Common sense on Common Core

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Bruce Taylor

Bruce Taylor

David Coleman and his team developed the Common Core State Standards in slightly less than a year between 2009 and 2010.  That quick turnaround time begs the question, “How complicated can this be?” 

But in the four years since, education’s mandarins have produced landfills-worth of material to explain and promote the new standards–graphs, charts, curriculum documents, reference material, frameworks and guidelines.  Textbook publishers rushed out “old wine in new bottles,” by slapping on labels proclaiming, “Aligned with the Common Core!”  Yet no one has comprehensively piloted this new paradigm, and no one can provide enough longitudinal evidence on the effectiveness of any particular instructional approach for it. 

The end result is a web of complexity that too often results in pedagogical overload for administrators and classroom teachers who will have to do the work “in the trenches” of transforming teaching and learning.

Yet what the education world needs right now is a dose of perspective and common sense when it comes to the Common Core.

Putting content into context

First, the shift to Common Core-focused instruction will have to take into account two contradictory realities. One is education’s obsession with the amount of content students should process and remember. For confirmation of this, just skim through any of today’s 800 to 1,300-page high school textbooks. Juxtaposed with this focus on content is another reality: An unlimited amount of information is available, 24 hours a day, from practically anywhere on the planet, via the Internet.  Further, the amount of information, on any subject, is increasing at almost an exponential rate.  Soon, technology will not only be able to provide content, but to furnish the answers to questions about content.

As a result, it will become paramount for students to learn how to put content into a productive context, rather than just know what that content is. The justification for the Common Core rests on one overriding, hoped-for outcome: That students will develop the ability to think, not just remember information.

As I deconstruct what David Coleman and his team have wrought, I believe that the foundation of Common Core rests upon thinking skills represented by about two dozen key terms. Each of these terms—such as analyze, evaluate, develop, main idea, infer, theme and others—represents a specific cognitive process required for learning within the structure of Common Core.  Understanding what these terms actually mean is more important than being able to recite simple definitions.  For example, “metaphor” is often defined as, “A comparative not using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’ ” However, if you ask a student, “What does that actually mean?” you will often get a simple shrug of the shoulders.  Indeed, “rock is a stone” is a comparative, but not a metaphor. 

The more useful meaning of metaphor can be expressed as, “understanding one thing in terms of another,” or describing something as being something else, even though it is not actually that something else, as in ‘He is the black sheep of the family.”

For students who enter school with a vocabulary deficit, like many of those in Chicago Public Schools, it is all the more important for them to grasp the concepts inherent in each of the key terms that are the foundation of the Common Core’s thinking skills.

Giving ‘teaching to the test’ a positive spin

While the upcoming Common Core-aligned assessments such as the PARCC will focus exclusively on passages of text as the content of their tests, application of the thinking skills referenced above is not limited to the written word. “Content,” per se, can be anything–students can analyze a piece of music, develop an hypothesis, interpret data, determine a common theme that flows through an historical period, compare or contrast two images on the same subject, evaluate the claims made on a website, and so forth. 

Each of those italicized words is embedded repeatedly in the Common Core English Language Arts standards and collectively they form the basis of PARCC questions and prompts. Lesson content used to develop students’ understanding can even come from the students’ own cultural and social contexts, not being limited to strictly academic material.  Proficiency with these skills increases students’ development into competent adults.

Bottom line: The Common Core was devised not only as a way to level the pedagogical playing field from state to state, but also to prepare students to grow up as capable adults in an increasingly complex, global 21st Century economy and society that will require them to imagine things that do not yet exist, produce products and methods that matter to someone else, and communicate effectively with people different from themselves.

So if teaching through the prism of Common Core is intended to deepen students’ capacity to actually think in a variety of ways, and if assessments such as the PARCC actually measure to what degree this has been attained, perhaps “teaching to the test” could take on a more positive gloss.

 Ultimately, the Common Core has the potential for encouraging a greater interest in life-long learning as our children will live in a more dynamic world that will require constant adaptation to new and unfamiliar experiences.  In spite of some current efforts to derail the implementation of Common Core, the train has left the station. If past precedents regarding educational reform are any indication, Common Core, or some manifestation of it, is on track to remain with us for at least the next decade.

Bruce Taylor is a consultant and the author of  two books on arts education: “The Arts Equation”  and “Common Sense Arts Standards.” He has served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department and as the director of education for Washington National Opera.