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ASCD Conference Day 3: Will the “Common Core Work For You”?

March 23, 2013

Home from Chicago for nearly a week now, no longer exhausted but still nursing a cold, I still want to serve up a final “quick view” from the ASCD Conference in Chicago. On the final day of the conference, I wandered through the exhibit hall a bit, and left one presentation half-way through in order to get to the airport; as a result, there was only one session I attended in its entirety, Sandra Alberti’s presentation, “Making the Common Core Work For You.” In this post I focus on just one presentation, and in a subsequent post, take up broader questions of what I did and didn’t hear at the ASCD Conference regarding Common Core implementation.

Sandra Alberti presenting at the ASCD Conference, Chicago, 3/18/13 (photo by the author)

Sandra Alberti presenting at the ASCD Conference, Chicago, 3/18/13 (photo by the author)

At the organization Student Achievement Partners (SAP), Sandra Alberti holds the title Director of State and District Partnerships and Professional Development. She described SAP as a creation of Common Core authors David Coleman, Susan Pimentel, and Jason Zimba. The first thing Alberti wanted us to know is that SAP views the CCSS as a common good, and to promote it, they charge nothing for resources, hold no copyrights, pursue no government contracts, and accept no money from publishers. While it’s encouraging that such an organization exists in the landscape of the Common Core edu-marketplace, a cynic might point out that SAP is only a step or two removed from people and organizations that will reap a windfall from the overall success of a widespread CCSS adoption and implementation. Is this like setting up a non-profit organization to prepare the soil, while your friends are selling the seeds, fertilizers and cultivators, and hiring out the trucks to bring the harvest to markets they’ve also invested in? There’s no compulsion for those who use SAP information and resources to then buy anything in particular, and they don’t explicitly endorse any products, so rather than engage in debates about motives, I’d suggest a better option is for anyone with spending authority and decision-making responsibilities to  be wise stewards of their own resources and protective of whatever prerogatives they have.

But on to the substance of Alberti’s presentation. She began by establishing the guiding principles of the standards, the intention to make them “fewer, clearer, and higher” than existing standards. Noting that many existing standards documents are so thick that they invite selectivity and inconsistent usage, Alberti suggested that going to fewer standards was intended to move away from the pick-and-choose approach. They believe teachers should address all of these standards. The idea of clearer standards is “admittedly subjective” according to Alberti, though she offered a few examples that certainly moved towards more precise language regarding what students do, rather than broader statements about what students know. The standards are higher according to Alberti because they are based on a solid body of research regarding the skills that make students college and career ready.

Alberti called for education leaders to be “honest about time,” noting that teachers in particular have had one training, method, or initiative after another piled on the plate. “There is incredible resistance to focus,” she noted, calling for people to give something up in order to add something this time around – “the power of the eraser.”

When it comes to the English language arts standards, Alberti clarified one of the key concerns found in the national debate about the standards, regarding the gradual increase of non-fiction reading as a percentage of students’ overall reading. By now, many educators are aware of the target for high school students to read 70% non-fiction text in high school, and Alberti reminded everyone that the figure is a percentage of overall text in school, not a call to dump fiction from English classes as some have suggested.

The discussion of math standards was actually a little more informative for me, as I’ve mainly focused on the high school level language arts and literacy standards I need for my work. However, as a parent with children in grades four and six, I do have some second-hand exposure to math instruction.  The main shift that Alberti mentioned in the math standards was a sharper focus; rather than doing a little bit of everything almost every year in math, students in Common Core aligned math programs should be seeing fewer topics per year, taught with greater depth, conceptual and analytical thinking, and emphasis on precision. The goal of year-to-year coherence was underscored by a a figure comparing approaches to mathematical instruction in top-performing nations and a variety of American states; you can see a similar figure in this article by William H. Schmidt, one of the authors cited in Alberti’s slide.

Some final thoughts from Sandra Alberti included the idea of not bureaucratizing or compartmentalizing the CCSS adoption; she suggests it should infuse the work of everyone in a school system. That kind of single-mindedness may indeed be a virtue in a thriving organization, and these standards may be worthy of our focus, but when an organization has no say in selecting the program or goals, I have doubts about how much fidelity one might expect across districts and states.

Commenting on a weakness in American education systems, Alberti characterized our approach implementation of new  programs as “Ready. Fire. Aim.” To those hoping to avoid the same pitfall this time around, Alberti advises taking more time to internalize the Common Core standards, to know the what and the why. Then, she would have these standards informing systematic decisions about time, energy, allocation of resources, assessments, and communications within and outside an organization.

As I was listening, I thought it would be worthwhile for people to also understand the who of Common Core – the lack of teacher involvement, the role of Bill Gates, the role of the Obama administration and Arne Duncan in these “state” standards, the benefits to Rupert Murdoch and Pearson and myriad others poised to profit on the CCSS. And then, there’s the how of the Common Core – how they were conceived, how they were crafted, how they became central to federal education policy even though they’re supposedly a states initiative.

Alberti also encouraged everyone to take advantage of the free resources at the SAP website. In theory, any teacher, school, or district is free to come up with unique and creative ways to use the standards as a scaffolding to create curriculum. Apparently without intending any irony, Alberti suggested the use of SAP resources to come up with a variety of lessons and methods, because, “there should never be just one way.”

However, I haven’t encountered anyone yet who’s really optimistic that the Common Core is going to spur individualization. “The devil is in the details,” I’ve heard over and over again the past few years. Details like what it will cost in time, dollars, and lost instructional time to carry out the ambitious assessment programs I’ve been hearing about. Alberti didn’t touch on those issues. When the assessments come out, when policy makers fall into the same old traps of one-way accountability based on shame and punishment, when the costs become real instead of projected, I expect the Common Core will be reassessed, less favorably, by those who currently support it. I actually hope against hope that it doesn’t turn out that way. I’d like to believe in the best-case scenario – that new assessments will be an improvement, that states and districts will recognize the potential waste of resources and back away from the volume of standardized testing I’ve been hearing about, and that the best elements of the standards will lead to productive discussions and new approaches to better teaching. I’d like to. But we’ll see.

At the end of the presentation I spoke briefly to Alberti, raising my concerns that if the Common Core standards and assessments become a tool for bullying districts, schools, and teachers, they will hurt rather than help education, and ultimately doom themselves to ineffectiveness at the same time. She is optimistic that the assessments are much stronger than typical standardized tests, and that they will therefore be more effective and more accepted for a variety of uses. Right now, “teaching to the test” is so terrible because of the tests, and her position is that a worthy test is worth teaching to. Current tests, she pointed out, might try to assess a 3rd grader’s multiplication skills in a multiple choice format, and only using a handful of test items; CCSS tests will use many more items and not strictly multiple choice formats to do a better job of testing student skills. I didn’t ask at the time, but should have asked why there’s any question about trusting teachers to tell us if third-graders can multiply. And if there are legitimate reasons not to trust teachers, wouldn’t we all be much, much better off addressing the causes for that sad state of affairs?

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