Posted: Tuesday, May 14th, 2013
Most people would agree that it’s a good idea for educators to work from a written plan that is focused on students learning important knowledge and skills. Writing a set of standards is a way to create such a plan.
In the district where I taught for 20 years, teachers, parents and administrators worked together to write standards for language arts. There was a tremendous sense of ownership, and for five or six years those standards were alive and well in K-12 classroom. Then what happened? Teachers retired and new teachers were hired. Administrators moved up the ladder of responsibility. Interestingly enough, parents were the most stable element of the group, many remaining closely involved with the schools as one child after another reached kindergarten age and entered the system.
The natural turnover in education makes it necessary to revisit standards for them to remain viable. About the time that our language arts standards needed a visit, several other sets of standards competed for attention. When different directions are coming from multiple sources, the natural response is to shut out the confusion and rely instead on what is most familiar. Under such circumstances, teachers reach back to what they experienced in school, modulated somewhat by what they learned in teacher preparation programs. In other words, confusion about standards tends to reinforce the habits of the past and impede progress toward the future.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have the potential to clarify what’s important in a 21st century education by establishing shared standards in all states. (At this writing, four states have declined to adopt the CCSS and one is using only the language arts standards.)
There are essentially two approaches to writing standards. One is to list every skill and concept that a child should learn by grade level, K-12. The problem with this approach is that teachers may feel the need to race at a breakneck pace through the long to-do list, sacrificing real learning for covering the curriculum. The other approach is to decide on a small number of essential skills and concepts that students will be working on throughout their years of school, and to back this list up with more detailed information about what mastery of the essentials looks like at each grade level. This approach gives teachers permission to limit the number of topics covered and focus on individual needs and strengths. This is the approach taken by CCSS.
As long as I have been involved in education, people have worried about national standards and national tests. The typical line taken is that parents, teachers and administrators want local standards and local control. In a society as mobile as ours, it’s a huge responsibility to prepare students for college, careers and, we hope, fulfilling lives given that they may eventually live in a wide variety of regions and settings. The responsibility gets even huger when we think about how rapidly our knowledge base is increasing, along with the technology to share and store that knowledge.
In my opinion, we need to “think globally and act locally.” All learning is local because it can only happen in a specific, personal context, but those who guide learning need to have a larger perspective. The CCSS offers that larger perspective to parents and educators nationwide. It’s important to note that a recent poll of members of the American Federation of Teachers shows 75 percent support CCSS. Teachers recognize the value of shared standards, but they need some time and support to do a good job of integrating them in their long-term plans and in their day-to-day work with students.
Jeanetta Jones Miller taught for 25 years in public schools in Albany, California, and Newtown, Connecticut, serving as English department chair at Newtown High School from 2001 to 2011. She specialized in curriculum development and served on committees that developed interdisciplinary reading and writing standards.