First for the good news: Teachers are embracing the Common Core State Standards. According to a recent survey by Michigan State University, 90 percent of teachers had heard of the new standards, 70 percent had read them, and, best of all, 90 percent liked them. “Those are results we wouldn’t have predicted,” the university’s William H. Schmidt told attendees at the GE Foundation’s Developing Futures in Education conference in Orlando last week. “There is no pushback from teachers.”
But then Schmidt, who co-directs the university’s Education Policy Center, put up his next slide. It showed that about 80 percent of teachers think that the Common Core is “pretty much what they are already doing.” That, said Schmidt, is the bad news. Because if the presentations in Orlando were any indication, nothing could be further from the truth. “I say to those teachers,” Achieve’s Mike Cohen told the group, “Let’s take a look at those standards again.”
The Common Core, the set of rigorous new academic standards that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, is decidedly not your father’s curriculum. (In crucial fact, it’s not a curriculum at all.) As one speaker after the next tried to impress upon the 500-some business leaders and educators in attendance, the Common Core represents a seismic shift in expectations for American students and equally big changes in how those expectations are going to be met. One overarching message: less is more.
In math, the watchwords are focus, coherence, and rigor – the key characteristics of math curricula in the highest performing countries. Students will strive for conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency. What might that look like? Jason Zimba, a co-founder of Student Achievement Partners and a lead writer of the math standards, answered with an example from a likely new assessment. Here is a typical question from a current state test: “7 x 8 =?” Here is question of the sort that will characterize the new ones: “Mark each equation true or false: 8 x 9 = 80 – 8; 54 divided by 9 = 24 divided by 6; 7 x 5 = 25; 49 divided by 7 = 56 divided by 8.” Students would also be asked to construct an argument to prove understanding: “Amber didn’t know what 7 x 5 equalled, but she did know that 5 x 5 = 25 and 2 x 5 = 10. Use drawings, words and/or equations to explain why Amber can add 25 and 10 to find what 7 x 5 equals.” Different, isn’t it? In short, said Zimba, “We are going to be teaching math again.”
In English languages arts, the shift to the Common Core means students will be reading more complex texts and analyzing evidence from text rather than stating personal opinions. They will read entire books instead of passages from many books, and they will read increasingly more non-fiction than fiction. The standards also put a premium on vocabulary, expecting students to learn words by considering meaning in context rather than through rote drills. And all teachers, stressed Susan Pimentel, lead writer of the literacy standards – not just English teachers but history, science, and social studies teachers — will be responsible for the literacy of all students. (“With all that on your plate,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “your day job hasn’t changed.”)
Because the Common Core demands a deeper focus on what gets taught and when, teachers will have to think as carefully about what gets left out of their curriculum as what goes into it. Said David Liben of Student Achievement Partners: “Don’t forget the power of the eraser.” Many considered this “organized abandonment,” as another educator put it, a big challenge. Schmidt presented results of a study of more than 400 K-8 math teachers who recorded daily how much their attempts to align with the Common Core was already significantly changing their instruction. Selecting the right materials will be another huge task. For starters, Schmidt suggested that most current math textbooks should be trashed, simply because they cover too much ground. Math texts should stop at 200 pages, he said, but current texts can run to 800 pages, with a third of their content irrelevant. “Right now there are no texts that are worth a darn for [teaching] the Common Core,” Schmidt told the educators. “Don’t buy them!”
From his big bag of statistics, Schmidt also pulled some revealing figures on how state standards align with the Common Core. Consistency ranges from 66 percent to 83 percent. He also presented data on how prepared teachers felt to teach to the Common Core – something they must do in just two years. In high school, 70 percent of teachers said they felt prepared; in middle school, 60 percent felt prepared, and in elementary school, only half felt prepared. “Teachers know what they don’t know,” said Schmidt. “Is it their fault? No.”
Indeed, the need to give teachers the resources for carrying out the Common Core was a common refrain around the lunch tables, as well as, unsurprisingly, in the presentations of Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. Weingarten called the Common Core “a game-changer” that called for giving teachers three things: “tools time and trust.” More than a few attendees regretted that more teachers couldn’t participate in the kind of training and networking the GE conference provided. (The foundation’s Developing Futures in Education program is dedicated to raising student achievement through improved math and science curricula. It has invested over $200 million in seven large U.S. school districts, all of which were represented at the conference.) “We need training camps for the Common Core,” said Van Roekel. “All teachers need a five-week summer session. If they had that, I believe you could transform public education.”
There was a great deal of talk about the political will and public support that will be needed to sustain what former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called a “fragile coalition” through the Common Core’s implementation. “This is not going to be easy,” Bush said. “This will be a massive train wreck if we are not prepared. Some states are in total denial.” He and other speakers predicted some steep declines in test scores from the new assessments and urged states to prepare for – or preempt — the inevitable fallout. “That’s going to be ugly,” Bush said. “That’s not going to be a happy time.” He urged the states to get busy on the P.R. front, at the same time urging them to keep cut scores high. “We have to be honest if [students] are not learning what they need to succeed.” Cohen, likewise, preached a “tolerance for the truth.”
The Common Core, Bush reminded the group, does not dictate what teachers teach. But it does, he said, promise “a renaissance in the diversity of learning strategies,” customized instruction and teaching methods that can be shared across districts and states. If the Common Core is implemented faithfully, he said, “We’ll see results in learning that will be the envy of the world.”
Realistic though they were about the obstacles, the conference attendees sounded quite determined to do the former and genuinely hopeful about the latter.