I am the type of person who spends a lot of time thinking about projects. As an undergraduate chemistry major, I performed many “thought experiments” (to borrow the term credited to Galileo). I changed temperatures and times and concentrations, all the while keeping track of how those changes altered the outcome of my experimental set ups, all in the comfort of the quiet study area just off the floor of the main lab facility. My lab partner always thought I was crazy for spending so much time and effort in thought; his approach was much more the “get out there and get messy” approach. He was fearless, and often wrong. But past mistakes never discouraged him from cleaning up the glassware and starting over, even when one lab activity had to be repeated after some 19 hours in prep work all because several milliliters of acid were added a few moments too early.
Years later, I think about the Common Core in somewhat the same way. I manipulate variables in my mind, dream about what the “ideal” class set up might be, and think about how students might respond to a new set of standards and subsequent (and inevitable) assessments that are sure to follow. I would like to offer a few suggestions about Common Core and implementation that I have been pondering of late…
1) As President Franklin Roosevelt stated, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Put into the context of Common Core, we have nothing to fear as educational professionals in this new and daunting set of national standards so long as we are equipped with knowledge and have the time to think about how the teaching of a new set of common standards might impact our own practice. In my school district, we have been fortunate enough to have administrators and teachers/leaders who believe that being in front of a major change and preparing for it thoughtfully and strategically is much more advantageous than getting “steamrolled” by a change in hindsight and attempting to play “catch up.” Call it “professional awareness;” call it “inevitable;” we would like to think that the changes in content standards dictated by the Common Core are nothing we should fear. We would also like to think that our administrators value our professional knowledge and expertise and value the time it takes to consider and implement “change.”
2) “Knowledge is power” goes the old saying. We have spent hours of district and building inservice time examining the documents from “Common Core” (http://www.corestandards.org/) and then we have spent hours aligning our curriculum to those new standards. We have engaged in cross-discipline conversations (math, science, and Career and Technical Education teachers, for example), grade-level articulation discussions (who is currently teaching what content that is now being moved into which lower grade level, for example), building-specific discussions, and even department discussions, all designed to push us to think about our practice and pedagogy. We think differently now about Common Core, but we have had building and district leadership who have dedicated time and resources in order for those conversations and reflections to take place.
3) We are not in the thinking process alone! Literally every school district in our state is undergoing major paradigm shifts about Common Core; some are even considering the Common Core State Assessments and the certainty of how those assessments might change our teaching emphasis from lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to higher and more applied levels. Knowing how this assessment process is shaping up and thinking about the implementation of practical, higher-order thinking skill tasks is incredibly important to the success of our students on these new measures. Here is where school districts and building leaders could and should tap into the wealth of resources available through the Oregon Department of Education (www.ode.state.or.us) and through “SBAC,” the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.” (www.smarterbalanced.org) The latter organization is currently seeking test item writers and test item pilot sites in which to actually determine the validity and reliability of test items to assess student content and process knowledge. Another great (and greatly under-utilized) resource is the curriculum and instruction professionals at our local ESDs. These educators may not be in the classroom, but they do have time to research and think about how Common Core might impact, say, a 2nd grade teacher’s content delivery or a high school English teacher’s unit on how to conduct a research study. Our district has been fortunate to benefit from the expertise of a number of ESD-led workshops, and our building and district leaders have not been hesitant to tap into the expertise of our local ESD.
4) Finally, like my chemistry lab partner of undergraduate days, there comes a time to stop thinking and “Just Do It.” (Sorry, Nike!) With enough thoughtful reflection and timely support, implementation of the Common Core might just be more than a “thought experiment.” It will be a team effort, and it will take some bold and critical assessment of individual practice in the classroom. On the other hand, if we, as educators, are armed with knowledge and given time to plan and think, to implement and innovate without fear, and then to critically reflect on the outcomes we see in our students’ academic performances, we will be doing what has become a mantra in my own school district… “doing what’s best for kids.”