Monday, March 3, 2014

A Tale of Two Cabbies: Optimism and Grit in Action

(originally published at

Good teachers know how to make use of “teachable moments,” but all of us could probably do a better job of acting on “learnable moments.” I had two such moments recently—and, amazingly, I was aware of both of them while they were happening.
The morning had been crazy—schools had been delayed for two hours because of freezing rain, which meant that my two boys were hanging around the house later than usual, begging for rides to their bus stops. I was trying to get myself ready to jump into a cab and go to the airport for a flight to Dallas.  The cab was due to come right when my younger son had to meet his bus, so I had to race back home from dropping off to avoid having the driver give up on me and leave. I ran inside, grabbed my suitcase, and got in the cab. I closed my eyes, caught my breath, and tried to relax, but right away, the driver started talking.

Now, I like to think of myself as an open, compassionate, empathetic person, someone willing to listen, eager to share, ready to help, and so on. And sometimes, I really am that person. But other times—far too often—I’m stuck inside an endless internal dialogue and I just can’t pay attention to the yammering of other people who are inconveniently located outside of my skull. My older son seems to share this trait with me, but being a child, he’s more open and expressive about it. When his little brother is driving him crazy, he’ll just turn to him and say, “I’m trying to think.”
With the cab driver yesterday, I wasn’t trying to think, exactly, but I didn’t want to hear all about his problems. I had my own stuff going on. He kept talking, though, and eventually he broke through my callousness and self-absorption, and he engaged me in conversation. And I’m grateful that he did.

He was a young man, born in France and raised in Tunisia. He had a wife and two children about the same ages as my children. He had worked in finance for a number of companies, all the way to the level of vice president, but had been laid off more than a year ago. His wife had found a full-time job at another bank, and now he was driving a cab to bring in some extra income.  He had moved his family to a new town to lower their expenses, and he was worried about the quality of the schools. Life was hardly a bowl of cherries.
Many people in his position would have been angry and bitter, railing at politicians, business owners, or someone else for ruining their lives. I probably would have been angry and bitter, myself. But this man was not. He was as upbeat, positive, and optimistic as anyone I had ever met. He had no doubt that things would get better for him, and he felt like, all things considered, things weren’t really all that bad. “I set my own hours, I don’t have to shave, I can wear jeans, I can talk to nice people—what’s bad about that?” he said. When I said something about his great attitude, he told me that his father had always taught him that a customer never deserved a sour demeanor from someone providing a service—and that a positive attitude always paid off. It was his subtle way of letting me know that I could call him directly, the next time I needed a cab, instead of calling the dispatcher. Which I will absolutely do—because his burst of sunshine on a cloudy morning changed the whole day for me.

When I got to Dallas, I had the same experience all over again. It took a while for a taxi to show up, and when I got in and asked why there were no cabs at the airport, I learned from my driver that about 50 cabbies had walked off the job after one of their colleagues had gotten suspended for getting into a fight with their dispatcher and then yelling at a policeman. The young woman driving me shrugged and said, “I don’t like the new rules, either, but that’s no way to fix them. Meantime, I’m going to make some money.”
Her story was very similar to my morning driver’s. She had been laid off from a corporate job and had decided to drive a cab to make some money while she tried to build up a small tax-advice business. She, too, was relentlessly upbeat about the hand that life had dealt her. She had faced setbacks, sure, but that was just life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the game isn’t over until it’s over. She wasn’t going to let anything keep her down for long. She had things to do. She had plans. She was dusting herself off and getting ready for the next move. And meanwhile, at this job, she was going to talk to management about changing the work rules people didn’t like. And if that didn’t work, she was going to think about joining Uber and driving for them. Nothing was going to stop her.

And that was my learnable moment for the day. “Nothing’s going to stop me” is a choice.  It’s a decision you make, and it has more to do with who you are than the situation you’re in. Some people endure epic, historical horrors and manage to stand back up and re-make their lives. Some people stub their toe and then lie down to take a nap. You may not be able to control the things that happen to you in life, but you are absolutely in control of how you respond to those things.  And while I know I’ve heard that message from many people, real (my father, for one) and imaginary (Gandalf, for one), it doesn’t hurt to hear it again. And again and again.
I’ve written in previous blog posts about the emerging research on character traits like grit, perseverance, and optimism, and how much those traits affect academic, career, and life success. And while statistical research should be convincing, nothing compares to having a living, breathing exemplar right in front of you. Besides Frodo Baggins, I mean.

Were my two cab drivers simply born with traits of resilience and optimism, or did they learn them somewhere?  If they learned them, who were their teachers? Parents? Clergy? Schoolteachers? If the traits are more innate than learned, are there things we can do to cultivate, support, and strengthen what students come to us with? What do you think? Where did you learn your lessons in resilience and perseverance?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Back-Mapping from Success: What I Wish I Had Known

(originally published at 

My wife and I were talking to one of her cousins over the holidays—a gangly, lanky kid of 20 who has floundered and flopped through schools with little purpose or success, but who is trying to tackle college in small bites. He took two classes last semester and failed both. Everyone was frustrated with him. Two classes! That’s all you had! You didn’t even have a job on the side! How could you fail?
But the attacks were a little unfair. How could he not fail, if he’d never really tasted success? What else could he do but fail? That’s all he knew. He went through the motions of going-to-school—showing up, taking notes, reading the textbook—but he didn’t know how to do any of it well, and he didn’t really know why he was doing any of it, except that he knew it’s what he was supposed to do.

It occurred to me, while we were talking, that taking a backwards-design approach to being a student might make a lot of sense.  After all, when Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe wrote Understanding by Design, it was exactly this kind of thoughtless, “this is just the way it’s done,” going-through-the-motions behavior that they were trying to combat—for teachers. “Don’t just do something because you’ve always done it; do it because you know it’s going to lead to an outcome you’ve decided upon. And do it in a particular way that will help lead to an outcome.” Well, why wouldn’t that work for students, too?
Now, this was new thinking for me. I never approached school like that as a student. It never even occurred to me. I took notes because I was supposed to. I never thought about why I was taking notes, what they were for, and what the best way of taking notes might be. I was a friendly, well-behaved cow, walking down the chute towards college with all the other friendly, well-behaved cows. I didn’t know where I was going; I just did what I was told.

Backwards design means starting with the end in mind and planning for it, step by step. So: what would backward design look like from a student’s point of view?  Obviously, if you’re a student, you want an “A” in the course (maybe you don’t think you can get that “A,” but if you don’t deliberately plan for it, you’re certainly not going to get it). So what does it take to get an “A?” That’s the first important question. How are grades calculated in the class? Is it a simple average or a weighted average? Is it all exam-based, or are their papers and projects involved? I started thinking about those things in college, but why shouldn’t we encourage students to start taking ownership of their learning earlier?
Next step: Now that you know how the grades will be calculated overall, figure out what excellence looks like. If it’s a test you have to master, what would you have to do to get an “A?” Is it simply memorization of facts? Is it timed essay-writing? Is it timed computation?  How well will you have to perform? If you’re looking at papers or projects, what would constitute “A” work there? Are there scoring rubrics that can tell you? Are there past papers you can look at as models?

Once you get a clear picture of what “A” work looks like, the next step becomes the most vital one, and the one where most of us fall apart: figuring out what you need to do, day by day and week by week, to ensure that “A” level work happens. This is how you stop going through the motions of school, where school is something that is done to you, and start becoming the do-er of school yourself.  This where you get to say (with real confidence), “If I do X, Y, and Z every day, I will get the grades I want.” (Outside of school, we fall apart in exactly the same place: we know how many pounds we should lose in order to be healthier, for example, and we know, in general, what changes we should be making…but when it comes to what we should be doing meal by meal, day by day, we don’t take the right actions.)
Again, this is something I did not think about—never in high school; barely in college. By the time I went to graduate school, after having been out of school for a few years, I saw things differently. Now I was going to school for a reason of my choosing. I was going because I had chosen to go. And that changed the way I thought about things. It made me purposeful and active. And a purposeful, active student is going to beat out a thoughtless, passive student every time.

So—what does it mean for a student to be purposeful and active on a daily and weekly basis? Well, if I’ve figured out that to get an “A” on a math test, I have to be able to do 60 math problems in 60 minutes, then I should be practicing shorter timed drills at home—all semester—whether anyone has assigned that task as homework or not. If I know I’ll have to answer questions covering hundreds of years of history, I should be taking clear notes that give me conceptual anchors for every term I learn (things that will help me remember the meaning of each term, so that whenever I hear or see the term, I think of two or three key things). I should probably also revise or re-write my notes at particular intervals, and perhaps quiz myself at particular intervals, to make sure I’m slowly building up a storehouse of knowledge. If understanding complex processes and systems is more important than remembering a hundred facts, I should be taking notes differently—maybe more visually, with lots of diagrams that show how aspects and elements interrelate.
Here’s another thing I never thought about: if the teacher makes reference to something I don’t know, but everyone else in class seems to understand what he’s talking about, I should make sure to go look up that information after class. That’s my job—my problem to fix.  Who knew? I had a friend, years ago, who told me that when he was a freshman at Harvard, he decided that the opportunity to be at an Ivy League school would be wasted by taking freshman-level, introductory classes. He finagled his way into taking higher-level classes exclusively. Every day, he took two sets of notes: one set that kept track of what was being taught in the class, and one set that kept track of every reference he found obscure and every bit of pre-requisite content knowledge that he didn’t have. Every night, he took that second set of notes and he taught himself what he needed to know—what he should have already known—in order to be successful in that class. And he did that in the days before Google. That, my friends, is what it means to own your education.

In an ideal world, grades would never be a surprise to a student. Tests would never be “gotcha” exercises. Students would walk into assessments (of any kind) being fully aware of what they knew and could do. They would be able to look at their eventual grade and nod their heads, saying, “yes—that’s how I thought I would do.” But that’s not what happens in our world, is it? Most students don’t react to their grades that way, because most students live blindly day to day, doing what they’re told but never quite sure why they’re doing it, whether they’re doing it well, or what it’s going to lead to. This is why so many of them feel that school is done to them. It’s why they say things like, “Why’d you give me a C?” as though the grade had been a choice or an arbitrary decision—a gift or punishment to bestow, rather than a thing that was earned. If we want students to think differently, more actively, about school, we need to teach them to think that way.  It’s not going to happen by itself.
If there are days when I wish I could be a student again, knowing what I now know about learning, there are definitely days when I wish I could be a teacher again. After that holiday conversation with my wife’s cousin, I wished I could be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, standing on a desk in front of legions of disaffected, passive students and yelling, “Seize the Day!”

But it’s easy to be a movie-character teacher. Anyone can tell young people to make the most of their time in school. Anyone can stand on a desk and make a speech (or write a blog post). It’s so much harder to help kids learn how to do it—day by day, week by week, and year by year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Common Core State Standards: Keys for Implementation Success #3

(Originally posted at

The anxiety (and sometimes hysteria) generated by the Common Core State Standards has been very depressing for those of us who believe in the usefulness of the standards and their potential for improving teaching and learning across the country. For every blog post or article describing a good teaching strategy or sharing a video of classroom practice, there seem to be twenty posts screaming about how the standards are dumbing-down our schools—or asking too much of our students. Cognitive dissonance is everywhere. The standards are a liberal plot to centralize and federalize public education. The standards are a conservative plot to erode and destroy public education and push children into private schools.  The standards are anti-religious. The standards are anti-science. The standards are anti-American.
All this over a handful of lists that document the skills students should master at different grade levels. Who knew percents and pronouns had so much power over the dreams and fears of the republic?

Are the standards perfect? Of course not. The expectations are going to be too ambitious for some students at some grade levels and not ambitious enough for others. Students are unique individuals, and every nine-year old can’t fit neatly into one box, no matter how cleverly we design that box. That shouldn’t stop us from setting goals, though. We just need to be realistic. We can’t move from a completely decentralized system to a partially centralized one without some headaches. This is a big, diverse country. That’s why the states that adopted the standards had the freedom to make adaptations to them, to suit their particular, local needs.
Overall, there have definitely been things about this implementation that have not made sense and reflect a lack of understanding of Actual Real Kids. We should have implemented in the early grades first, and then folded in later grades as kids grew up. Imposing brand new, rigorous standards on high-schoolers who didn’t grow up within that system is just unfair.
And local implementation has been fraught with problems, as well. Some school districts waited too long to begin working the standards into their schools, and are now panicking in the face of the new assessments. Some districts implemented the standards without providing adequate training. Some districts put implementation in the hands of people who didn’t really understand the standards, or are simply waiting for new textbooks to arrive. There are problems aplenty. But the standards aren’t wrong—or evil—just because they’re being rolled out ineffectively in some places.

So how can we do better? How can we help? I’ve written in recent months about some things I consider to be “keys” to implementation success for the new standards. I talked about how to use information and tools from the Common Core to set real and actionable standards for rigor in schools, and why it’s important to create a culture of dialogue and inquiry to support the deeper meaning and intent of the standards. Today I want to talk about a third key: making everyone a stakeholder in success.

Reaching Out Beyond English and Math

 As I said in my earlier posts, Common Core is about much more than changing pacing calendars and textbooks. Yes, there are specific skills and concepts required at specific grade levels, and yes, there will be challenges involved in moving some things up or down. But in both English and mathematics, the standards speak of providing broader and deeper ways for students to learn, understand, and apply their knowledge. And these are the more meaningful and important challenges facing us.
Let’s talk about breadth. Applying skills more widely means extending the reach of the curriculum beyond the traditional boundaries of a subject area. In English language arts, the standards speak specifically about “disciplinary literacy,” the special reading and writing skills required when dealing with scientific, technical, or historical texts. Literacy can’t simply be the English teacher’s job, anymore. And numbers can’t be the exclusive province of the math teacher. The push for more real-world problem-solving and critical thinking within mathematics makes it necessary for teachers to reach outside of their textbooks and their traditional problem-sets to help students see math in everyday life, and use math knowledge to pose and solve actual problems—problems that may involve science, sports, history, politics, or even literature.
This is going to matter when states start adopting new assessments. Reading tests will draw from historical and scientific texts. Math tests will involve real-world, multi-step problem solving. English and math teachers will need to push beyond their traditional boundaries, but science, social studies, art, and other teachers will also need to reach in to English and math. They will need to understand what these new standards are asking for, and find ways to connect their own curricular objectives to math and English practices and habits of mind, if not particular content. This is what Catapult’s Disciplinary Literacy professional development program is all about.

Reaching Out to Non-Academic Staff

 We also need to reach out beyond academics, and involve the whole staff in our efforts to bring increased rigor, inquiry, and depth of understanding to our schools. I once attended a leadership workshop led by a superintendent who talked about how a principal had to “own” the entire school building. Whatever rules the principal laid down, those rules had to apply everywhere: the gym, the boy’s bathroom, even the parking lot. There was no inch of the building that should not be “school.”  The statement led to a lot of eye-rolling, especially among principals from large, urban schools, but the participants’ cynicism didn’t mean the presenter was wrong.

We’ve gotten far too used to treating our classrooms like shops at a mall—each with its own rules, its own wares, its own ways of doing things—with the spaces between classrooms left as some kind of no-man’s-land. But all that does for children is make school feel random, disconnected, and arbitrary.  Our schools should be more of a unified, cohesive, and coherent experience for children. And if we want our students to think more analytically and creatively, transferring their learning beyond the limits of a textbook and using it to pose, ponder on, and solve problems of all sorts, then we have to model and support these ways of thinking everywhere. Even in the lunchroom. Even in the gym. This is precisely why I said it was crucial to create a culture of inquiry school-wide. The standards may set explicit, academic goals within certain subject areas, but the thinking skills we care about touch everything.
For some nice examples of how staff across a school can support rigorous thinking and high-level academics within their activities, take a look at this video from Edutopia.

Reaching Out to Parents

Parental outreach is hardly a new idea. Many schools have found wonderful, creative ways to involve families in the work and life of the classroom. For our purposes, we need to focus on ways in which schools can involve families in the challenges of increased classroom rigor and raised academic expectations.  And it makes perfect sense to connect the work of the classroom to the life of the home, since these new standards are meant to prepare students not only for college, but also for the world of the workplace. The authors of the Common Core did not assume that all students were university-bound—but neither did they assume that the world hadn’t changed since they, themselves, had graduated from high school. The world has changed—and it continues to change. Students entering the workforce in the next ten or twenty years will be expected to communicate quickly, efficiently, and cleanly in a number of different modes, and will have to use, manipulate, and explain all kinds of data that come to them in all kinds of formats. These are not college-skills; they’re essential life-skills.
Parents can support academic expectations in a number of ways, from involving students in solving everyday household problems that require mathematics to encouraging students to watch or listen to the news at home and participate in family conversations about current events. Parents can support more general ideas about rigor and excellence, as well, by setting high standards for whatever kids do at home, from homework to sports to household chores. Sloppy, incorrect, or incomplete performance should never be called “good enough,” no matter what kind of work the child is doing. We need to encourage our young people to push a little harder and reach for excellence in everything they do.

Perhaps more importantly than anything else, parents need to talk with their children about real and important things (things that are important to parents and things that are important to children), and engage children in real dialogue—asking questions, listening with interest, and demanding answers. Responses of “I dunno,” or “whatever,” aren’t good enough. Supporting answers with evidence is an essential part of the standards in both math and English. So…Justin Beiber is awesome? Fine—what do you mean by “awesome?” In what ways, exactly, is he awesome? Give me an example.  What would you say if I disagreed? How would you compare him with Miley Cyrus? Or Elvis? Or, if you really want to push it, Mozart?
Are these kinds of questions annoying? Sure. But they’re important. I’ve been in workshops where teachers have been asked where they learned how to think, and none of them said “in school.” Most of them said they learned how to think—critically and analytically—from a lifetime of discussions at the dinner table.

Reaching Out to the Community

If we are asking children to do more complex math, it’s not because we’re sadists; it’s because we need adults in the 21st century to have better number sense and better problem-solving abilities. If we are asking children to analyze, discuss, and write about more complex informational text, it’s not because we hate fiction; it’s because analysis, discussion, and writing about informational text is what so many of us have to do in our work-lives. These things matter far beyond the walls of our schools…so there is no reason not to involve the world in what we’re doing.  We can help students understand the kinds of jobs that are done in their towns, and the kinds of skills needed to do those jobs. We can help students understand the ways in which adults make their livings and their lives, and how the reading, writing, calculating, problem-solving, and thinking skills they’re practicing at school connect and relate to those lives. We can have adults outside of school model for our children what open and respectful dialogue, discussion, and inquiry look like—and demand those things of children when they shop in our stores or speak to us in our offices.

This is about more than making sure shopkeepers know when big test-dates are, and offering encouragement. It’s about not isolating our children, making them feel like part of the adult community—understanding the world around them and understanding their role as future inheritors and citizens of that world.

Light One Candle

The standards aren’t perfect. But if we undermine and destroy them, what will we replace them with? Another set of 50 state standards that create chaos and incoherence for us as a nation? School-by-school or state-by-state expectations? No standards at all: just trust each teacher to do the right thing…and know how to define what the right thing is?

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, as they say. And the darkness people are complaining about isn’t all that dark. It really isn’t. We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us—maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—and it won’t come without pain. All change and growth is painful. But the world keeps turning. We can’t afford to stand still. And we don’t have to. There is so much we can do.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Second Key to CCSS Success: Creating a Culture of Inquiry

(Originally published at

(I use Grammarly for proofreading because I'm not as prefect as I might thing. Try it:

In the world of logic, people talk about necessary and sufficient conditions. A necessary condition is anything that has to happen for an effect to take place.  You cannot walk without certain muscles being contracted. Those muscle actions are necessary conditions. But those muscles will not, by themselves, make walking happen. When all of the things that have to happen, do happen, then we have what we call sufficiency. When you have a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle, you can say the conditions are necessary but not sufficient: I have what I need, but not all that I need.

We’ve had academic standards before. They didn’t change much. What do we need to do to make sure that the Common Core State Standards bring about the changes we know we need? If we want our 18 year olds to be college and career ready, what are the necessary and sufficient causes? We’ll get where we want to go if and only if….what?

Recently, I wrote about how certain elements of the standards could help us set a larger, more holistic standard for rigor in our schools—a yardstick against which we can measure how we as a school community are teaching academic content, and how our students are using and applying what they learn.  Fleshing out the standards to paint a coherent picture of rigor is definitely necessary. But is rigor, alone, sufficient?  Obviously, since my post is entitled, “The Second Key,” I’m going to say: No.

Setting clear and coherent goals is vitally important, but we also need to create conditions that make it possible for our goals to be achieved. This is where I think school culture comes into play.  A school culture that focuses more on procedures and compliance than on dialogue and discovery (for adults and for children) is a culture that is bound, at some point, to contradict or undermine the kinds of problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis expected of students. We don’t want to pay lip service to the instructional shifts. We need them to come alive in our schools. We don’t simply want students to respond; we want them to think. So…how can the idea of inquiry as a larger culture help us to move in that direction?

Some of my colleagues have suggested that questioning lies at the heart of the Common Core State Standards, and that success in implementation will depend overwhelmingly on the kinds of questions we ask and the way we ask them. I agree. In fact, I wrote about this topic a number of months ago.

A culture of inquiry would make questioning vitally important in every aspect of teaching. Instead of creating lesson plans that stated, “students will learn X, Y, and Z,” on days 1, 2, and 3, we could, instead, provide a series of questions to be posed to students: unit or semester-level questions that worked on a macro level (e.g., “What is the correct use of power?”); and daily or weekly questions that helped to shape instruction and define learning objectives (e.g., “How did Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech help define postwar policy for America?”).  

Some may feel that translating objectives into questions is simply a matter of semantics: But semantics matter. The way we word things affects the way we think about those things.  A learning objective can feel like a dictate or a mandate coming from above. We tell students that the thinking has been done for them; they simply have to receive and accept it. When we ask them a question, there is an assumption that some work must be done by the person answering. There is a suggestion of a journey, a discovery…and, perhaps, a variety of correct answers.

Inquiry doesn’t simply mean asking more questions. It also requires attention to the kinds of questions we ask. In too many places, ”class discussion” involves a series of one-on-one transactions between a teacher and an individual student, controlled by the teacher, with the aim of uncovering whether a student knows fact X or can answer question Z. There is no room for argument or dialogue in this model. The student has little chance to reveal or share anything beyond what the teacher has framed as important. What this kind of questioning leaves out is argumentation and open dialogue. Both are crucial if we want to encourage genuine inquiry and higher-level thinking.

Argumentation is an area of particular focus in the Common Core writing standards. Researchers have identified the idea of “argument literacy” (Gerald Graff, 2003) as fundamental to being considered an educated person.  David Conley (2010) sees the ability to explain and defend a position as the single most important determinant of success in college-level work across disciplines. But in a recent study (Perie, Grigg, Donahue, 2005), only 3% of 8th graders and 6% of 12 graders were able to make informed, critical judgments based on text. Clearly, responding to direct, fact-based questions is not sufficient preparation for college-level thinking, or career-level problem-solving. We need to create a classroom culture in which student-to-student discussion has a role, and in which debate, both formal and informal, takes place fairly often. We need to ask more than “what’s the answer?” We need to ask, “what do you think?” and “why do you think it?”

Facilitating argument or debate in the classroom can help us move in the direction of inquiry, but argument alone can be limited in its scope. True inquiry requires a much more open and less directive kind of discourse, in which there is no fixed agenda, no clear answer (or set of answers), and students are able to work their way, through posing and responding to questions (from the teacher and from each other) towards a solution. This is true whether the subject at hand is the meaning of a poem, the efficacy of a political policy, or a challenging, ambiguous math problem. We need to teach students not only how to answer questions, but also how to pose them—how to look at a situation, find a question worth answering, and then structure a line of inquiry that will help them reach a solution.

The greatest challenge in supporting inquiry and dialogue may not come from what we do in the classroom, but from what we do in the teacher’s lounge. If we truly believe that inquiry and dialogue matter, we need to make sure that we model those things as adults. It means we need to engage in respectful discourse with our students, both inside and outside the classroom. It means we need to engage in respectful discourse with each other, as professionals—even when the children aren’t listening. And it means we need to make sure that our school and district leaders treat their staff in exactly the same we want our teachers to treat our students. It means that all of us, as a school community, believe in working collaboratively to analyze, discuss, and solve problems—that all of us have a voice, and all of us are equal participants in creating understanding.

Perhaps you think I’m overeating. Perhaps you think it’s possible to meet the challenges of the Common Core State Standards without transforming the culture of our schools, or even changing the way we talk to students (and listen to them) in the classroom. Perhaps it is possible. But it will be monumentally difficult. The standards in their totality—the grade level content standards, the math practice standards, the instructional shifts, the exemplars, and the sample assessment items—do so much more than identify content to be addressed at different grade levels. They paint a picture of teaching and learning that requires much more than a new textbook can ever hope to provide. Our students will certainly do better if we pay attention to the new content demands of the standards. But I firmly believe that we will reach the goal of 21st century college and career readiness only if we think critically and openly about the way we teach and the way we talk to our students…and each other.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Myths and Misunderstandings about the Common Core

(originally published at
“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
― J.D. Salinger,
The Catcher in the Rye
All of us feel like Holden Caulfield at one time or another. We’re exhausted by change. We’re tired of This Year’s Important Reform. Change can be frightening. Change can be threatening. And change can sometimes be downright wrong-headed. Can’t we just leave well-enough alone?
Quoting from Salinger is especially apropos when discussing the Common Core State Standards, because one of the laments I hear from high school teachers is that they will no longer be allowed to teach literature like The Catcher in the Rye.  Statements like this are worrisome, because they demonstrate a lack of understanding of what the Common Core State Standards are all about.
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation about these standards and what they require of us as parents and educators. The confusion and fear-mongering are creating real problems for school administrators trying to implement these standards and raise student achievement.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the “common myths” I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, with what I hope are some helpful explanations of what’s really going.
1. The Common Core State Standards have created a federally mandated, federally controlled curriculum.
The impetus to create rigorous, new learning standards at a national level came from state government and the business community, not the federal government. The National Governors’ Association, working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, undertook the mission, in part as a response to complaints from employers that entry-level workers didn’t have the math, reading, and writing skills necessary to perform their jobs effectively. The federal Department of Education did not manage the writing of the standards, nor do they control them. The standards were adopted voluntarily by the states, and each participating state has been allowed to make additions or alterations to the standards, as long as those alterations remain under 15% of the whole. Once adopted by a state, the standards become the “property” of that state, managed and overseen by its department of education, just as its previous set of learning standards were.
However, the federal Department of Education has definitely lent its support to these standards, and has tied significant amounts of money to adoption of “college and career readiness standards” like the Common Core. And we know that federal money can be hard to resist. But enticing as that money may be, it falls short of being a “mandate.”
The standards also fall short of being a curriculum. The standards are grade-level goals, and they are aggressive. But they are not a curriculum, a textbook, a pacing guide, or anything else that limits, shapes, or controls how a teacher teaches or what a teacher should teach from day to day. If a teacher wants to deliver her math instruction entirely through the use of hand-puppets, nothing in the Common Core is stopping her. In fact, these national standards may give us a real opportunity to compare teaching practices on a grand scale and find out what works best.
2. The literacy standards are hostile to fiction, poetry, and drama.
There has been a lot of confusion about the relative importance of literary and informational texts in the Common Core. The standards definitely do ask for teachers to include more primary and secondary source texts in their curriculum—in English language arts, certainly, but also in the areas of social studies, science, and the technical arts. In fact, from sixth grade on, teachers of those subjects have a separate set of literacy standards just for their disciplines.
Does that mean that high school English teachers have to give up The Catcher in the Rye? Not at all. The standards do ask us to increase the amount of informational text our students read, so that by the end of high school, those texts account for 70% of what they are reading. But that 70% is meant to represent the sum total of what they read across their entire school day. The goal isn’t to remove literature; it’s to add other kinds of texts within Language Arts, as well as in World History, Civics, Geography, Physics, Biology, and so on.
3. The math standards focus too early on critical thinking and don’t put an emphasis on calculation and memorization.
Not true. In fact, the standards have done an admirable job of trying to end the “math wars” and find a middle ground that includes both fact fluency and concept comprehension. The “instructional shifts” that authors have identified as being a major part of the standards include both fluency and deep understanding, and the structure of the standards supports this two-pronged approach, providing teachers with grade-level content standards and a set of overarching “practice standards” that speaks to certain ways of thinking, habits of mind that proficient mathematicians display. The challenge for teachers is learning how to incorporate both sets of standards in their instruction—to make sure students learn their math facts and become fluent in computation, but also that they learn to “think in math,” rather than blindly executing procedures they don’t truly understand.
4. The standards have a liberal, left-wing, political agenda.
If anything, I find the standards rather conservative and old-fashioned. The literacy standards emphasize things like obtaining real knowledge about the world through reading (rather than simply practicing how to read), the inclusion of primary source documents in all subject areas, and text-based questions, like “What is the author doing here?” over text-to-self questions, like, “How does it make you feel?” The math standards emphasize real knowledge and fluency, rather than saying things like, “they can just use a calculator.” In fact, I find nothing in the standards that would contradict what Thomas Jefferson laid out as the goals of public education for Americans as early as 1818.
However, that doesn’t mean that the textbooks, workbooks, and other materials being designed by publishers and sold to schools are free from bias. A textbook could easily be “aligned to the Common Core Standards” and betray a political bias that has nothing to do with those standards. Some published materials have a clear bias and point of view. Others can fall victim to unwitting bias that results from editorial decisions—what to leave in, what to take out, what to emphasize, what to ignore—that may be deliberate or quite unconscious. It is extremely important that schools and parents review and analyze new text materials to ensure they are well-designed, well-aligned, and acceptable to the community.
5. The standards mandate collecting and sharing detailed and unnecessary data on students.
The standards are simply learning goals. The fact of having national standards, however, has definitely led many people to seek new ways to collect and analyze data on student performance, to provide the best possible education to each student and to study which states, districts, and schools are performing well—not to punish those that fall behind, but to learn what really works for students and share the knowledge more widely.
This is not limited to our K-12 schools. It is exactly the same discussion that is happening in our health care system. It is exactly the same discussion we are having about businesses mining data from social networking systems to target advertising to people more effectively. It is a real challenge facing us in pretty much every facet of our 21st century lives. In each case, we need to weigh the potential benefits in service with the potential risks in losing privacy, and make decisions about what we find acceptable. I think people are absolutely right not to place blind trust in school administrators or academic publishers, and simply have faith that data being collected will not be abused. A healthy skepticism will help us all in the long run. But a healthy skepticism is not the same thing as panic or conspiracy-mongering.
Change may be challenging and frightening, but that, alone, doesn’t make it wrong. Holden Caulfield wanted to stop the world from turning. We sympathize with his feelings. We’ve all shared them at some point in our lives. But we also know what happened to Holden, and it wasn’t pretty. The world turns whether we want it to or not. The times change, and the needs of the times change.
Weighing the benefits of change against the risks is something we all have to do, and we cannot do it—not for education, not for healthcare, not anywhere—without having objective facts at our disposal and knowing how to analyze and assess those facts. It’s a skill that is absolutely necessary for the continued health and strength of our democracy. And it’s a skill, by the way, that the Common Core is working hard to build in our students.