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Conversations on the Common Core

05.11.15 | Learning on the EDge | 1 Comment

Tonight, my husband remarked on something he read on a Facebook post about the Common Core when my daughter was explaining her math homework. She blurted out, “It isn’t Common Core. It is practice!”

“How apropos,” I said to myself. This perspective is exactly what I needed to support my theory that the undercurrent and the overt propaganda flooding social media about the Common Core really has nothing to do with students. My 10-year-old 5th grader loves math, learns a great deal from her teacher’s instruction and from the materials the school uses to convey the 5th grade math concepts. She sees her day-to-day work in school as practicing, demonstrating what she has learned, accepting new challenges in her subjects. She doesn’t see negativity, injustice, or conspiracy.  The fuss and confusion often lies with those who don’t spend their days in schools, unlike the children and teaching and support staff who are learning and growing in many, many ways.

So, what can be learned from this exchange between father and daughter? There are four key take aways for me as a mother and educator.

Most importantly is how the staff in a school district addresses the standards and the conversation surrounding those standards in the classroom. With our principals’ and directors’ leadership, our staff embraces the Common Core standards as benchmarks for learning, and they are supported in using their own approaches and materials to get us there. This autonomy has allowed our staff to convey the content and concepts of the standards to students in a variety of ways — as initially intended by those who created the Common Core.

Another key takeaway is the focus on learning and not on political rhetoric and social media messaging surrounding the standards, assessment, student data collection, teacher evaluation, curriculum materials, and so on. My daughter and students in her class and other classes throughout our school simply care about getting better at the standards before them. They can talk to a visitor about multiplying fractions or how to summarize a text. They discuss analyzing articles and digging deep into the whys of a science fair project. They make connections between the world and information they read in a variety of sources. 

Focusing on the results of a variety of assessments is another critical component of the conversation. Nationwide, the backlash to high-stakes assessment has begun to dilute the importance of classroom assessment, district common assessment, and state and national assessment. The critical conversation that needs to be had is not about the administration of high stakes testing, but rather about which data and information can be gleaned from assessment in order to improve student achievement and learning. We must take back the practice of assessment as something that is FOR and OF Learning and not a conspiracy to derail students and eliminate teachers.

Finally, the capstone to the conversation is focusing on the things that matter — deep thinking, skill application, and student growth. The challenge to our local Board of Trustees is to focus on student growth, expectations in the classroom, teaching practice improvement, and whole-child development. Our assessment results continue to improve, and our schools received meeting and exceeding expectations in the last round of accountability ratings.

We don’t administer assessments that cannot provide quality data for student learning. We don’t mandate page upon page of student workbook materials from some prescribed textbook. We don’t fire teachers solely based on the scores their students make on state assessments. We focus on what matters: the students, the learning, the celebration of what works!

The author also was featured in a podcast focusing on the work she’s done with and in her district on the Common Core. The podcast was sponsored and organized by Learning First Alliance in conjunction with it’s Get It Right: Common Sense on the Common Core campaign. Learning First Alliance is a partnership of leading education organizations representing more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools. The podcast is at: www.learningfirst.org/get-it-right-podcasts-summer-stephens 

About Summer Stephens

SUMMER STEPHENS is superintendent for Weston County School District No. 7 in Upton, Wyo., and was selected a 2014-15 Emerging Leader by PDK International, a global association of education professionals.

Comments on Conversations on the Common Core

  1. Steven Fesmire says:

    This post makes the excellent point that the proof is in the pudding, but the author unfortunately also implies that criticisms of the Common Core are conspiratorial. There’s no reason to object in principle to a Common Core that views teachers as informed, skilled, and experienced facilitators and practitioners. Meanwhile, there are sound empirical reasons to raise questions about a tendency to use an inflexible yardstick to standardize measures of educational progress uniformly across all individuals, schools, school districts, and state borders. Such questions are particularly appropriate in a troubling cultural context in which teachers often feel that they have become functionaries under the surveillance of an administrative bureaucracy (no matter how well-intentioned).

    Much of the criticism of the Common Core should be understood against the backdrop of an increasingly industrial model of education in the U.S., in which educating whole persons for lifelong growth is replaced by a view of education as just another industrial sector, on a par with any other sector. Efficiency is the foremost aim, due largely to a national suspicion of educational spending. But efficiency at what price? A school may train more students with fewer teachers, and an industrial sector may produce more clothes, cars, or animal protein to meet market demands with lower overhead costs. These products can then be used, or put to work to produce more things. The industrial imagination stops here, with efficient production. This is arguably useful, but what else has been unintentionally made, to which industrial thinking is oblivious? Have we made narrower lives? Have we embittered and disabled? Have we anesthetized moral and ecological sensitivity? Have we, in John Dewey’s words, made life more “congested, hurried, confused and extravagant”?

    None of these questions necessarily indicts the Common Core, so it’s important not to make a red herring of it: these are questions about the cultural context in which the Common Core is operating. It’s essential to think about this cultural context carefully in order to clarify educational priorities and values so that our assessments and standards can better operate as means to our best ends. And in the end, isn’t the public good best served when our schools become cultures of imagination where we learn to live better? In sum, here’s the question to be asked of the Common Core: Can it lead us away from a dispiriting industrial model of education and toward schools as cultures of growth and imagination?

    Steven Fesmire is the author of Dewey (Routledge, 2015) and John Dewey and Moral Imagination (Indiana University Press, 2003).

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