The Common Core Before Us

The theme of the Massachusetts Curriculum Summit this week (where I co-presented on the topic of New Literacies) was all about the Common Core Standards and how our state is going to make the move forward (now that we got our Race to the Top bucks). The 300 or so superintendents and curriculum coordinators (with another few hundred on tap for the second day) listened intently as state officials explained the path that we are going to take to adapt to the Common Core Standards, and how that will be reflected in our standardized tests (or some variation of our standardized tests).

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester told the crowd that the Common Core movement in Massachusetts reflects a second round of education reform for our state (the first happened in the early 1990s) and reflects a need on the national level for common benchmarks of learning for all students.

“The unevenness of what we expect of students varies tremendously, from state to state,” Chester noted. “We’re focused on creating rigorous standards” so that a student in one state deemed “proficient” is on the same level as another proficient student in another state.

First of all, there are no changes in the curriculum standards for this year in Massachusetts, meaning our spring 2010 tests will not reflect Common Core standards. But Dr. Julia Phelps, of our Department of Elementary and Secondary Education department, told folks not to sit around. “You should get started (with curriculum updates) now,” Phelps states.

In early 2011, the state will be releasing what is calling “crosswalks” that will connect the Common Core standards to our existing Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. The state will also sponsor a series of regional workshops around these curricular crosswalks for teachers and school district administrators to begin the shift. The state will also be developing exemplar lessons and units around the Common Core as models for the shift.

The standardized testing in spring 2012 will reflect these shifts — testing the standards that are at the intersection of our current standards and the Common Core. And by 2013-2014, our state will be completely shifted to Common Core standards and Common Core assessments, according to Phelps.

Knowing the pace of change, that year is going to come up quick on us, and I am hopeful the crosswalk concept will be beneficial for us at our schools as we look at our own curriculum. I know that our new standards-based reporting system will have to be adapted and I imagine that we will need to some serious lateral looks at when topics and skill are being taught and learned, and where the shifts need to take place.

So far, I am not a harsh critic of the Common Core. I like that literacy and content-area literacy is a heavy focus, although I am going to lament the loss of a lot of creative writing, since expository informational writing and reading is at the heart of the Common Core standards. And I do like that media literacy and new technologies are embedded in various elements of the Common Core language (a point I brought up in my presentation). That may provide more support for teachers struggling to find ways to use technology in a way that meets state standards (which right now barely reflect any sort of technology).

One of the guest speakers at the Curriculum Summit made a good point. He noted that as curriculum development takes place in our schools, we want to avoid placing sole importance on single curriculum areas. While the Common Core is centered around math and Language Arts, the other content areas are woven in with the literacy strands.

“We need to be careful that we don’t pit people against each other, that we don’t put English at the top, followed by math, and then on down the line. We’re all in this together,” said Dana Brown, a high school principal.


Peace (in the changes ahead),

The Common Core Comes to Massachusetts

Our state of Massachusetts has joined a growing list of other states (28, I think) in adopting the Common Core of Standards as our own curriculum framework for the future. (see news release from our Education Department).

This is sure to be a controversial decision for some time, as so much of the work we do in our classrooms and professional development revolves around our state curriculum frameworks (which form the basis for our MCAS standardized test). While I have some issues with our past state frameworks, for the most part, I found them to be pretty thoughtful (with the exception that technology was never really embedded in there) and placed a lot of emphasis on creative content.The Common Core is much more focused on expository reading and writing, with informational text at the heart of much of the standards.

In fact, some backlash on the decision to move into the Common Core is already starting, as some believe that the Common Core is a step backwards for Massachusetts, given its past work around curriculum frameworks, and they worry about what a national assessment of the Common Core might look like in the future.

“We are now tethered to the rest of the country. Where we could have shown the political courage of implementing state reforms that gave us the best schools in the world, well, now we have to drag along the rest of the country before we can do it.” – from the blog post by Jim Stergios, of the Pioneer Institute.

The full Common Core document for ELA is here.

The Common Core will become our new state guideposts for English Language Arts and Mathematics, although when and how that transition will take shape is unknown. At a recent New Literacies Initiative week that I was part of, our state education commissioner sort of hemmed and hawed about whether Massachusetts would actually adopt the Common Core this summer, but I knew it would surely happen because we are in line for federal dollars in our bid for Race to the Top and the Common Core is a huge carrot dangling in front of us.

While I am not sure that moving towards a national curriculum framework is the right path, I do like that the Common Core emphasizes the teaching of writing and reading across the content areas.  I know my students come to me with a real weakness in understanding informational text. This shift puts literacy right into the heart of most learning, although at what expense to creative writing and reading, I can’t yet say. (Sidenote: Next week, my wife is joining a group of National Writing Project folks on a year-long project to begin work on designing lesson plans and curriculum guides that will allow teachers to meet the requirements of the Common Core while still retaining writing at the heart of activities and teacher flexibility. More on that in the future …)

One thing that occurs to me is that our school district’s Standards-based progress report (formerly know as our report card) is built off our of (now) old Massachusetts curriculum frameworks, which means that we need to revisit that system again in light of the adoption of the Common Core standards. Looking over the Common Core document, there is a lot of alignment between the two sets of standards, but I foresee some more progress report work in the near future.

Right now, I am pulling out all of the sixth grade reading and writing standards from the Common Core report as a way to get a sense of what is there and I am hoping this will help me shape my overall opinions of it as a curriculum guide. I know there are plenty of folks who don’t like the Common Core standards, but I want to see it in all of its details myself before making a judgment.

Peace (in the changes),