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February 23, 2016

Common Core’s happy days may be here again

Did a relationship ever sour so quickly as the Common Core and public opinion? Back in 2010 when the college- and career-ready standards were shiny and new, leaders from business and higher education as well as a certain U.S. Secretary of Education praised their rigor, coherence and attention to critical thinking. Within a year, 45 governors and D.C. had rushed to adopt them as their own – a move a majority of teachers and parents viewed favorably.

Then, implementation happened. Many teachers felt rushed to produce results. Parents couldn’t understand their child’s homework. Their anxiety fed chatter on talk radio and social media that did the incredible. It united anti-corporate progressives and anti-government tea partiers in opposition to the new standards and the assessments that go with them. States once on board with the program began to bail in face of angry constituents.

Recently, though, the mood appears to be shifting back into neutral. Presidential candidates deliver variations of the “repeal Common Core” line to applause, but the issue doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction in the race. The newly reauthorized ESEA deflates anti-Common Core messaging by explicitly forbidding the federal government from compelling or encouraging state adoption of any set of standards, including the Common Core.  After a flurry of state legislative proposals were introduced to undo the standards, only a handful were ever signed into law, and in some of those states, the replacements aren’t substantively different from the ones they tossed.

New studies related to the Common Core could prompt a wary public to give the standards a second look. In the first, a Harvard research team led by Thomas Kane surveyed a representative sample of teachers and principals in five Common Core states about implementation strategies. They were then able to match responses to student performance on the Core-aligned assessments, PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

According to their report, Teaching Higher: Educators’ perspective on Common Core implementation, three out of four teachers have “embraced the new standards” either “quite a bit” or “fully.” When asked how much of their classroom instruction changed, a similar proportion said it had by one half or more. Four in five math teachers say they have increased “emphasis on conceptual understanding” and “application of skills,” while an even higher proportion of English teachers reported assigning more writing “with use of evidence.” All are attributes emphasized in the standards.

The research team then related the survey results to students’ scores on the new assessments after controlling for demographics and prior achievement. While they did not find strategies of particular impact on English language arts, they did identify math practices that were associated with higher student scores: more professional development days; more classroom observations “with explicit feedback tied to the Common Core”; and the “inclusion of Common Core-aligned student outcomes in teacher evaluations.”

Casting light on such strategies is only worthwhile, however, if there is also evidence that the Common Core are good standards. Enter the Fordham Institute. The education think tank assembled a team of 40 experts in assessment and teaching to evaluate the quality of PARCC and Smarter Balanced. For comparison, they examined college-ready aligned ACT Aspire and MCAS, the highly regarded Massachusetts state assessment. The grades 5 and 8 test forms were analyzed against criteria developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers for evaluating “high-quality assessments” that aim to assess college- and career-readiness.

The short version.  All four tests scored highly for “depth,” that is, items that are “cognitively demanding.” PARCC and Smarter Balanced, however, edged out both ACT Aspire and MCAS in “content.” The researchers conducted an additional analysis against other assessments and found the Common Core-aligned tests also “call for greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills than either NAEP or [the international] PISA, both of which are considered to be high-quality challenging assessments.”

Whether or not participating in national standards is a good idea is a decision that should rightfully be made by individual states. There are many legitimate political arguments for going either way, and each state will likely view it differently. But whether the Common Core standards – in full or in part – represent the expectations a state should have for all its students is an educational question that is worth considering on its own merits.

These early reports suggest that the new standards are higher and deeper than what states had before. Most teachers, although not all, have “embraced” them and are changing their instruction accordingly. We are learning anecdotally, too, that as parents see evidence of their child’s growth, they come around as supporters (see here and here).  What this means for the future is anyone’s guess. But for now it’s looking like the Common Core or something very much like them may be seeing happier days ahead. — Patte Barth

This entry first appeared on Huffington Post February 22, 2016.

 






January 29, 2016

Developing Social Emotional Learning in K-12

The Fordham Institute released a report yesterday on
Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL is a process where people learn to recognize and manage emotions, learn empathy and responsibility, and develop positive relationships.

The movement began in the 1960s in New Haven, CT when a collaborative social development program achieved success at one of the lowest performing elementary schools in the district. By the early 1980s, these two pilot schools went from having among the worst truancy and behavioral problems in the district to achieving academic results at the national average and seeing a large decline in absenteeism and behavior issues. This spurred the movement on to other school districts. The field was ultimately defined by the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) which promoted SEL projects such as responsible behavior, good decision making, and building relationships.

SEL researchers and educators believe it will help students develop important soft skills for life and develop their academic achievement by creating a culture of respect in the classroom. Research shows that when students feel comfortable and respected in the classroom, they are more likely to participate in class, take risks, and therefore, learn more.

There has been another developing movement to teach resilience, grit and a growth mindset (versus fixed mindset) in schools. The idea is to get away from talk that sounds like “I’m not good at math” and change student’s mindsets into “I’m struggling with math right now but if I keep working hard and ask for help I know I’ll be good at it.” This is certainly easier said than done but are very important skills for children to develop to encourage the idea that hard work and resilience can help them accomplish their goals. We may know that some people are born with certain talents, but for the most part, people achieve success by hard work and practice, something we should foster in all students.

There is overlap between the growth mindset and SEL and educators need not necessarily choose between the two. Both are important for students for students to learn.

It is interesting that in the world of academic achievement, accountability, and standardized tests, movements promoting soft skills are gaining more and more attention. Districts and school leaders are warming to the idea that soft skills such as SEL and growth mindsets need to actively be taught in schools. Teachers, of course, have always known that soft skills are critical and have been losing time to teach them as they are forced to focus on the next test. Although SEL is important at every grade level, it is most often focused on in elementary and early middle grades when children’s attitudes towards school and their ability to form relationships are most developing.

This is all connected to the newest movement, particularly in high schools, to make students “Career Ready”. The exact measures needed to be career ready are still being debated but some of them are, incidentally, familiar to the SEL goals. Students must be ready to take responsibility for their actions, build appropriate relationships with coworkers and supervisors, cope with adversity etc. There are more specific career goals but the ability to regulate one’s emotions are crucial to beginning a career.

High schoolers are notorious for having raging hormones and difficulty regulating emotion- it certainly comes with the territory of being that age. But, students need to learn and practice skills to get along with difficult people and take responsibility for their actions if they are to succeed, in both college and careers paths.

These three movements have overlapping goals and it may be time to start discussing how social and emotional learning can be vertically aligned from kindergarten through grade 12. –Breanna Higgins

Resources on SEL

http://www.edutopia.org/resilience-grit-resources

http://www.edutopia.org/article/grit-resources

http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/197157.aspx

http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/

 

Filed under: 21st century education,Career Readiness,instruction,Public education — Breanna Higgins @ 2:27 pm





October 15, 2015

Schoolwork worth doing

“Ok, students, it’s time to get out your crayons!”

Hearing this never fails to delight kindergarteners in the classroom. But what about in seventh grade social studies, even if colored pencils are substituted for crayons?  Outside of art class, does drawing really represent the kind of work middle-schoolers should be doing to get ready for high school?

Analysts for the Education Trust recently examined the quality of classroom assignments in a half dozen middle schools in order to document the degree to which they were aligned to the Common Core’s English language arts standards. The preliminary results were published last month in the report Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards?.

The Ed Trust team was able to identify assignments that were clearly up to the task. But they also found that these were a fraction of what students are being asked to do on a daily basis. According to the analysis, a surprising few assignments were “aligned with a grade-appropriate standard” – 38 percent to be exact. The 7th grade drawing assignment cited above is an example. And the picture is even worse for students in high-poverty schools (31 percent “grade-appropriate”).

The research team examined both in- and out-of-school assignments given by 92 teachers to students grades six through eight over a two week period. Common Core-ELA standards cross subject areas so assignments were collected from teachers of English, humanities, history/social studies and science. The average number submitted per teachers was 17. Altogether the analysts scored nearly 1,600 assignments on such attributes as “alignment to Common Core,” “centrality of text,” “cognitive challenge” and “motivation and engagement.”

The report authors, Sonja Brookins Santelises and Joan Dabrowski, acknowledge that they did not expect to see 100 percent alignment to the higher-level demands expressed in the standards. Indeed, there is a place in the classroom for the occasional quick check of facts or basic skills practice that will help students use these tools more confidently when applied to more challenging tasks. But Santelises and Dabrowski did hope to see more rigor than they found, as follows:

  • 16 percent of assignments required students to “use a text for citing evidence”;
  • 4 percent required higher-level thinking; in contrast, 85 percent asked for either the recall of information or the application of basic skills;
  • 2 percent met their criteria for “relevance and choice”; and
  • not surprisingly given all this, only 5 percent were scored in the high range of the Ed Trust framework.

For me, reading this report was like déjà vu all over again. In the nineties and early aughts, I worked at the Ed Trust as part of a team that helped teachers in high-poverty schools align their lessons and assignments to state standards. During that time I can’t say how often we saw the “movie poster assignment” as the culminating task following a major unit of study. This assignment asks students to create, to draw, a movie poster on the topic as opposed to writing a paper or otherwise have students show their capacity to extend their thinking about the material. Could such an assignment be given occasionally as a break from a routine of academic heavy lifting? Absolutely. But in the schools we worked in, the movie poster wasn’t the exception. Too often, assignments like it were the routine.

Today, as it was then, low-level assignments are not a teacher-led plot to keep kids illiterate. Teachers in many schools struggle to keep their students engaged while keeping up with overstuffed curricular and testing requirements. The problems are exacerbated when students are performing well below their peers. Teachers in such situations often respond by providing lessons in easy bits with the idea that they will eventually build to higher understanding – what educators call “scaffolding.” (I show an example of a scaffolded math lesson on slides 7-13 in a common core presentation you can find here.)  While the practice is sound, Santelises and Dabrowski documented an over-reliance on scaffolding which rarely led to independent learning.

Nonetheless, the fact that 5 percent of the lessons were complex and high-level is cause for optimism. These teachers clearly know what rigor looks like. In addition, because of the short two-week window, the analysts may well have missed out on major end-of-unit assignments that push students’ thinking to higher levels.

The Ed Trust team is continuing its study, which should tell us more about how typical these findings are. In the meantime, school leaders who want to know how well instruction in their schools and district align to higher standards can check out this implementation guide.






April 16, 2015

Soft skills now, strong foundation later

Last Thursday, U.S. News and World Report published an article that I believe is long overdue and is music to my ears. In it, the article calls attention to the contrasts between early childhood education (i.e., preschool) and the education of children in early childhood (which the article defines as children birth to eight years of age). Moreover, the article calls out the education community for the visible distinction between preschool and elementary school programs, instead suggesting that perhaps an integration, rather than a separation would be beneficial to our nation’s youngest students.

The article continues by highlighting approaches that are increasingly considered and used in preschool classrooms but are not on the radars of many elementary school teachers and administrators. Namely, the higher-order cognitive processes involved in manipulating complex information, sustaining attention during learning and task completion, and inhibiting impulsive responses, collected grouped as executive functioning, deserve considerable focus. Within the developmental and educational psychology literature, strong executive functioning has repeatedly demonstrated close ties to both academic and social achievement, including math achievement and social adjustment. Moreover, as CPE highlights in an upcoming report to be published later this summer, executive functioning seems fundamental for some skills that teachers and administrators might be more familiar with given the current climate regarding college- and career-readiness. Specifically, critical thinking, which is a much desired skill that many children and students are hoped to be able to demonstrate by the time they graduate high school, appears heavily reliant on one’s ability to manipulate complex information and to follow through multi-step problem-solving procedures.

Although the U.S. News and World Report article offered several areas in which childhood educators should address (or rather continue to address beyond just preschool), one which I believe deserves specific recognition is that of social-emotional development. Research shows that children who demonstrate social and emotional competencies, showcased, for example, by being able to regulate one’s emotions and to exhibit prosocial behaviors such as cooperation and sharing rather than aggressive behaviors such as hitting and yelling are generally better adjusted in formal schooling settings (i.e., elementary school) and less likely to be held back in later grades.

Looking forward, I am eager to see more articles such as this that highlight just how important processes such as executive functioning and social and emotional skills are beyond the preschool classroom. –David Ferrier






February 12, 2015

Reading the kindergarten Common Core State Standards with purpose and understanding

The Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) English Language Arts (ELA) benchmarks for kindergarteners came under scrutiny in a recently released report. Issued by two early education advocacy organizations, Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood, the report argues that “many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten” despite the CCSS requirement that prior to first grade, students are expected to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” If an impossible standard has been set, then expecting children to be able to do something beyond their capability appears to be a waste of time, money, and effort for all parties.

However, a deeper look into the CCSS English/Language Arts for elementary school children, provides an additional piece of information that should ease the concerns raised by the recent report. This introductory information notes that for kindergarten students, the goal is just for children to demonstrate an increased awareness and competencies in the ELA standards. Moreover, the CCSS does not advocate for removing play-based learning from the classroom, although a review of the report could easily allow a reader to believe that the CCSS explicitly denounces such practices. Surprisingly then, a complete read-through of the CCSS shows that the authors of the CCSS explicitly state that “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document” (p.6). Within the same document, the standard that the DEY/AFC report focuses on (Foundational Skills: Fluency) is on page 16. Thus, it becomes confusing how the DEY/AFC report can read the standards with such purpose, yet without understanding.

Last, and most importantly, the CCSS does not prescribe how teachers must reach these goals. As highlighted in our own 2013 publication on the Common Core, the CCSS is just a guiding document as to what the goals are, not the pathways in which to reach them. In fact, there is widespread support for play-based learning within the kindergarten curriculum. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the International Reading Association agree that pretend play is an important part of the learning process for young children. In an ideal world, using the CCSS in kindergarten should not interfere with incorporating play into the curriculum and in the practical world, whether or not play-based learning is included in kindergarten falls on the teacher, not the standards. Perhaps kindergarten is an excellent time to start raising awareness and competence in reading with purpose and understanding as this is a skill that is often needed by adults in order to comprehend and think critically about information.






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