Common Core | Feature

Taking Advantage of Common Core

Did you know that the keyboard you’re using right now was deliberately designed to slow down typing? Remington’s first mechanical typewriters were so clunky that fast typists easily jammed the keys: One metal shaft couldn’t get out of the way quickly enough to make way for the next. To solve this problem, engineers rearranged the letters on the keyboard — called the Qwerty keyboard for the first few letters on the upper left row –– to make typing awkward enough that once-quick typists couldn’t jam the machine.

The electronic word processor solved the problem, but even though keys can be placed anywhere now, tradition and inertia conspire to resist change. A better keyboard design is available — one that places the most frequently used letters on the home row — but few people use it. (You’d be right to guess that I do.) Manufacturers doggedly produce the old style, so students will continue to learn the inefficient, clumsy Qwerty keyboard forever, I guess.

Just as engineers did for the early Remington, schools have found workable but less-than-perfect solutions for the problems they’ve faced over the decades. Too many children for a one-room schoolhouse? Organize them into learning groups by age, advancing a year at a time until the calendar pushes them out the door. Don’t know what to teach? Buy a textbook. Never mind that it’s only available because the board of education in one particular state with a large student population approved it, and publishers could save money by publishing it en masse for everyone else.

Like the invention of the electronic keyboard, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) create opportunities to solve problems that have been around for some time — if enough people identify and take advantage of the solutions they offer.

Endorsed now by 45 states, the CCSS describe what students should know and be able to do at each grade so that, by the time they leave high school, they’ll be ready for college or a career. The Common Core is a shared language about what we expect students to achieve — and offers a meaningful way to measure that achievement in English language arts and mathematics.

In the early days of schooling, the only commonality among schools was the fact that students sat at desks for long stretches of time. How to measure education, then, except by the number of years you’ve been at it? With a little reflection about what it means to teach and learn, however, one can see that it’s as crazy to measure learning by the amount of time a student sits in a chair as it is to solve the “problem” of human dexterity by building klutzy machinery. Even the Carnegie unit, a later attempt to characterize what happens, for example, in one year of high school English, has become as meaningless as the calendar for telling what a student really has learned by the end of a year.

The Possibility of a Revolution

Because the Common Core establishes common criteria for achievement, it provides a way of talking about how students advance in learning regardless of the school they attend or how long it takes them. Time can now be varied, allowing teachers to focus on the real goal of student learning. This approach provides the possibility for a revolutionary change in schooling that has up until now only been achievable in isolation by a particular school or district. 

Think about what a student receiving a B in fifth-grade mathematics in Tennessee knows. Is it anything like what a student knows who got the same grade in the same subject in California? Before now, there’s little we could say about what either student had been taught; even less about what they’ve learned. In the Common Core system, however, every teacher in every state will know what it means when a student has mastered Standard 5.NBT – Number and Operations in Base Ten. Whether a student has mastered the standard through an online game, the Khan Academy or a lesson with peers (or took a week longer or one week less than other students to learn) is less important. When student learning is the focus, being clear about what a student has mastered is more critical than where the student learned it and how long it took.

Standards-based education (SBE), the forerunner of Common Core, also helped the movement towards a learning-driven system. A significant impact of SBE was the primacy of learning objectives, which meant that textbooks and other resources could be developed to support, rather than direct, curriculum. Related efforts focused on aligning curriculum, instruction and assessment to ensure they all served the same learning goals. The promise of such alignment was challenged from the outset, however, as each state established its own set of standards, thus requiring unique alignments and resources.

The SBE movement, however, brought to light the possibilities inherent in a system of standards, from which Common Core should now benefit. Aspiring technology companies and more than a few educators, for example, worked to develop tools and structures to accelerate the promise of SBE in reforming our approach to education.

Software designers quickly grasped how their programs and databases could link resources and lessons to standards and standards to grade-books to track students’ progress. Efforts continue in this direction, though now somewhat slowed by concerns about student data security. Direct linking to standards continues to be greatly valued, though, as made clear when the authors of Common Core designed three ways for any standard (and lettered sub-item) to be uniquely identified: through dot notation, a uniform resource identifier (URI) or a globally unique identifier (GUID).

Educators moving into SBE had a much tougher design problem: student grades. When the focus is on student learning, grades should reflect whether a student has achieved a standard, not how well he or she has done relative to peers. But the bell curve shapes much of our thinking about student performance and, thus, student grades. In a time-driven system, it’s not surprising that when achievement doesn’t allow students to move on to new challenges, they will seek credit for being faster or better than others at any given time. To provide learners with new challenges as they master each standard requires a system to group students by content, not by age — which has significant implications in terms of the structure of day-to-day schooling. Nonetheless, some schools and districts have successfully addressed these issues, most notably the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition.

The Common Core provides solutions to a number of problems that have vexed schools over the years. Building on the accomplishments of the SBE movement, CCSS extends the positive impacts of shared learning and resources and a common language among schools and districts across nearly four dozen states. The possibilities provided by the Common Core give us much to look forward to, if we know how to take best advantage of it — and if we keep students and learning at the center of our efforts. To sustain your optimism, though, I recommend not looking down too often at your keyboard.

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