Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Dos and Don’ts of the Common Core Standards

Lately, the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) has taken a good piece of my life.

First, it was the beginning of the year meetings that introduced us to the CCLS (then called the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS) and how they will impact our instruction. Then came the periodic meetings evaluating student work, supposedly using the CCLS (but often not).

Now, in a frantic pace to stay on the CCLS bandwagon, I’m involved with not one, but two taskforces attempting to integrate social studies instruction and museum education into the new standards.

During the whole time, I didn’t even attempt to read the standards. Maybe it’s time that I did.

The Common Core Learning Standards were part of a two-year long initiative by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Their goal was to provide a uniform set of standards for reading and mathematics nationwide, supplementing the various state benchmarks and standards that had been implemented in the early stages of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The CCLS was rolled out in 2010, and immediately many states jumped aboard. Washington had much to do with the enthusiasm: Race to the Top grants were determined—de facto, if not de jure—through swift and thorough adoption of the CCLS. To date, 48 of 50 states have jumped on the initative (except Texas and Alaska) and 47 of 50 have adopted the standards (Virginia chose not to).

On the surface, the CCLS is a noble idea. It would be an incredible leap for our educational system if a child were held to the same standards in any part of the country—the same way other, smaller countries handle it.

Looking at the standards themselves, however, leads me to believe they are not the silver bullet everyone makes them out to be.

I decided to see how the Common Core stacked up against the old standards used in New York City up until now. Here’s the first elementary standard for reading in the old system:

“E1a: The student reads at least twenty-five books or book equivalents each year. The quality and complexity of the materials to be read are illustrated in the sample reading list. The materials should include traditional and contemporary literature (both fiction and non-fiction) as well as magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and on-line materials. Such reading should represent a diverse collection of material from at least three different literary forms and from at least five different writers.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

It’s what we expect from standards: broad, verbose, and so cumbersome that any set of criteria could fit in here. A combination of Marvel comic books, Mad Magazines, the Onion, the history textbook and some selection from the class library should do the trick. By the way, this is what you’re expected to do once you reach sixth grade.

The CCLS addresses this standard differently, as it does with others: instead of one culminating indicator, there are benchmarks for each year from Kindergarten to 5th for elementary, and from 6th to 12th for secondary. In first grade, the similar CCLS standard for reading would read like this:

“RL.1.10. With prompting and support, read prose and poetry of appropriate complexity for grade 1.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

By fifth grade, the same standard reads like this:

“RL.5.10. By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

It appears that the Common Core has won this round—after all; grade scaffolding seems more palatable than a one-shot deal. Yet look at the old standard compared with the one above: other than the quantity constraints of the old standard, don’t they look suspiciously similar?

Let’s try a writing standard now. In the old standards, we have:

“E2a: The student produces a report that:

• engages the reader by establishing a context, creating a persona, and otherwise developing reader interest;

• develops a controlling idea that conveys a perspective on the subject;

• creates an organizing structure appropriate to a specific purpose, audience, and context;

• includes appropriate facts and details;

• excludes extraneous and inappropriate information;

• uses a range of appropriate strategies, such as providing facts and details, describing or analyzing the subject, and narrating a relevant anecdote;

• provides a sense of closure to the writing.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

The fifth grade standard in the CCLS for report writing is as follows:

“W.5.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic.

Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).

Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

Again, apart from a difference in vocabulary, these two standards bear a striking resemblance.

The Mathematics standards, on the other hand, seem to be a real improvement. Here’s the old standard for 5th grade for using base ten number systems:

“5.N.3 Understand the place value structure of the base ten number system” ~ NYS State Education Department Mathematics Standards

We could all agree that’s pretty lame, even by the already-low standards (no pun intended) of the authors of these standards. The CCLS version gives much more detail:

“5.NBT.1. Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left.

5.NBT.2. Explain patterns in the number of zeros of the product when multiplying a number by powers of 10, and explain patterns in the placement of the decimal point when a decimal is multiplied or divided by a power of 10. Use whole-number exponents to denote powers of 10.

5.NBT.3. Read, write, and compare decimals to thousandths.

• Read and write decimals to thousandths using base-ten numerals, number names, and expanded form, e.g., 347.392 = 3 × 100 + 4 × 10 + 7 × 1 + 3 × (1/10) + 9 × (1/100) + 2 × (1/1000).

• Compare two decimals to thousandths based on meanings of the digits in each place, using >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.

5.NBT.4. Use place value understanding to round decimals to any place.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

So the new standards are pretty hit-and-miss. There’s a lot of good stuff to get out of them, but also plenty of pitfalls along the way to implementation—and especially assessing them.

First, realize that, especially in English, the CCLS is largely a re-packaging of the standards we have already used—standards that lack much substance to begin with. So for all the hoopla of newness and scaffolding, in the end the final benchmarks will not be so radically different from before.

Second, the “Common” in Common Core is a real misnomer. Many states, including New York, are allowed to tweak or alter the standards to meet the needs of their particular groups of students. This is important, to be sure, but then it no longer makes these standards very “common” anymore. How is this any different from the old state standards?

Furthermore, don’t expect to see a massive overhaul of the standardized testing situation because of these standards—at least not yet. It is claimed that full implementation of the standards, with new assessments, curricula, etc., will be in place by 2015 the latest. I’m guessing we’ll see the new assessments sooner than that, because there will be little new about them. If the CCLS is a re-packaging of the old, then wouldn’t the new tests be a re-packaging of the old, as well?

Besides, if you fuck with those tests too much, Pearson and McGraw-Hill will have a serious chat with you.

Finally, the CCLS does not even address content areas, science and social studies, until the 6th grade, and then it is merely a test of “Literacy in Science/Social Studies.” Those standards are a re-packaging of the re-packaging: a reformation of the English standards to make them more content-specific. Yet no actual content standards are addressed: what actual stuff do kids need to know?

It’s nice how we focus on the process, the skills, the strategies, but without the actual stuff of learning the CCLS—like any set of standards—is really meaningless.

So what can we get from this new initiative foisted on most of us in this country?

Not much, but that’s okay.

To those who are getting their shorts in a knot over the CCLS…relax. It’s not as big a deal as even they think it is. These standards are no more rigorous than the personal set of standards any good teacher uses throughout his/her day. It’s simply a new paper trail for what you already do.

Hopefully it’ll lead to changes for the better. Probably, it won’t.

Just grin and bear through the workshops, lectures, symposia and focus groups—knowing that the next “silver bullet” is coming right around the corner…

…and it’ll be just as effective as the last one.

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Reminder to RSVP/Register for Save Our Schools March in DC July 28-31

Aerial view of the White House and the Ellipse...

Image via Wikipedia

Those more observant members of the Neighborhood may have noticed a large new yellow button to the right.  Its funny-looking, I know, but its there for an important reason.

The Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action will be coming up at the end of July.  The conference covers July 28-29 and 31 and feature many well-known speakers on education like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post, our good friend Sabrina Stevens Shupe and many others.  The workshops offer activism techniques, curriculum strategies and other useful tools in advocacy in education.

The march will take place July 30, where we will meet at the Ellipse on the Mall at noon, followed by a march to the Department of Education at 2 pm.  It should be a raucous time, especially in that roasting DC heat of late July–of which I am painfully familiar.

Of course, besides the obvious reasons involving educational fairness, true accountability and general saving of the public school system, you should be heading to DC that weekend to meet me!  I’ll be at a bloggers’ event the evening of the 29th, where we’ll watch The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman (hopefully in Rocky Horror mode).  Also, I’ll be at the march myself, and hopefully gathering a cadre of the Neighborhood to march along.

I’ll be easy to spot in my Hawaiian shirt and straw hat 🙂

The conference costs $80 to register for Thursday’s and Friday’s events.  But make sure to register before June 15th, otherwise the price jumps to $100 a head.  Click here for registration info.

The march is free…bring as many people as you want!  However, it’s nice if we have a head count of how many people are coming.  Its no obligation to go, but even if you plan on coming please RSVP here.

Remember, the other guys like to fudge numbers–we want to be honest.

Lastly, if you plan on going and would like to join me as a contingent of the Neighborhood, especially for social studies advocacy, please e-mail me so we can coordinate a meeting spot.  The Ellipse is big, so plan on being there around 10 am so we can meet, greet and get our chanting voices ready.

Hope to see you all there.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 8: The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal

For educators like me, history books for the classroom come in two varieties.

The first, one all too many of us recollect, is the somber collection of names, dates, events and explanations followed by even more somber illustrations of very upright white men and stately occasions featuring white men doing what white men were thought to do: stand around, prance in short pants, sign documents, and slay indigenous populations without a hair out of place.

The second was a movement to rectify the stuffy white man by using songs, poems, happy pictures and narrative tools to convey historical events.  Many early childhood books fall into this category: the smiling Pilgrim, the smiling Wampanoag (at least before the smallpox), the happy colonists dumping tea while redcoats pout and look cross.  Its cute, but some events just can’t be washed over with sappy narrative: Indian wars, insurrections and tarring and feathering a tax collector just don’t warrant smiling cherubs set to rhyme.

Luckily, today’s book selection finds a unique balance between these two views.  The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, by Cheryl Harness, highlights the history, construction and opening of the Erie Canal from 1817 to 1825.  Most readers know my penchant for New York history.  But I have a real soft spot for the Erie Canal, and Harness’ work helps bridge that love to the classroom.

There’s no exaggerating the importance of this 363-mile long ditch.  The Erie Canal was among the most important public works projects in American history.  It revolutionized transportation to the Great Lakes and the Middle West of the United States.  It established New York City as a center of commerce, business and immigration.  Thousands of settlers had a way into the interior of the United States.  It was an incredible example of public and private enterprise working together.

Nonetheless, all this impact would fall as flat as your old high school textbook.  This is where Cheryl Harness’ magic comes in.

We’ve seen Harness’ work before, in regards to women’s history and biographies.  She has a real knack for packing lots of important information, while at the same time weaving a compelling narrative that rarely distracts the reader.  Her books are, in a way, like busy local highways: lots of roadside attractions if you need them, but the traffic’s always moving so you can get to your destination.

Erie Canal is no different.  Harness’ highway is the 1825 celebrations that opened the canal.  As the reader follows Governor DeWitt Clinton (The Neighborhood’s patron saint) on the canal from Buffalo to New York City, page after page is peppered with maps, graphs, pictures, and explanatory text about the building, technology and impact of the canal.

One scene is particularly poignant.  As Clinton’s barge, the Seneca Chief, goes from town to town, the townspeople all gather to welcome her.  The old veterans of the Revolutionary War, in fact, put on their old uniforms and medals in salute to this great achievement.  Its a great example to show how Americans of all generations got together to celebrate, even 180 years ago.

A history book on the Erie Canal could have easily turned into a snoozer with portraits and dry writing.  It could’ve also turned into another crappy kids’ pap about that damn song with a mule named Sal.  Harness skillfully managed to avoid both. In The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal, she provided that rare breed of picture history that is both fun to read and rich in detailed information.

As for those old “white man” books, save them for college, so that your professors can rip them to shreds.

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