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Cage Busting the Common Core

Last week I wrote about the serious reservations many are now voicing regarding the Common Core Standards (CCS), so much so that even here in Kentucky (the first state to adopt CCS - before it even officially existed) legislators have introduced a bill to halt its implementation.

The truth is, though, that Common Core is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.  The Kentucky House Education Committee chair has declared the bill dead on arrival, citing widespread support for CCS among educators.  And polling data suggests that teachers and administrators do, by and large, want to carry on with the new standards for now.

There are probably many reasons for this.  Many educators recognize that in some cases, the Common Core Standards do represent a better set of learning goals than many of the state standards that preceded them.  Also, teacher views on this issue are probably much more practical than philosophical.  Rather than fret about the implications of federal encroachment on state and local authority, educators are much more focused on the potential consequences of making yet another curricular change to their day-to-day work with students.  I sympathize wholeheartedly, as I have participated actively in Common Core implementation both as a district administrator and as a professor training aspiring school leaders.  Millions of dollars and untold human hours have been devoted to this work so far, and it's only  now beginning for science and social studies.

So, how do we make the most of this situation?  Educators must accept the Common Core with all its limitations and make it work for them.  In this, I take inspiration from Cage-Busting Leadership, the lastest book from American Enterprise Institute education guru Frederick Hess.  The trick to using Common Core - or any other state or federal mandate - is to become masters of our own destiny, rather than perpetual victims of bureaucrats and policy makers.  Here's how.

1.  Articulate your own vision for what you want your school or district to be.  Too many school leaders operate in a completely reactive mode, passively waiting for district or state officials to give them explicit directions on what to teach and how to teach it.   "Ask yourself: What is your vision of a terrific school or system?" Hess writes.  "That's the school of system you want to lead."

Curricular standards are an essential part of a school's vision, but they ought to function as just that - a tool used to create the kind of school you want to work and learn in.  School leaders need to figure out what kind of school they want, and think big. 

  • Do you want a highly-personalized environment that gives students lots of choice and the ability to move through hands-on learning experiences as they demonstrate mastery of particular standards? 
  • Do you want a school where students get rich, descriptive feedback on their progress toward specific learning targets and actively participate in their journey toward mastery? 
  • Do you want a school that places a special focus on technology, or STEM, or the arts, as the major theme that will unite all learning experiences?

These are but a handful of the kinds of visions bold school leaders might articulate, and this is the place to start in making curricular standards serve teachers and students, rather than the other way around.

2. To help articulate your vision, ask yourself, "What problem am I solving?"  According to Hess, "Cage-busters try to begin every conversation by talking about the problems they've identified and how they might solve them."

Limited examples: How do we deliver better feedback to students and their families about their progress?  How do we better differentiate learning experiences for every student?  How do we improve students' skills in generating and testing scientific hypotheses?  How do we improve students' skills in drawing inferences from texts? 

Note three things:

  • These problems help you articulate a vision for what kind of school you want to become.
  • These problems help point you toward the specific kinds of strategies for improving teaching practice that you will engage in.
  • These problems are not focused on raising test scores, though improved student performance on test scores is likely to be a happy result.

Note how practical and straightforward these problems are.  As Hess points out, cage-busting leaders can dispense with unnecessary efforts to be "innovative" (which often just amounts to engaging in high-profile gimmicks) and make their mark as real problem solvers.

3.  Prioritize standards.  Once you understand the problems you are facing and have figured out the kind of school you want to become, then you are ready to do something that seems like near anathema to many educators: you can decide which curricular standards you will teach, and which you won't.

The case for this is clear: there are far too many standards to teach to proficiency in any given year.  Trying to do so leads inevitably to an over-emphasis on "coverage" and test preparation instead of carefully tracking student mastery of individual learning targets and supporting meaningful mastery learning. 

Cage-busting leaders are willing to take the chance that students will do better on state tests (which are just an afterthought to the learning process) by focusing on depth of mastery versus breadth of coverage, and staying true to their vision of what good instruction and learning looks for their school.  Read more on prioritizing standards here.

Note that there is nothing in the Common Core Standards - or in federal or state policies - that would keep a school or district from doing the bold things described above.  It would require, however, confronting a lot of fear, complacency, and that tendency to think that the way we've always done things is the way they have to be.

My advice to school leaders is to use the CCS to meet your needs.  But to do that, you have to know what kind of school you want to become.  Changes in standards, testing, and accountability will inevitably come around again.  Your vision should be strong enough to weather whatever changes come your way.


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