The Common Core State Standards significantly change what we expect of students. Students will be required to engage with complex informational texts and apply literacy skills across disciplines. In math, they'll grapple with challenging problems that connect mathematical understanding and procedural skill.
These new demands set new teaching challenges. Literacy no longer falls solely under the purview of English language arts teachers. Science teachers and social studies teachers will need to connect the Common Core standards with their content. This means that student assignments must be content rich and literacy saturated. In math, teachers must not only assess students' ability to do a math procedure but also recognize their depth of understanding and respond with appropriate instruction.
As education leaders, how do we address the shifts required to move the new standards from policy to practice? How can we set high expectations and, at the same time, offer the necessary supports? Too often, our approach has been either/or. On one hand, we've tended to teach rigorous content with too much "chalk and talk," and we've disengaged students as a result. On the other, we've often engaged students in fun activities with little demand that they grapple with rich content or learn crucial skills.
Clearly, the Common Core State Standards are a starting point to address these issues. They set clear demands by articulating the skills that students must learn for college and careers. Through two multistate assessment consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced—states, districts, and schools will soon have effective ways to measure students' development of skills aligned with the new standards.
The external demand is being set. What now remains is the large and often ignored space between the standards and state assessments—teaching and learning in the classroom.
Here's where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can help. To create more powerful interactions between students and teachers around more rigorous content, we're involved with two practice-focused initiatives—the Literacy Design Collaborative and the Mathematics Design Collaborative—both of which were codeveloped by teachers and offer an array of free resources to educators. The collaboratives try to find the right balance between providing teachers with supports tied to the new standards and allowing teachers to make decisions, be creative, and contribute their own content and instructional expertise.
The Literacy Design Collaborative
The Literacy Design Collaborative is a community of subject-area teachers, literacy experts, and education organizations that provides teachers with a framework and tools to support literacy-saturated classrooms in science, social studies, English language arts, and other content areas. Using the tools, which include template tasks, modules, and courses, teachers design assignments that require students to read and analyze complex texts and to write an argument or informational piece that reflects the demands of the new standards and incorporates evidence from the texts.
Template tasks are fill-in-the-blank shells, built off the Common Core standards, which teachers can use to create reading and writing assignments. (See a complete listing of the 29 template tasks.) The templates ask teachers to pose a question regarding specific content, determine the type of texts students will read, and designate a writing product for students to complete. The template tasks are flexible because they offer various options; level 2 and 3 questions (L2 and L3) make the task increasingly more demanding.
Template tasks address all three types of writing specified by the new standards: argumentation, informational or explanatory text, and narrative. Each of the 29 tasks offers one or two variations as well as examples of how teachers can use the task in English language arts, science, and social studies. A rubric and scoring exemplars are included with the prompt.
Consider task 2, which targets argumentation and analysis:
[Insert question] After reading ___________ (literature or informational text), write a/an _____ (essay or substitute) that addresses the question and support your position with evidence from the text(s). L2: Be sure to acknowledge competing views. L3: Give examples from past or current events or issues to illustrate and clarify your position.
In a high school chemistry class, the teacher used the template to pose the following question: Does using plastics in food and drink containers pose a serious threat to human health? Students were assigned several scientific sources to read and were asked to write a report that addressed both level 2 and 3 questions.
A middle grades science class used the template to address the question, Should adolescents be required to wear helmets during recreational activities, such as bike riding and skateboarding? Students had to read informational texts on Newton's laws of motion, bodily injury, and current state laws on helmet requirements to prepare for writing a letter to their state representative that addressed the question and supported their position with evidence from the texts.
Template tasks usually take two to four weeks to complete. To help teachers plan the instructional strategies that will help students finish the assignment, teachers can use module templates, which were developed by teachers as well as by such organizations as the National Paideia Center. (See sample modules.)
The module framework asks teachers to use a template to design their task; to identify the skills students need to develop to accomplish the task, such as the ability to take notes; and to list the resources students need to read. Then it asks teachers to organize their instruction around a set of minitasks that engage students in addressing the larger assignment over the next several weeks.
Sample modules developed by teachers are available in English language arts, science and technical subjects, and history and social studies. Modules include
- In English language arts, "Romeo and Juliet: Decisions, Decisions," in which students use a business decision-making model and read articles on current adolescent brain research to evaluate the decisions that Romeo and Juliet make.
- In science and technical subjects, "Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria," in which students investigate the role antibiotics play in the evolution of resistant strains of bacteria.
- In history and social studies, "Alexander the Great," in which students address the question, From a historical perspective, how great was Alexander as a military commander?
Partners in the Literacy Design Collaborative are beginning to think through strategies for connecting modules as part of a larger instructional approach to implementing the Common Core State Standards, such as within existing courses or strategically across courses or even across grades. We're starting to see examples, including efforts by a partnership between the National Paideia Center at the University of North Carolina and New Visions for Public Schools in New York City, of how these modules can serve as building blocks to create new courses.
Part of the power of the Literacy Design Collaborative framework is that it also enables teacher-to-teacher support across classrooms, districts, and even states. Through new online tools such as Module Creator, teachers can find modules created by their colleagues and then adopt or adapt the assignments and instructional approaches.
The Mathematics Design Collaborative
To ensure alignment with the Common Core State Standards and promote deep math learning, teachers can use the Math Design Collaborative system in conjunction with their current math curriculum. Tools include
- Formative Assessment Lessons (now referred to as Classroom Challenges), which are a blend of instruction and assessment that teachers can use every two weeks to deepen student understanding of math concepts and applications and gauge students' level of learning. (Learn more about Classroom Challenges and download sample lessons.)
- Summative assessment tests that reflect Common Core State Standards performance targets, which teachers can use to track student learning over a course or grade.
- Professional learning modules, which support teachers in their understanding of the pedagogical and mathematical implications of using the formative assessment lessons and summative tests. The learning modules include guides; teacher handouts; and videos that introduce the formative assessment model, look in-depth at the math concepts that underpin the formative assessment lessons, and explore the key pedagogical features of the lessons—namely, asking probing questions and engaging students in collaborative learning.
To see how a typical lesson plays out using this framework, consider an 8th grade math lesson on solving linear equations. From the start, the lesson is designed to help teachers assess how well students are able to (1) solve linear equations in one variable with rational number coefficients; (2) collect like terms; (3) expand expressions using the distributive property; and (4) categorize linear equations in one variable as having one solution, no solutions, or infinitely many solutions. The lesson also aims to encourage discussion on some common misconceptions about algebra.
Before the lesson begins, students work individually on a pre-assessment task designed to reveal their current understandings and difficulties. The teacher will use information from this pre-assignment to customize the formative assessment lesson to student needs and create questions for students to consider when improving their work, such as, Is it better to use this chart or that one to display your data? or What patterns do you see in these data, and what might be the reasons for these patterns?
After a whole-class introduction to the topic, students work in small groups on a task, categorizing equations on the basis of the number of solutions. Throughout their work, students justify and explain their thinking and reasoning. Students then critique the work of others and discuss as a class what they've learned. Finally, they return to their original task and work on improving their initial responses.
At the end of the lesson, students show what they've learned by successfully completing the same assessment they completed before the lesson. Teachers can analyze student growth responses across the pre- and post-lesson assessments to shape additional instruction. (Learn more about lessons and modules.)
What School Leaders Need to Do
Education leaders have a guiding role to play in creating the conditions and environments that allow for successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Here's how they can effectively address some of the challenges.
How can school leaders ensure rigor in teaching and learning—and what does this look like in the classroom? Literacy and math collaborative tools can help educators tackle these issues.
For example, the Literacy Design Collaborative framework "hardwires" the Common Core standards in reading and writing into the curriculum while allowing teachers to contribute subject-area content based on state and district standards. The Mathematics Design Collaborative's framework demands that students apply their mathematical skills to new and unknown problems, thus showing that they understand the principles involved and are not just parroting back a formula.
We're hearing from principals and teachers that the math formative assessments' competency demands are influencing the assignments that teachers give and how they teach. For example, teachers are beginning to design learning opportunities that mirror the math collaborative's formative assessment lesson approach, including incorporating into their day-to-day instruction and student work the strategies of asking probing questions and engaging students in collaborative learning.
In surveys conducted by Research for Action, a large majority of teachers reported that the literacy modules have led to both improved student writing and deeper understanding of content.1
A majority of math teachers surveyed reported that the math modules have encouraged students to engage in mathematical discussions and have improved students' math reasoning skills.2
The tools provided by the two collaboratives enable both teachers and administrators to create a common understanding of rigor and identify when an assignment or approach is high quality—or not. Teachers and administrators can work together to look at modules and analyze the resulting student work during common planning times and professional development days. In some cases, they can work together virtually through statewide initiatives in Pennsylvania and Kentucky and through such teacher-to-teacher collaboratives as the newly formed Teacher-to-Teacher Experts supported by the Gates Foundation.
Ensure Literacy-Saturated Learning Experiences
The Literacy Design Collaborative and Math Design Collaborative tools are starting to engage both teachers and students in the expectations of the Common Core State Standards, with their two-week and two-to-four-week units that teachers can insert into their curriculums. Moving forward, we need to shift from teaching the new standards during certain points of the year to establishing them as the foundation for students' school experiences.
With this in mind, the National Paideia Center and New Visions for Public Schools in New York City have partnered to design a Common Core literacy-saturated experience for middle and high school social studies and language arts classes. Instead of inserting literacy modules at certain points in the curriculum, they're starting with the Common Core State Standards and building courses using the collaborative's framework as the foundation. Their current focus is developing courses for social studies organized around big ideas.
For example, the new modules tackle such essential questions as, Why do we study history? How do scientists learn from nature? What is justice? Why do human beings form governments? The texts and tasks in the modules become increasingly sophisticated over time and call for students to present their work publicly through student journals, course websites, student academic conferences, and community presentations.
But significant questions remain: What makes students want to learn and become producers of products that benefit their classroom, school, or community? How do we tap into student interest and aptitude in technology? We're learning a lot from our partners about possibilities in this area.
For example, education nonprofit Educurious is working to develop next-generation courses based on Common Core standards and Next Generation Science Standards. The courses include project-based, media-rich units in biology on such topics as genetics, ecology, and infectious disease, in which students conduct investigations using contemporary science tools and technology. Students solicit feedback on their written research products from scientists, college faculty, and other professionals through The Educurious Expert Network (TEEN). Underpinning these units are Literacy Design Collaborative modules in which students analyze background readings and write scientific papers, scientific abstracts, and funding proposals.
Ensure the Three Cs: Coherence, Collaboration, and Communication
The work of the two collaboratives enables school leaders to avoid school reform pile-on by focusing on creating coherence. Partner organizations are working with principals and teacher teams to use the Literacy Design Collaborative's tools to create connections among different literacy approaches that are already in place, such as Reading Apprenticeship and Cornell Notes.
We see strong examples of teacher collaboration connected to the Math Design Collaborative. One New York City school has implemented early dismissal every Friday so teachers can learn about and use the Math Design Collaborative's tools, create related units, collectively look at student work, and share strategies as they implement the new math approach.
Finally, leaders can't ignore the need to promote communication among stakeholders about the value of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, how best to implement it, and what the standards mean for us all. For example, both the literacy and math collaboratives recently hosted teacher debates in which participants engaged in thought-provoking, passionate discussions about the pros and cons of connecting these new strategies to teacher observation and evaluation systems.
Ensure Time to Learn
During the past two years, the Gates Foundation has helped districts, states, and education organizations involved in piloting and scaling the two collaboratives to create extra time for teachers to engage in this work outside of school budgets and the regular school day. Although crucial for launching such initiatives, this approach doesn't ensure sustainability. We must find more viable approaches.
For example, principals may choose to create time within the school day for teacher collaboration around assignments from the Literacy Design Collaborative or Math Design Collaborative. They may reduce class size in core subjects to support writing instruction and formative assessment while increasing class size in elective courses. Finally, they may schedule more time in core subjects to promote in-depth instruction aligned to the Common Core standards.
A Strong Backbone
Leading through the tension of high expectations and high supports, particularly in the new environment of the Common Core standards, takes time, energy, guts—and sometimes a steel spine. It all comes down to a sharp focus on what happens in the classroom. The work and tools of the Literacy Design Collaborative and Math Design Collaborative can serve as valuable entry points for school improvement—and for engaging students in the productive and rewarding struggles that lead to deeper learning.