so vigorously debated and argued about in our state and nation?  A look at the development, implementation and national influences offers clarity to that question.
Contrary to the belief of some, the history of the Common Core State Standards finds its origin at the state, rather than at the federal level.  Neither (then) Senator Obama, nor President George W. Bush, had a hand in the conception, development or implementation of the standards.   Forty-eight governors of the National Governors Association along with the Council of Chief State School Officers, collectively recognized a systemic flaw in our nation’s educational system.  A defect that allowed each of our nations states to establish its own educational programming, standards, and expectations without regard to the other 49 states.  Prior to its release, the implementation of the Common Core in the state of Wisconsin, had teams of professionals who reviewed and critiqued multiple drafts of the standards.  Included in this evaluation were representatives from the Wisconsin State Reading Association, the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English, the University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Technical Colleges, private universities, principals and teachers.  Throughout this three year process the Common Core State Standards were public documents that garnered over 10,000 comments by members of the public.
In 2010, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute compared and rated the Common Core State Standards to the Wisconsin’s Model Academic Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics.  The Fordham Institute is an ideologically conservative educational think tank whose mission is to advance rigor in the classroom for all students.  The outcome of the Institutes work?  In the field of Mathematics, the Wisconsin Model Academic Standards earned an F.  It’s counterpart, English Language Arts fared little better by earning a D.  Conversely, The Common Core earned marks of A-, and B+, in Mathematics and English respectively.
Through the implementation of the Common Core around our state and nation, I've heard testimony by countless teachers, principals, and district administrators, who attest to the positive instructional and learning transformations, that has been provided because of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.
Finally, to the critics of the Common Core, I ask patience and a reserve for judgment.  The process of development, assessment, and implementation of the Common Core, is an effort that is debatably the most comprehensive curriculum reform by educational professionals in the history of American public education.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Who Would Your Rather Have Teach Your Child; A Highly Qualified Educator or a Great Teacher?  Are They The Same Thing?

As a parent or administrator who would you rather have teaching your child, a highly qualified educator or a great teacher?  If you believe the two are interchangeable then the question is irrelevant.  Though they can be one and the same I don't believe they always are.
How so?
A highly qualified teacher has evidence to professional growth and development that tells us they are in fact "highly qualified".  These artifacts can come in the form of license and certifications earned throughout the professional development process.  Schools need to give evidence that their students have highly qualified teachers and this is a good thing.  But a license or certification doesn't correlate to greatness.
Greatness is born in the extraordinary application of the ordinary.  
Have you ever had a physician or surgeon whose diagnosis left you searching for another opinion or another doctor altogether?  Even though the physician you left had similar licenses and medical degrees you still left her or him, for another doctor.  The reality of the situation is a great physician is defined in their ability to cure rather than where they went to medical school.
I was inspired to write this as greatness often arises the most unsuspecting moment.  It happens when a student stops working in class and the teacher intuitively knows the child is distressed.  It happens when that teacher makes several inquiries and learns the student misses a parent who has moved from the family and into to another community.  Greatness happens when the teacher seizes the moment and has the entire class perform a writing assignment where all the students write a brief note or letter to someone they love or miss in their lives.  Because this one act addresses the child's emotional needs, it allows for academic achievement to excel as well.  Not just for the one child, but in this case the entire class.
Classroom moments such as this one cannot be quantified and it's exact measurements are unknown.
Even though this "moment" is not assessed, I assure you what the teacher has done transcends from being "highly qualified" into "greatness".
I fear that at times our quest to identify and qualify "Highly Effective Educators" diminishes greatness while aiming to address the needs of the lowest common denominator in our ranks.
This I'm sure is not a popular suggestion, but one worthy of reflecting upon.

Monday, November 25, 2013

When Did Common Core Become a Dirty Word?

When Did "Common Core" Become Dirty Words?

Twenty years ago I took my first of many graduate courses. This would eventually lead to two degrees and an educational journey that I'm still traveling on today. My first class was on curriculum and the first assignment was to review and evaluate a course curriculum I taught at the time.
Review the curriculum?  First I had to find it! I had taught World History for three years and until this point, had never once read or reviewed the curriculum.  By today's standard this would be considered incompetent, a dereliction and neglect of my professional responsibilities.  But in 1994 by most accounts this was more standard operating procedures than anything else.
In these adolescent years of education the greatest concern by my administrators was classroom management.  In short, if parents weren't complaining and students weren't being sent to the office I was doing my job.  Some may see this as an oversimplification, but nonetheless is the truth.
So my quest for a curriculum was at hand and I was intrigued as well as a bit ashamed that I hadn't made the effort to seek out what exactly I was to teach sooner.  But again, this was not something discussed during the Social Studies Department meetings (held 1-2 times a year during an inservice) nor was it something the administration made a priority or discussed.  
After inquiries with my Department Chair, and Curriculum Director, I found that no one knew where the course curriculum's were kept.  It wasn't until I was directed by my principal to look into a closet of one of our meeting rooms, that I may find the binder for my World History Curriculum. When I opened the door I found a large number of black binders on several shelves...there it was...I saw it, similar to the elusive Big Foot, or mythical Mermaid, until this point I began to believe this "curriculum" was more imaginary than real.  Like Indiana Jones I reached up for the dust covered binder labeled "World History" and to some extent expected a large boulder to begin rolling down a tract at me. I was excited and intrigued as to what information the binder had and determined that I would re-craft every lesson plan to meet the demands of the district approved curriculum.  That in essence I would no longer use my textbook as the only resource for classroom information and content resource.  Because with that binder I now had the curriculum I was suppose to teach.  A curriculum that was created by people much smarter and more versed in education than I.  So I opened the binder (imagine a choir of angels singing) and there it World History curriculum.......
WHAT?  WHAT?  Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!
Before me in that binder was a meticulous outline of my current textbook (that was  five years old at the time).  Almost 400 pages of an outline that someone within the district had typed by hand.  Remember this is 1994, before the deluge of technology, hardware and software in our schools.  
I felt betrayed and realized for the first time how deeply broken our system was.
So what is my point?
The current climate regarding the curriculum in our nations schools has digressed from an educational discussion to an agenda driven political debate.  Since this watershed moment in my professional growth I quickly navigated toward and agreed with educational professionals such as E.D. Hirsch Jr. that in terms of curriculum our nation's students deserved a much better product.
The Common Core State Standards give us just that.  I will not compromise here nor should anyone else. When compared to the history of curriculum in our nations schools,  the CCSS has the expectation for high performance and outcome from every child .  Compared to the deeply flawed previous paradigm in public education the CCSS gives  a national structure and common language while allowing for regional and local influence and considerations.  For the thousands of students who move from one section to another in a school, or from district to district, or state to state the benefits to a common curriculum cannot be understated.
Those who've dragged the Common Core into the political spotlight need to reconsider their reasons and motives for doing so.  It's unfortunate that today we have such a backlash to something that has such great potential for our children.
To the critiques and and opponents of the CCSS I have one question; Where have you been for the past 40 years?  Where was the public outcry for greater accountability for the curriculum presented to students in our nation's public schools over the past four decades?
Please note, I'm not sharing that I believe the CCSS to be a magic wand that will transform our schools into an educational Utopia.  I am sharing that it is the most in depth framework for performance standards that we've developed perhaps in the history of public school education.  Before this initiative is condemned as a failure, there needs to be several years of implementation in order to observe, measure and assess it's value.
The state of Wisconsin is currently re-examining it’s commitment to the Common Core.  A bipartisan committee has been assembled to hear testimony regarding the CCSS.
If you’re interested in reading my testimony to the committee please Click Here
Thank you for reading....

Monday, September 16, 2013

21st Century Red Flags

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the United States and United Kingdom passed what became known as "Red Flag Laws".  Red Flag Laws required motorists to perform certain tasks when travelling down the dusty trails and country roads of each perspective nation.  In Illinois, an automobilist had to follow these procedures:

 "Upon approaching a corner where he cannot command a view of the road ahead, an automobilist must stop not less than one-hundred yards from the turn, toot his horn, fire his revolver...."(1).

 In Vermont, an automobile on a road had to have a person walk one-eighth of a mile ahead of the "horseless carriage" carrying a red flag or lantern to warn other travelers.  Tennessee required motorists to give a one week advance notice stating the day and time he intended to drive the road.  Other states implemented laws that went so far as to have motorists dissasemble their automobile upon sight of another traveler whose transportation was the traditional horse-drawn carriage, buggy or saddled rider (1).

The automobile and its use was highly regulated, but certainly not for the same reasons that evolved throughout the next one hundred years.  These Red Flag Laws give evidence to exaggerated reactions to new technology and their infringement upon the profits of other industries.  Most notable in the late 1800's and early 1900's, the automobile proved to be an ecomomic threat to the the railroad and horse industries. 

It's hard to imagine that changes in technology could produce such excessive reactions, but last week an article entitled "Laptop Losers: Tech Actually Hindering Kids in Classrooms" Click here to read the entire article, found it's way into my email box.  (Irony?)  As it's title suggests, this would not be a ringing endorsement for 21st Century resources, technology and it's application in our classrooms.  The article shared insight regarding the misuse of laptops in schools and the detrimental effects on both the student with the laptop and even his or her classmates sitting nearby.  The article claims to derive its information from a research study conducted at McMaster University in Toronto, Canada.  The data from this study, led by Faria Sana, suggests that students who multitask on laptops during class experience a loss in learning.  

That would make sense, wouldn't it?  Students multitasking, meaning updating Facebook, emailing friends, doing work for other classes, and even watching movies, would retain less than his or her peers.  Absolutely.  But nowhere in the study does it suggest that laptops themselves hinder retention or negatively effect student achievement; it is simply multitasking that would obviously hinder student learning. Click here to read the entire study.  In fact, the research team gave these insights and recommendations as part of their conclusion:
  • A ban on laptops is extreme and unwarranted.  That laptops foster positive learning outcomes when used appropriately.
  • Teachers need to discuss the consequences of laptop use with their students at the outset of a course.
  • Restrict the use of the laptop to course related materials.
  • Provide educators with resources to help them create enriching, and informative classes.  This would include incorporating the laptop into real-time classroom exercises.  
Like the transition from horse to automobile, the conversion to digital devices from traditional classroom resources has been significant, if not historic.  At times the discourse regarding these technological advances will be muddied and made more operose to decipher as information and data from irresponsible media and government sources are presented in a disorted manner.  Our role as educators, parents, and citizens demands a sagacious and holistic approach to the application of laptops and digital devices in our classrooms.  An accession not to be encumbered with minimilist thought or study.

(1)The Automobile and American Morality