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To Truly Enact Educational Standards, Focus on Professional Learning

And let's not abandon the Common Core

By Jacy Ippolito, Ed.D., Salem State University

The Common Core State Standards have once again become a prominent news story, as the United States speculates about the health and survival of the standards under a new Trump administration. Since 2010, the standards have been adopted and adapted by more than 40 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). Despite widespread adoption, however, the standards have been plagued by misunderstandings and myths. They continue to be sharply critiqued by prominent educators, even though some of these critiques may not be fully founded.

So, here we are, at a crossroads, early in 2017.

As we prepare for a political sea change, many are wondering exactly where we stand with the Common Core. Should teachers and school leaders redouble their efforts to enact the standards? Or should educators bet on the fact that this too shall pass, and assume that newer standards will emerge shortly?

These are questions I’m often asked by school leaders and teachers alike. In my role as an education professor, working equally with preservice and in-service educators, standards are ever-present. They are front and center in my higher education classes, as future teachers plan their first units and lessons. They form the backbone of my professional learning work in K-12 schools, as I support teachers, literacy coaches, and principals in merging literacy and content goals. Given the prominent role that standards play in educator preparation programs; schools, teachers, and school leaders are understandably anxious. They are wondering whether their hard work implementing the Common Core over the past seven years will have been for naught.

To all those waiting and wondering, as well as to the new Trump administration, I say: stay the course. Don’t abandon ship quite yet. The Common Core, while imperfect, remains a step in the right direction, and a reasonable base from which to continue building and tinkering. Of course, how we collectively make sense of and implement the standards remains the key.

At this moment in time, as we collectively reconsider the Common Core and wonder about their (and our!) future, I have found a bit of comfort (and joy!) in Michael Toth’s engaging new book, Who Moved My Standards? Joyful Teaching in an Age of Change: A SOAR-ing Tale. The book is unexpected, uplifting, and greatly appreciated at a time when grim forecasts reign. Toth’s brief book (less than 75 pages) is part picture book fable and part inspirational essay, all focused on how we need to be thinking differently about our stance toward the standards.

The first half of Toth’s book provides readers with a simple, but powerful illustrated story of woodland creatures having to contend with the changing environment around them. To collect adequate amounts of food for winter, the blue jays and flying squirrels at the center of the story must learn to work together in order to fly farther than ever before to collect food. Early in the story, the animals realize that simply applying more of their same old strategies will not be effective. The animals must, in fact, collaborate, problem-solve, and devise new ways of meeting their goals—a clear comment on how educators wishing to enact new standards must also work together to create classroom environments that, in turn, support collaboration and higher-order thinking. While this illustrated allegory may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I found it charming and quite convincing. Moreover, as someone who routinely assigns readings in university classes and provides articles to school leaders and teachers, I’m relieved to find an evocative story such as this that has great potential to engage educators in conversations that matter.

Whereas the first half of Toth’s book reads like a playful storybook, the second half features a powerful essay titled “Teaching for the New Economy.” In this essay, Toth reveals much of the deeper thinking and implications underpinning the earlier fable. He describes the need to shift away from “old economy classrooms,” which emphasize conformity and factual recall and largely support the education of citizens engaged in manufacturing or mass production jobs. Toth stresses the need to embrace what he terms “new economy classrooms,” focused on creating citizens who can “research, analyze, and synthesize information into persuasive arguments or compelling presentations.” Anyone familiar with the Common Core will see its components in Toth’s appeal.

Ultimately, I’m persuaded by Toth’s essay. School leaders and teachers will appreciate his sharp writing, which helps us make sense of much larger arguments for why our economy has changed dramatically in the age of computers. For the practical-minded, Toth includes two quick reflective tools near the book’s end: a chart highlighting the differences between the old economy and new economy classrooms, and a SOAR (students’ opportunities to achieve rigor) rubric, suggesting the salient features of new economy classrooms. Both of these tools might be used to spur self-reflection in higher education or K-12 settings, as school leaders and teachers deeply consider the kinds of classroom environments that currently exist and the shifts that might be needed to encourage deeper, more authentic learning experiences for students. Each of these tools connects clearly to the Common Core’s main objective of fostering higher-order thinking skills. I’m heartened by the fact that much of the Common Core maps neatly onto Toth’s descriptions of new economy classrooms.

Toth’s book understandably stops short of providing a longer, clearer roadmap for how educators might make the herculean transition from “old” to “new” economy classrooms. Though Toth hints at next steps, my own research and work with schools has convinced me that the answer lies in high-quality professional learning.

Simply put, new economy classrooms and fully implemented standards will depend partly (if not mostly) on long-term, strategic professional learning. Robust professional learning prepares educators for multiple future paths to success, for ever-shifting standards and political swings. Not just for the standards at hand. I will touch on two rich possibilities for such professional learning below.

Recently, Dr. Rita Bean and I wrote a book, Cultivating Coaching Mindsets, in which we make the argument that all educators (although especially teacher leaders and those who hold some formal “coaching” responsibilities) must adopt a “coaching mindset” in 21st-century schools. If we are going to implement rigorous standards for students, and develop new economy classrooms, then we must all alternately think and work as leaders, facilitators, designers, and advocates. These four frames comprise the bulk of what we consider to be a coaching mindset, an orientation towards collaboration that encourages shared meaning making, reflection on new practices, and clear structures for gaining the most from professional learning times. Just as Toth suggests throughout his book, we argue that our future success lies in both the collaboration of educators and the collaboration of students. We believe that adopting a coaching mindset helps propel a shift toward deeper and more meaningful collaboration.

Secondly, I have spent a handful of years documenting how middle and secondary teachers and teams understand and implement new disciplinary literacy teaching strategies. Disciplinary literacy teaching is closely connected to the Common Core standards, as it encourages content-area teachers (e.g., history, math, science) to support students in reading, writing, and thinking like historians, mathematicians, and scientists. This type of teaching reveals to students the similarities and differences in the ways that experts and novices in various fields consume, generate, and share information—ultimately, with the goal of apprenticing students into the different disciplinary subcultures.
Along with my colleagues Dr. Christina Dobbs (Boston University) and Dr. Megin Charner-Laird (Salem State University), I have watched closely as teams of secondary teachers and leaders have learned about and implemented disciplinary literacy instruction. Across professional learning initiatives, three key elements have emerged: teams of teachers meeting regularly in professional learning communities (PLCs); structures such as teacher leaders and discussion-based protocols to support PLC work; and a focus on inquiry and adaptation (over rote, superficial implementation). We have witnessed firsthand the success of teacher teams who have learned about and enacted disciplinary literacy practices using these professional learning elements.

Consequently, while I begin 2017 with a bit of apprehension about the next phase of U.S. standards-based work, I also begin 2017 with a great deal of hope.

For now, we must focus on robust professional learning and collaboration at all levels. With clearer professional learning structures in place, then a variety of alternate paths forward—perhaps further implementation and adaptation of existing standards, or perhaps a radical shift towards brand new standards—will be possible and fruitful.

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