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Cross-posted at Education Week
In another piece in my blog series on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, I interview Jim Pellegrino, Co-Director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute, Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor and Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Marc Tucker: You see a tight connection between standards and curriculum, on the one hand, and between curriculum and assessment on the other. How do you see these connections playing out now, as the Common Core is being implemented?
Jim Pellegrino: In most countries with very effective education systems, examples of high-scoring student work are released after the exams are given, along with the prompts. So everyone can see what student work that meets the standards looks like. It is a very transparent system. There are tight connections among the standards, the curriculum and the assessments. But, here in the United States, we are afraid that, if we do that, it will look as though the state is prescribing a curriculum, and the state does not want to be accused of imposing a curriculum on the schools. We try to distance assessment from curriculum, to sanitize it so it can’t be too closely aligned with any specific curriculum and any set of materials. When we do that, we make the whole process less transparent. Other countries are more comfortable with saying, “here’s a curriculum that does what we want it to do and an assessment that is designed to assess the extent to which the student has mastered that curriculum.” The teacher’s job as a professional is defined as creating lessons that will enable the teacher to help his or her particular students master the curriculum and do well on the exams.
MT: It seems to me, it’s not just a matter of transparency but also a matter of effectiveness. If you can’t share examples of what meets the standards, isn’t it a less effective system?
JP: Yes, if you don’t know what your target is, it’s a lot harder to shoot at it!
MT: So, if, for political and cultural reasons, we can’t have a state curriculum, what can we do to help teachers develop powerful curricula that are aligned with the standards?
JP: Standards are a jumping-off point but they are never enough. Teachers need a collaborative process to create lessons, curricula and instructional practices that incorporate Common Core ideas. To make that possible, leadership and teachers have to have the time and they don’t see that happening. Instead, teachers are offered workshops, which don’t result in learning or opportunities to practice and be critiqued, which would lead to improved practice. As part of that process they also need access to examples of student work that reflect what the Common Core is really about. It is only through extensive discussion about the standards and student work that reflects the ideas that underlie the Common Core that teachers of English, history, mathematics and the sciences will be able to understand what they have to do and develop the skills and knowledge needed to do it. You also have to have contrasting cases of good and inadequate student work so teachers can begin to envision what the work looks like because, in fact, few have seen it before.
MT: I gather that you are working in your own university on the development of resources that you think teachers will need to teach the Common Core effectively. What is the nature of your work?
JP: Teachers need resources that will enable them to translate the ideas in the Common Core into actual lessons, activity structures and ways to monitor student progress. Our work here at Project READI is focused on the ELA standards for grades 6-12, creating exactly those kinds of models and resources for teachers and students so they can engage in evidence-based argumentation as that applies to instruction and literacy in many disciplines. The aim is to get students to make a compelling argument based on information drawn from many sources. But we know that most teachers have not themselves been asked to do this. So our project includes teacher networks that help them engage in the very practices that their students will engage in.
MT: How does it work?
JP: Project READI is focused on reading, in particular on evidence and argumentation in the disciplines in grades 6-12. We have a model for what it means to read for understanding. We define it in terms of being able to make evidence-based arguments using multiple sources and texts, where text is defined as print, graphics, media and so on, because we see text as sources of information. The project is as much about teacher learning as student learning. We’ve developed exemplary materials and identified existing texts and other sources that teachers can use to develop the skills we’re looking for in the subjects they teach. The program is built around a learning progression framework. We’ve created an elaborate teacher network that engages teachers in learning about these kinds of practices.
MT: Why is it important to do this?
JP: Every one of us lives in a world in which all kinds of claims are being made about all kinds of things, everything from cures for diseases to solutions for major public policy challenges. We don’t want to tell our students what to think, but we want them to think clearly, to make reasoned judgments, be able to evaluate different claims, different arguments. We want them to be able to distinguish an historical argument that is based on facts from one that is not, and to sort out the quack scientific claims from those that are in fact grounded in evidence; that is the form of literacy that the 21st century demands.
MT: How would you sum up the current state of implementation of the Common Core?
JP: It is being implemented in a very spotty fashion. People who run workshops on the Common Core simplify it in ways that distort it, that fail to convey what
it is all about. The Common Core is being reduced to barebones formulas that suck the meaning out of it, so it can be implemented quickly. Educators are being pressured to implement the Common Core quickly because the new exams aligned to the Common Core are coming and some officials, especially in the U.S. Department of Education, want to use the tests and the Common Core to drive tough-minded accountability systems. But that will undermine the whole effort. California made the right choice: to delay the exams and do what’s right for teachers, and not do what the federal government is pushing for. The Common Core, if it is properly implemented, will raise the game for millions of American students, by transforming a curriculum that is largely based on learning basic facts and procedures, into one that includes the basics, but goes far beyond that to focus on giving students the skills they need to think clearly, to reason well, to use what they know to come up with original insights, to create the future. These are skills that many teachers need, too. It will take years of determined effort to get there. The Common Core will have to be treated like a text that needs a lot of discussion and interpretation among professional teachers, school by school, over a period of years. They have to have time for that conversation, and support from school leaders, central office staff and academics like myself. There will be no shortcuts.
Cross-posted at Education Week
Marc Tucker: Howard, when the Common Core was released, what did you think was most likely to trip it up? What concerned you?
Howard Everson: There were two related issues. First, I thought from the beginning that implementing the Common Core would be a heavy lift because I did not see where the high quality curriculum needed to implement the Common Core was going to come from. Under the principle of local control, each school district is entitled to its own curriculum, but most districts do not have the resources to develop high quality curriculum. I also thought it would be a problem from the standpoint of instruction because the Common Core requires a fundamental shift in thinking, instructional shifts about what kids know and are able to do — a shift from a topic-centered point of view to a learner-centered perspective. This is very difficult for most teachers. Many teachers I have interviewed think about a curriculum as essentially a “laundry list” of topics. The folks who drafted the standards were keenly aware of how knowledge, skills, and abilities in ELA and Math are developed over time. So they thought about the curriculum not just as topics to be taught but, from the standpoint of the learner, as a body of knowledge that unfolds over time in a logical way that is keyed to the way a student can best grasp that body of knowledge. That is, they had a learner-centered view. This requires a teacher to look at how knowledge, skills, and abilities are acquired, and what the teacher has to do to support and reinforce that unfolding. That is different from an approach that says, “all I have to do as a teacher is get through six topics by December.” And if I’ve covered the remaining topics by April then I’ve done my job. Really implementing the Common Core requires much deeper knowledge and understanding on the part of the teacher. Our teaching force generally is having a great deal of difficulty making that shift. They were not trained that way. The curriculum they had in school was a mile wide and an inch deep, and that is what they know how to teach. They need a lot of help to make the change and apparently they are not getting it.
MT: There does not seem to be very much capacity in our education system to address these issues. So, if that is true, won’t it take years to teach the Common Core as it was meant to be taught?
HE: Yes, I share that view. I don’t know that we’ve had enough guidance from instructional experts on how best to teach the Common Core. That work is lagging in a number of ways. School districts, and state education departments, aren’t organized to dramatically improve their workforces in a meaningful way. They don’t have the wherewithal and technical skills to do that. When I look at how school districts are organized, I see that their organizational structures serve administrative purposes, not instructional purposes. They keep the lights on, sports teams playing, the buses running on schedule, etc. But I don’t see any significant capacity to improve instruction or the skills of teachers. That set of skills is not there at the system level. Sometimes there are teachers who know what needs to be done, but that expertise is not distributed well and there is no mechanism for sharing their knowledge. Hospitals don’t ratchet up their expertise by bringing in one outside expert after another to deliver endless rounds of workshops. In the hospital model, cardiologists meet regularly to discuss changes in practice. There is constant consultation and collaboration. Schools are not organized that way. Teachers close their classroom doors and go about teaching the way they see fit. That culture makes it very difficult to learn about new practices and to bring them into their classrooms. Innovation in the school system is always a “drop-in from the sky”, top-down proposition. New York State has a great Web site with great materials, but what we hear teachers saying is, “I don’t have time to use this day-to-day. It’s not my job. It’s not what I signed up for.” There is a disconnect between the management of the organization and the workers on the factory floor. That’s what is slowing implementation and could ultimately frustrate it completely.
MT: So the obvious question is where should these teachers look for help? And the obvious answer is the schools of education. Do you think they can provide the kind of support needed for teachers to teach Common Core properly?
HE: The work of Lucy Calkins demonstrates that it can be done. She has an instructional program with a clear pedagogical and philosophical point of view that is valued by practitioners and is bringing it to scale here in New York. But she is the exception, not the rule. Prof. Calkins’ work has not been replicated elsewhere or in other content disciplines. Where we see really constructive involvement of the university in the work of professionals is in the schools of business, not the schools of education. Business schools are constantly supplying valued technologies and innovative practices to their practitioners. That is a model that the education schools need to look at.
MT: How has the effort to implement the Common Core gone in New York?
HE: New York’s Race to the Top proposal included implementing the Common Core and using it to drive an aggressive program of teacher evaluations using data-driven instruction, as well as other things. Two components were rolled out relatively quickly: new state tests aligned to the Common Core were implemented in 2013, and those tests were used to implement a new teacher evaluation system, despite what experts told them. And they designed curriculum modules and instructional modules matched to the Common Core and put them up on their Web site.
MT: How did it go?
HE: I would give New York an “A” on development of materials. They did a damned good job, relying on good contractors, who managed to develop high-quality materials. They have built a good repository of curriculum-related materials. The question becomes how to disseminate that material. Plenty of people from other states saw these materials and are using them. But there are many teachers and schools in New York that are not, as far as I can tell. Naturally, it will take time for that knowledge to spread. I think state officials may have underestimated the time it would take for teachers to access these materials and learn to use them. In fact, the teachers were increasingly focused on the way the state planned to use the new test scores based on the Common Core as part of their evaluation. Their predictable response was not the kind of thoughtful implementation one might have hoped for, but more of a mad dash to test prep. This may be mitigated somewhat by the use of high quality tests of the kind that are hard to prep for but, in this case, officials opted instead for what they saw as an incremental step toward such a test, a paper-and-pencil, four-option multiple-choice test design. Because the consortia tests were not yet developed, the New York tests, in my view, did not have a clear target to aim for in terms of the learning outcomes they were attempting to test for. The result was a test that was more rigorous, more aligned from a content standpoint, but not very useful as a guide to instruction.
MT: So New York quickly developed new tests not very well aligned with the Common Core and used them to produce test scores that were supposed to be used right away to evaluate teachers. I have the impression that the teachers were very angry about this, feeling that they were being held personally responsible for student performance under the new standards before they had had a chance to develop the skills they needed to teach the new standards well. I gather that many teachers who initially had a good impression of the Common Core became opponents as a result.
HE: That is my impression as well. When the tests were implemented, the percent proficient dropped, from roughly 60 percent or so proficient in mathematics in 2009 to 30 percent in 2013. Those are startling drops which, in turn, led to all sorts of concerns about how test scores would be used in the accountability system generally. Let me add one point about capacity building and that is the assumption that districts would be capable of building their own evaluation systems for teachers. My sense is that districts have little or no capacity to build durable, valid, reliable assessments locally. This only added to the anxiety and confusion of teachers. One last point. New York State has been very accountability driven. When people have a close look at the standards, they say, “these aren’t bad.” But we don’t know how to organize our instructional methods around standards like this without the aligned textbooks and other materials that teachers rely on to organize their instruction. The research community is strong on theory, but not particularly good at tool building. We see now that we are paying a price for ignoring the engineering work needed to support sound implementation of a change in instruction that is as profound as this.
Cross-posted from Education Week
In this blog, part of the series on the implementation of the Common Core, we talk with Catherine Snow, Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the validation committee for the Common Core State Standards, and Sue Pimentel, founding partner of the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners and lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for ELA and literacy.
Marc Tucker: Sue, let me begin with you. You played a central role in developing the Common Core standards for English literacy. What do you see as the biggest implementation challenges?
Sue Pimentel: Teachers aren’t being given enough time to work together to develop the materials and teaching techniques that will be necessary to effectively implement the Common Core nor are they being given enough time to observe and critique each other’s teaching. Teachers will not learn how to do what they need to do spending just a couple of hours in workshops. They need to be working in teams in their schools to improve the materials they use, the lessons they teach, and the methods they use. Presently, there are not enough high quality materials and professional development resources, aligned to the Common Core, available to the teachers. The time needed to transform the way students are taught stands in stark contrast to the rush to evaluate teachers based on old assessments that are not aligned to the Common Core. It doesn’t seem fair and is creating a great deal of distrust of state officials — who are in fact trying very hard to help teachers implement the new standards. Indeed, tying the new Common Core assessments so soon to teacher evaluation is clearly alienating teachers from the standards themselves.
Catherine Snow: I think it is clear to anyone with a grain of common sense that there should have been a five-year amnesty on consequences for testing when implementing the Common Core. This would have allowed for developing the aligned materials. It would have been fairer and smarter to help teachers focus on teaching and learning instead of assessment and accountability. Even in states that have been way out in front of this, there has been massive oversimplification of what the Common Core is. You don’t get the sense that teachers have been touched and inspired by the visionary version of the Common Core. ‘Experts’ advising teachers have reduced the standards to a handful of stereotypical mantras, short-circuiting their complexity and richness. So teachers get a very distorted, reductionist version — Give students complex texts and make them close read and then everything will be fine. This ignores the exciting parts of the Common Core — the integration of reading and writing, the notion of cross-disciplinary projects. It flies in the face of developmental theory: you can’t give 9th grade students, who have been exposed to a completely different educational regime, the texts associated with much more rigorous standards, and expect them to do close reading immediately. Introduce these tasks in the first grade and build them up instead of imposing a full-blown version on teachers and students who are totally unprepared for it.
MT: We have the standards and new tests aligned with the standards are being developed. What seems to be missing is the filling in the sandwich, the curriculum.
CS: Exactly so. All great teachers need is a reading list, but the vast majority need much more. They need a really good curriculum that scaffolds teachers step-by-step so they have a chance to develop the skills and knowledge they need to be successful at a high level. We should provide curricular units that bring together rich resources for kids to read and supplementary resources for teachers to read, organized around big questions that are likely to be engaging. For example, if you are spending six weeks on tidal pools, you would have computers for research, 150 books in the classroom about tidal pools and a purpose: 4th graders will teach 2nd graders a lesson on this topic.
SP: I really like what New York State has done and when I look across the country I think it’s the best effort on the curriculum front. Many schools and districts in other states are using the materials although some in New York are not. The materials start with a topic that in many cases integrates content from science, social studies and reading. Students read and write about materials of all kinds related to that topic. They closely read some grade-level texts together, independently read others and they create projects related to it. As they engage, their knowledge grows and their vocabulary grows. Students bring that knowledge to bear on future readings so they can handle texts on similar topics that are more complex. One characteristic of a good text set built around a topic is that they include texts written at many different levels, so whatever their strength as a reader, students are able independently to access some texts, build their knowledge, and contribute in class. Teachers need text sets like that.
MT: Let’s return to the question of professional development.
SP: There is an irony here. The approach of too many states and districts has been precisely the form of instruction that the Common Core argues against. Too often teachers are corralled into school gymnasia and told either a) they have to do things entirely differently or b) they are doing the Common Core already and no change in practice is necessary. Neither is true, and neither will work. The approach has to be from the bottom-up. We need to find ways to involve teachers in collegial groups in their schools tasked with working through the curriculum, and developing lessons, teaching techniques and tools that will bring the Common Core standards to life.
CS: The best teachers in the school need to lead these development groups and demonstrate the lessons. Everyone needs an opportunity to see others’ teaching. Teachers have to have time to talk to one another about it! We are not talking here about 20-minute planning periods. I think we have to do something about how the school day is organized. We have to treat teachers like the professionals they are. That would generate the impetus we need.
SP: We are unlikely to succeed unless we look hard at how we organize schools. Teachers can’t do something different unless they are given time to figure it out, and provided good feedback along the way. We have teachers doing lots of things they don’t need to be doing such as proctoring the lunchroom, monitoring the playground, and supervising bus duty. We need to change that so teachers can focus on their primary responsibility.
MT: What’s the bottom line?
CS: Without some big changes in the way the Common Core is being implemented, this really elegant vision could crash and burn through poor implementation or premature assessment, and then it will be 20 years before anyone gets the courage to try again. I think Secretary Duncan made a serious error by linking it to Race to the Top — he opened it up to the critique by the right that it is a Federal effort. If a few states can implement it really well, maybe that will be enough to save it.
SP: I want to underscore the point made earlier that we need to unhook assessment from teacher evaluation for a while. By waiting and checking to make sure that assessments are good and we are getting good information from them, teachers won’t feel that assessments are the enemy and will embrace their primary function — to improve achievement.
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Cross-posted from Education Week
In this next installment in the Common Core implementation series, I continue the interview with Phil Daro and Jason Zimba.
Marc Tucker: Phil, I remember, years ago, we were having a conversation about the materials produced by several of the National Science Foundation-supported programs in mathematics and science. You pointed to the great stack of materials for each of these programs and compared their great volume to the equivalent materials from Japan and Singapore, which were a tiny fraction of the volume of the American materials, very spare and elegant in their presentation. You argued that the standards were obvious and front and center in the materials from Asia. You also argued that the standards were contained in the American materials, but were buried in an avalanche of other stuff, so that they were effectively concealed from all but the most dedicated teachers. What does this say about the American scene? Can’t the purchasers of American materials just tell the American text publishers to emulate the Asian materials?
Phil Daro: You are getting at one of the reasons that we cannot rely on teachers’ homemade materials but cannot rely on the American textbook publishing industry, either. We desperately need the kind of elegant, spare, focused materials that we see in many Asian and European countries. The first thing you should know is that American publishers publish both the American textbooks and their Asian counterparts. The problem is not that American publishers won’t publish the textbooks our teachers need. They do publish them. But not for us. That is because the American purchasers of textbooks won’t buy the spare, elegant, focused textbooks demanded by Asian teachers. The mantra in the United States is “coverage.” So every topic must be treated separately, in detail. Asian teachers work together, collaboratively, to create their own lessons, honing them into excellence systematically. American teachers want the lesson plans spelled out in the teachers’ version of the text. American teachers want workbooks with innumerable versions of the same problem, to give students practice in solving standard problems. Asian teachers work on creating their own assignments for the students, designed to enable them to solve problems in a way that promotes deeper understanding of the mathematics. So the problem is not recalcitrant or greedy publishers. They will produce whatever the market demands. The problem is what the market is demanding.
Jason Zimba: And that’s huge. A decade of very inexpensive testing has in my opinion greatly damaged the curriculum. When I look at texts, I ask three questions: Is the procedural work of high quality? Is there close attention to the development of the underlying concepts? And, how robust are the applications? If you look at a typical chapter test in a book, it’s big problems on all three. So the procedures are usually only a caricature of the mathematical procedures students should understand. Concepts are largely absent. And applications appear at the end of a chapter test reduced to stock word problems. It is not often recognized how weak a position we’re starting from on the curriculum.
MT: The Japanese textbooks are written on the assumption that the teachers have a deep command of the subject they are teaching. Do you think that is true in the United States?
PD: This is a problem about which something has to be done. One of the great contributions of the Common Core is to draw attention to this problem. It is not a problem caused by the Common Core. If the Common Core went away we would still have this problem.
JZ: A mathematician I know who has been working with teachers for forty years said to me that, because of the Common Core, this is the first time teachers have been asking him to teach them more about fractions and other aspects of elementary mathematics. But this is a very deep and difficult problem. It will not be solved by a few workshops. This whole conversation has been haunted by questions of timeframe. Rewriting the textbooks and re-teaching mathematics to our mathematics teachers is an expensive, long-term proposition, even if the market wants it.
MT: Do you actually see key people at the state policy level understanding the depth and breadth of this problem of teacher knowledge of mathematics and do you see them actually starting to address it?
PD: To a degree, in a somewhat confused way, I see more professional development dedicated to math content now. I do see teachers, middle school and below, who are interested in learning more math and talking openly about wanting to learn more math. It’s less clear that’s true at high school level. But workshops are not the way to approach this challenge. The way to do it is the way the Asians have done it. It is called lesson study in Japan, and goes by other names in other countries. It has to do with the way the work of the school is organized. Teachers have much more time than they do in the United States to work together in a very disciplined way to improve their curriculum, build more effective lessons, get more student engagement with those lessons, ask the most telling questions during the lessons in order to figure out, as the lesson is given, who is understanding the materials and who is misunderstanding it, so they can correct course right in the middle of the class. This way of working results, among many other things, in constant learning on the part of the teachers. That, I think, is the only way the United States is going to meet this challenge.
MT: What changes are needed in our teachers colleges?
PD: Two related things need to happen. Elementary teachers need to specialize, so the training they get in the university can provide a deep foundation for the subject they will teach in school. Second, if they are going to be mathematics teachers, they need to take a lot of mathematics courses in college. But those courses should not be the topics ordinarily taught in mathematics in the university. They need to go far deeper into the mathematics of arithmetic and middle school mathematics than anything they have had thus far. Those courses don’t exist in this country. And they’re certainly not part of any program of teacher preparation here. But they do exist in Singapore and that is no small part of the reason that Singapore’s mathematics performance is so much better than ours.
Date: December 4, 2014
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Date: October 28, 2014