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Benchmarks of Quality

My son, reading without requirement in a Barnes and Noble
My son, reading without requirement in a Barnes and Noble

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

– Excerpt from “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins

Rage Against the Common Core by David Kirp (New York Times, December 27, 2014)

A professor of public policy from the University of California, Berkeley attempts to clear up misconceptions about the Common Core State Standards. He points out that the focus on high stakes testing originated from the federal government’s Race to the Top program, not the Common Core. In fact, when teachers were polled, Dr. Kirp notes 76% of teachers favor nationwide academic standards. Unfortunately, the general public and many in education still lump the standards and testing together. This opinion piece concludes that “the Obama administration has only itself to blame” for the current uproar over the Common Core.

Cultivate Passionate Learners in Common Core Classrooms by Pernille Ripp (MiddleWeb, May 4, 2014)

This is an excerpt from Pernille Ripp’s recent digital book, Passionate Learners. She details her initial struggles as a new teacher, just trying to follow the script laid out in the curriculum guides. After some experience and reflection, Pernille realized that standards are only a starting point, and that we “have to find our own freedom and creativity within them”. One successful strategy she found was determining a unit’s end goal, and then working backwards in preparing instruction.

In addition, Pernille involves her students in determining how they can show what they know. For example, her class decided to create a documentary video using digital tools as their culminating project for a unit of study on water life. She realized that this type of assessment informs her about student understanding “better than any test”.

Does Common Core Help or Hurt in Creating Avid Readers? (Reading Today, November/December 2014)

Two well-known educators share their differing perspectives to this provocative question. Sarah Brown Wessling, a high school English teacher and Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel, appreciates that the Common Core recognizes that “every discipline has its own literacy”. But she also notes that these standards are limited to how teachers implement them, acknowledging that “a roadmap isn’t the vehicle or the road”.

In contrast, Stephen Krashen, educational researcher and linguist, starts his commentary by mourning the reduced funding that school libraries have seen recently. He then points out that “we are investing an astonishing amount of money on Common Core testing”. Dr. Krashen goes on to state that these national standards “requires far more testing than the amount required under No Child Left Behind”.

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Common Sense for the Common Core by Regie Routman (Scholastic edu Pulse, December 4, 2014)

In this post for Scholastic, literacy expert and consultant Regie Routman provides a concise history and rationale for the Common Core. She recognizes that national standards were essential when it became “blatantly apparent that not all students in U.S. schools had equal opportunity to learn”. However, without school leaders knowledgable in literacy and best practice, anything that states it is “Common Core-aligned” may be used, possibly leading to an inordinate focus on “isolated skills and/or standards”.

Instead, Regie recommends that educators use common sense when applying the standards to daily classroom practice. For instance, professional development offered to teachers should be relevant, aligned with shared beliefs, and ongoing. One day workshops often fail to meet these guidelines. Also, leaders need to read and write extensively. As well, “a culture of trust, inquiry, coaching, collaboration, celebration of strengths, and yes, even joy” should be cultivated within an organization.

Every Child, Every Day by Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel (Educational Leadership, March 2012)

Although the Common Core English Language Arts Standards are not mentioned in this seminal article, this might be the perfect opportunity to reference it. Allington and Gabriel pull together numerous research studies to support their recommendation of six essential elements that every classroom should provide for students.

1. Every child reads something he or she chooses.
2. Every child reads accurately.
3. Every child reads something he or she understands.
4. Every child writes about something personally meaningful.
5. Every child talks with peers about reading and writing.
6. Every child listens to a fluent adult read aloud.

Even with this knowledge, the authors find that “few students in the United States regularly receive the best reading instruction we know how to give”. They put the onus on every educator to upgrade their instruction. “Adults have the power to make these decisions; kids don’t.”

Digging Deeper…

The excerpted poem comes from Poetry 180, a website created by Billy Collins when he was the Poet Laureate for the United States. His purpose was to provide high school seniors and their teachers with 180 contemporary poems that they could read in one sitting. No questions, assignments, or any other expectations. Just read and enjoy. Collins evokes his feelings about all the required reading in schools within his excerpted poem, which led to the initiative. He suggests high schools read one poem a day during morning announcements or at end-of-the-day assemblies.

It is really too bad that the Common Core has been connected with high-stakes testing, and subsequently with teacher and principal evaluations that use these test scores to measure our effectiveness. This pressure has led to less recreational reading and a lot more stress in schools. Certainly, some of the blame for all of this confusion does rest with the U.S. Department of Education. When well-respected professors like Dr. Kirp and Dr. Krashen cannot even come to consensus on who or what requires these tests, how are every day educators expected to make sense of it all? This should not serve as an excuse, but it is our reality.

What is heartening to see are the success stories that educators are sharing within the “constraints” of the Common Core. The clear examples provided by Pernille Ripp, Regie Routman, Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel show that what works is possible, and even reasonable to expect in classrooms every day. This can happen when we apply a more systematic process to our work and become more strategic in our preparations. Planning with the end in mind helps remove ourselves, at least somewhat, from all of the politics and punditry that are revolving around the Common Core. With standards held in perspective, they can be used as benchmarks of quality, the original intent.

These past few years, one resolution that I always seem to make (besides getting more exercise and eating better) is to become more mindful as a professional educator. Theory and Practice might have been indirectly born out of this effort. When I sit back, read and respond to others’ ideas and findings, patterns and trends start to emerge. This regular reflection helps me separate the wheat from the chaff. I find it to be a great antidote for countering the misconceptions that seem to perpetuate despite the evidence against them. I hope you will join me in 2015 to continue to become more mindful and better informed.

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3 thoughts on “Benchmarks of Quality”

  1. Reblogged this on Reading By Example and commented:

    How do we find perspective with the Common Core State Standards? Yes, having consistent expectations across the entire nation has many benefits for public education. Unfortunately, high stakes testing has become closely connected with the Common Core in the minds of many. The five articles I highlight here will hopefully clear up some misconceptions.

  2. Excellent synthesis–and thanks for guiding me through my own synthesis. This is a bit of an aside, but when I did my dissertation on online professional development, national standards were perceived by my participants to have a positive impact on the coherence and relevance of professional development, include online formats. And we now that the #1 quality indicator is the teacher.

    1. Interesting study Amber, on applying this concept to online learning. I sort of speak to this topic in my most recent post here, BlendEd.

      I bet other readers here would like to know more about your thoughts on this topic, based on your findings. Interested in being a guest blogger for Theory and Practice?

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