A Common Core Implementation Manifesto
Seriously? You want us to do what by when? That was my overwhelming reaction when, during our last professional development day of 2011, my fellow teachers and I were told that in the fall, our school system would fully implement a literacy curriculum rooted in the new Common Core State Standards.
In the previous three years, there had been annual changes in every area of instruction—from new standards and new curriculum to more and different testing to new teacher assessments. And now here were more changes on the agenda, changes that got to the fundamental questions of best practices and ensuring the readiness of all students at a significantly more rigorous and challenging level.
As teachers, we are perhaps more used to change than those in some other professions. Our students change every year. The expectations of what we are to teach and how we are to teach it change far too often, depending on other changes in school systems and state and federal approaches to education policies. But, as I have found, teachers are among the most adaptable people in the world. And we don't just adapt; we adapt with energy and style.
As an elementary school teacher, there is much to like about the Common Core English language arts standards. There is clear vertical articulation and integration across the grades. As children move through elementary school, there is more and more focus on learning the strategies necessary to really sink into informational text. There is a clear and strong connection among comprehension, oral language, and writing.
From the start, children are learning and integrating the skills they will need for critical thinking: explaining, comparing, and contrasting; drawing conclusions; evaluating; and supporting arguments with evidence from the texts. Instead of spending a great deal of time on comprehension strategies that allow students to simply hang out around the edges of the text (prereading activities, making connections, focusing on the simplistic aspects of character or plot), teaching literacy through Common Core standards requires teachers to equip students with the strategies that allow them to jump directly—and deeply—into the text.
For me, a departmentalized 5th grade teacher with a love of social studies, Common Core standards offer an exciting and logical opportunity to teach literacy through content. This is something many elementary school teachers have talked about in recent years as more and more instructional time has been given to reading and math, with little time left for science or social studies instruction.
Content-rich text—both informational and literary—offers numerous opportunities for teaching the reading strategies that will allow students to read, analyze, and write with rigor while relying heavily on the evidence they can pull directly from the text to support their arguments and ideas. The focus on finding evidence in the text, comparing different perspectives on topics or events, and inferring all lend themselves to a greater reliance on content-based text.
In preparation for our adoption of the Common Core standards last August, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) created a year's worth of reading units for each grade, K–5. For 5th grade, each unit is grounded in a historical topic that matches up with our 5th grade social studies curriculum (U.S. History: 1800–Present). Each unit highlights several Common Core standards for literary and informational text, as well as for writing and speaking and listening. Each unit includes suggested activities and suggested summative assessments.
Having this blueprint without having tightly prescribed day-to-day teaching has been an exciting and creative experience this year. To see the growth of many of my students in the intensity and depth they can now bring to analyzing their reading and writing confirms for me that we are on a great road to helping our students prepare for whatever their life will be after high school graduation.
However, it has also been an exhausting and daunting year. As other school districts move ahead with implementing the Common Core standards, I believe paying attention to the following big issues will help make this effort more successful:
- Extensive and ongoing professional development, well in advance of expected implementation: We had little advance professional development on identifying complex texts, scaffolding and differentiating complex texts for younger and less-proficient readers, and pacing. As wonderful as it has been to have unit outlines, they were only available several weeks before we were expected to teach them. Teachers need time to learn, reflect, practice, and collaborate.
- Sharing best practices across district and state lines: With ever-dwindling resources in all school districts, the ability to share thinking, lesson plans, and the location and acquisition of resources will be such a boon for teachers. But, here again, school districts must be willing to give teachers the time to collaborate and understand that this will be time well-spent in the journey to fully implement Common Core standards.
- Access to fully aligned classroom materials, provided by school districts: Many existing textbooks and trade books include few, if any, opportunities for accessing complex text, and differentiated reading materials are also often scarce.
- Err on the side of moving slower: It took years to reach consensus on the need for common standards, then it took several years to actually write and vet the standards. Now, as we move ahead with implementation, we must give teachers, administrators, students, and parents the opportunity to unpack these standards in a methodical and thoughtful way.
As teachers, our goal is to ensure the success of all our students. This means that we are constantly changing up our instruction and our thinking about students. Time and time again, teachers have shown how well they can adapt to change—from their administrators, from their district, from their state, or from Congress. But let's learn from the hard lessons of the past. School districts must see themselves as partners with their teachers in successful implementation.
Over the next three years, I am fortunate to be part of a core group of teachers doing just that—spearheading the development of Common Core curriculum in DCPS. This three-year initiative (a partnership between Center for Inspired Teaching and DCPS) called BLISS, Building Literacy in the Social Studies, involves a core group of 5th through 9th grade DCPS social studies teachers writing the district's middle school social studies curriculum. Together we are designing, teaching, and revising Common Core–based units that will culminate in whole-course curricula by the 2013–14 school year. This program could mark a new era in professional development in DCPS in which teachers themselves are creating districtwide curriculum and leading professional development across the city.
Moving to full implementation of Common Core standards across the curriculum offers administrators, teachers, and students a wonderful opportunity to work together to align what goes on in the classroom with 21st century realities and expectations. I believe we will be successful if we continue to see this process as a joint effort and deliberately allocate time for professional development and collaboration, provide a spectrum of aligned materials, and take our time to do this right. Our nation's children depend on it.
Vicki Otten has been a 5th grade teacher at Murch Elementary School in Washington, D.C., since 2004. She is the reading/social studies teacher for a departmentalized 5th grade. Prior to becoming a teacher, she spent many years working for a U.S. senator on a range of policy issues.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 21. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.