PARCC and Smarter Balanced are hitting a rough patch these days. States are dropping the lengthy, expensive assessments for reasons political, ethical, financial, and personal. In Illinois, where I am an administrator, we learned just last week that only juniors will be tested beginning in March of 2015. The Common Core has literacy standards for grades 9-10 and 11-12, so we will be testing students in the middle of a two-year cycle. Very little of this testing drama has made sense, and although I am not a fan of testing, I have become a fan of Common Core. Before you go dipping your torches in kerosene and leading me down to the crypt to taste the rare Amontillado, hear me out. Despite all the furor over testing, teaching has gotten so much better.
In 1999, our reading specialists came to me with an idea to incorporate reading skills 9-12th grade across the disciplines. Brilliant! But I soon found that only a few of my fellow English teachers felt it was important and nobody wanted to branch out into other departments—too risky. Yet this summer, 54 teachers in my district representing English, science, social studies, health and consumer education got together to learn how to teach close reading and literacy skills. We hired a consultant, expanded our roster of reading coaches, and convinced teachers that we have to accept that not all high school students come to us able to read. Even more, we can’t keep passing them along without meeting them where they are. I feel like we have taken WAY too long to get here, but we are moving in a decidedly positive direction.
As someone who has been in education for 22 years now, I can’t believe how good our teachers have gotten. We don’t have teachers standing in the front of the classroom interpreting a novel for drowsy students followed by a few 5 point quizzes and a reductive 5 paragraph essay. We talk about depth of knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, close reading, and authorial intent. We have moved away from teaching a book because kids should read it and, instead, instilled the skills of reading while having students apply what they have learned to something they have chosen. Educators have read their Atwood, Frey, Fischer, Robb, Beers, Probst, Schmoker, Kittle, Gallagher, Burke, Daniels, and even newcomers Lehman and Roberts. We are blogging and tweeting and instagramming to get better and better. While little good can be said of the experiment that was NCLB, it did cause us all to put student learning first.
It is a terrifying and exciting time to be in education. Does Common Core change the world? It does for the teachers at my school who work with 4000+ students a year in multiple subjects. Without the push of Common Core and the utter failure of NCLB, we couldn’t be having these discussions. We are educating so many more kids so much better than we ever have. But it is difficult and different for many teachers. And many do not like it. They would prefer to be standing and delivering their latest lesson designed to engage an entire class with every allusion and inference in Tale of Two Cities. They liked being the sage on the stage. But once they take the leap and become the guide on the side, the conversations are so much richer, deeper, and fruitful. That conversation they had such a hard time coaxing out of the whole class flows in small groups.
The data shows (because English teachers are finally collecting it!) that more students are learning more and better and deeper. Sadly, we can’t get the word out about our achievements. If we promote our growth we are seen as jumping on the common core bandwagon. If we celebrate our student success, we have to explain that we did it by getting to know the needs of individual students rather than teaching to the middle. If the press asks why, now, we have ten times more students taking AP classes than ten years ago, we can’t in good conscience say we didn’t believe they could do it back then.
Will the new tests show any of this? Not at first. Scores will be low the first time out. Teachers will get blamed. Newspapers will talk about failing American schools. But in the classrooms across the country where the politics are left by the door and leaders are bringing the latest and greatest methods, all students are learning more because teachers are learning more. Better yet, teachers are learning how to empower their students which prepares them for their futures. Someday, maybe the assessments will learn how to measure that. Or the powers that be may just have to ask the teachers.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Lyons Township High School, IL