Common Core Standards and Practical Lesson Planning
If you ask any teacher about the challenges of their profession, they will tell you that every four to five years they predictably have a new set of standards that they have to incorporate into their classroom. Beginning in the 1960's education reform was a hot topic throughout the education system of the United States. The idea began with closing the achievement gap between the high achieving students and the low achieving students. Over the years, one consistent idea is that there needs to be a nationwide list of standards for each subject that will prepare students for the future.
Of course, the biggest obstacle was where to start in the creation of these national standards. They began by turning to the national organizations for each subject area, with the idea that each state would adopt these standards. However, politics stepped in and some states adopted these standards while other states created their own. At the same time, the government wanted each state to have a standardized test that tested these standards. In effect, what occurred was a hodgepodge of standardized tests, all with varying effectiveness. The companies developing these tests marketed their version of tests to the different states. States then had to make a decision as to which test and which standards to use. While some states selected the same test, others picked tests that could not be compared to the others. This really caused confusion and each state was then charged with finding a solution to this problem. What made this situation even worse is that each state had committed large amounts of money and time to the test company they had originally selected, making quick changes extremely difficult.
While all of this was going on, the two groups of people most affected by all of this were forgotten about: educators and their students. Unfortunately, with all of the focus on the test, the educators and the students were really afterthoughts, as each state wanted to be the one with the best standards and the best test. With such a subjective goal this focused, in essence, on creating the perfect cart without the horse.
The next step in this new direction in educational reform was to begin tying teacher salaries to the results on the standardized tests. This put teacher unions on the offensive, because in no other profession involving human beings was the outcome based on achievement. For example, this would be like holding the dentist accountable for the amount of cavities each patient possessed. This served to place everyone involved on different sides of the issue.
Research has shown, however, that teachers perform better when they are on year-to-year contracts, with their salaries tied to test results (Wagner, 2010). The real question is how to accomplish this and keep everyone including the teachers unions happy. It is important to remember that the students need to actually be learning while this is going on.
The newest version of the nationalized standards is Common Core. The idea behind these standards is that they have taken all of the complaints from the past and created new standards that will work for everyone... nationwide. The standards have been launched with a soft rollout and each state is supposed to be up-to-speed by 2014. While this is a great idea, it has been left up to each state as to how to implement this rollout.
The question teachers and parents want the answer to is: do any of these measures really improve student achievement? While the jury is still out on that question, the truth of the situation is that it does not matter. If you want to educate children in the public school system in this country, adaptations must occur and will continue to be implemented as new discoveries and ideas are developed. That means that no matter what an educator's opinion is, they are going to have to learn how to change lesson plans to meet the Common Core standards. And this will have to happen very soon. The key to all of this is that the teachers need to be well informed about what the standards are and what they expect. With this in mind, it is important that everyone involved is educated on the Common Core Standards.
What is Common Core?
The Common Core Standards were created with the goal of having nationwide standards for all American public school students. These standards have the following goals:
The standards are supposed to make sure that students are prepared for their future, whether they choose to pursue advanced post-secondary education or enter the workforce immediately after high school.
The standards were written by two professional groups: the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. These two groups worked with former and current teachers and administrators to create the Common Core Standards. In addition, content experts, researchers and community groups were a part of the process of writing these standards. By including all of these interested parties, the Common Core Standards hope to fix some of the wrongs of the past. As in the past, none of these stakeholders had input into the creation of standards.
The reason so many different groups were consulted is that these standards are supposed to be the last standards the school districts across the country are ever going to need. Although the writers of these standards wanted to take things just a bit farther, because the writers made sure that every standard was research based, there is a revision schedule in place. By having the revision schedule, educators will know ahead of time when changes will be coming. Brookfield (2010) says that in order to use critical thinking skills to evaluate a problem, there will never be one solution. True critical thinking will continue evolving and moving to the next obstacle as a solution is found to the current concern.
Also, research in the field of education will continue until the end of time, so it is important for the Common Core Standards to be ready to adapt to whatever new concepts are discovered by current and future research. This demonstrates a desire by the creators of these standards to really have a living and breathing set of standards to guide educators in the quest to educate the children of America. This is significant because the skills needed for the future are not yet known. With the evolution of technology the high paying careers of the future may not have even been created.
This raises the question of how to accomplish the task of preparing students for an unknown future. The ways to make this happen is to prepare students with as many of the skills needed today as possible, and then teach students how to adapt their skills to different applications. Common Core intends to do this with the element of making sure the students know how to apply their skills in different situations. This may be where the current standards miss the mark. While high achieving students will figure out a solution to this issue, the idea is that all students will be able to adapt to the future.
This may be the biggest area of contention for any of the standards. How do teachers educate all students the same? How do educators make sure all students have the same skills? Each new set of standards believes that they have found the solution. However, since there are still a percentage of students that do not meet expectations, each set of standards has not delivered their promise. So the question is: are students better off than they were when all of this started? The creators of the Common Core Standards would say 'yes', because they believe that they have the solution. Time will tell if they are correct or just another distraction to the education of the American student.
How is Common Core Different?
One of the words becoming increasingly important in the world of education is integration. This is what makes the Common Core Standards different from everything that has come before. In the past, the standards were created with each subject being separate. Then teachers were told to make different subjects work together (immersion and whole language). While this gave teachers the freedom to make things work the best for the way they taught, it also gave teachers the ability to discard standards from other subjects if they did not want to utilize them.
This created a disconnection between subjects, and while the students were exposed to the standards, the students missed out on developing an understanding of how the different subjects worked together. This is what makes the Common Core Standards different. The new standards are connected and, when followed, the students learn how to apply standards from different subjects together in one cohesive package. The obvious advantage is in the way students are trained to quickly make correlations and adapt skill sets from one discipline to another, thus providing the necessary skill to continue evolving and adapting to a changing workforce and specialties in the future.
This encourages teachers to create lesson plans that include not only the standards from their subject, but from other subjects, too. The idea of integrating different subjects is not a new idea. This will be the first time that this practice will be expected, and teachers are going to have to figure out how to make it work.
One of the biggest complaints about the standards that has been used up to this point is that they did not teach the students to think or to reason. The greatest skill needed for the real world is the ability to solve problems. Students need the ability to take everything they already know and then apply that knowledge to solve a problem (Wagner, 2010). The way education in America has worked up to this point is that students did not need to transfer their skill set from one subject to another. While this created students that knew how to do different tasks, they did not know when or how to apply the skills in different settings.
The Common Core standards have been designed to make it easier for educators to teach this integration seamlessly. For example, the Language Arts Standards are included in the Social Studies standards. It is required that Social Studies teachers use writing and reading comprehension standards in their classrooms. Teachers that have taught Social Studies for many years are now going to have to make sure that they integrate these extra standards into what they currently do. This paradigm shift is going to begin transforming learning in America from the four major subjects, to one big subject.
This conversion of subjects will not be as big of a shock for higher-level students as it will be for lower-level students. One of the ways lower-level students have been taught in the past is with direct teaching, or with rote memorization. A demand is now being put on teachers to bring these lower-level students up - not just in skills, but in the ability to solve problems. This is the biggest difference between the educational standards of the past and the Common Core Standards.
This concept furthers the idea that all students need to be educated the same way and be able to demonstrate the same skills. To educators this raises the question of plausibility. For years teachers have debated if the lower-level students can handle these higher-level skills. The best part of the Common Core Standards is that it will now be expected. Teachers are going to have to forget that they can limit the exposure to higher-level thinking and it is just going to have to be done. Developers realize the transition will be difficult, and that at times it might seem as if it is not working, but after a couple of years where the students are expected to be able to accomplish these skills, there will be a difference.
Teachers likely most affected by the implementation of the Common Core Standards are those in the lower grades as many skills are going to be expected to be taught earlier on. For example, the ability to write summary paragraphs has been left to the teachers in middle and high school, but with the new Common Core Standards this is a skill that will begin when students are much younger. The days of fill-in-the-blank worksheets are slowly being phased out. Students are going to need to be able to communicate what they have learned in different ways than they are used to. This means that teachers are going to have to adjust their teaching methods and expectations.
Another plus of the Common Core Standards is that the skills have been broken down into smaller pieces and the students are going to be expected to learn thinking and reasoning skills at a much younger age. The idea is that no one can learn these kinds of skills in one or two years. However, even lower-level students can learn these skills after six or seven years of exposure. What can never be forgotten is that the most important tool in the classroom is a well prepared educator that is working at their highest level. While an improvement to the standards is important, highly motivated teachers are the key to the future of education, and what is going to be expected from them.
What Changes Will Need To Be Made?
Change is one of the hardest concepts for humans to understand or embrace. Compound this with years of success doing things one way and that change becomes even harder to accomplish. With the implementation of Common Core Standards teachers are going to be expected to change the way they have done things for years. Skills once taught at a much older age are now going to be taught at a younger age. The first thing that schools are going to need to do is to implement a good change management strategy so teachers will be able to make these adjustments to what is expected of them as easily as possible. This may be accomplished with additional training workshops, in-service implementation programs, and even incentive programs for creative teaching techniques.
Educational change is the process of improving public education. Numerous researchers (Kellenmeyer, 2011, Hammond, 2007, Swinson, De Berry, Scafidi, & Woodward, 2008) contend that for any changes to truly impact educational practices, critical components of the educational change process must be in place. These include educators being involved in the creation of the new direction (Griffith & O'Neil, 2002). Hammond (2008) has shown that teachers involved in the creation of a new direction will take more responsibility in the implementation of that direction. There also needs to be a support system put into place so teachers that have questions will have some place to turn in order to reduce confusion.
Once a good change management strategy has been put into place, the next step is going to be for each grade level to examine the new standards. The teachers must then decide as a group how each of the new expectations can best be implemented. The Common Core Standards took the skills needed for college and the workforce, and then worked backwards from high school. Now each problem-solving standard will be taught from the kindergarten level. Each year, the students will be expected to grow in the understanding of the standard and the skill. This should really help teachers in the latter grades that are used to introducing critical thinking and problem solving. The students should have already seen these skills for years. This will allow middle and high school teachers to focus on expanding the students' understanding of content as opposed to having to work on these thinking skills for the first time. The question still remains as to how all of this is going to happen.
How To Make the Changes
In order for teachers to make the necessary changes to their lesson plans as well as how they approach teaching, it is going to be important that teachers understand how change in education takes place. In the early years reform in education was made up of an approach, in which each problem was addressed with a single solution and then the next obstacle was handled the same way. As the change has been studied, reform is now being looked at in conjunction with the science of chaos and complexity (Sahlberg, 2002). Change now looks at systems and not individual problems with the focus being on continual change and not a one-time goal (National School Board Association, 2003). This non-linear model is showing promise as a way to create real change in not only practice, but in a shift in paradigm (Sahlberg, 2002). Following this line of thinking is allowing for a better and longer lasting change.
The process of creating change begins with the creation of a vision and an evaluation of the current system as it relates to the new vision. Targets are then set with goals and measurement tools being created to meet these goals. Finally, the steps are re-evaluated and the process starts over (National School Board Association, 2003). The difficulties arise when there is a mixed vision amongst the people involved and when all of the steps are not completed (Arnott, 1994). However, there is a direct link between following all of the steps and actual change taking place (Hord, 1994).
While managing change may sound difficult, the truth is that as long as teachers understand creating change is not a straight line, they can begin to affectively implement change. By sitting down and truly understanding what is being asked, teachers will have no trouble addressing the changes expected of them.
Most of the changes associated with the Common Core Standards are going to be with evaluation, so teachers need to think about and decide how they are going to work these new measurement styles into what they already do. For example, all students are going to be expected to read content and find facts to explain what they just read by the ninth grade. So instead of worksheets and a multiple-choice test, teachers are going to have to change the format of the final evaluation. This can be done by having the students read and write a summary paragraph of what they read, or think and assess something critically, then write to explain their understanding of the material.
Converting any lesson plan to the current CCS (Common Core Standards) is not too difficult if the schools system has invested in newer curriculum. Most new textbooks have incorporated the new standards and they are readily available in the front or indexing areas of the teacher's editions. Many curriculums also have immersion activities so that the students have practical application of new skills in other disciplines. What will offer students the most flexibility in their thinking skills are these cross-curricular options in the current textbooks being produced.
But what of those lesson plans that have worked in the past? Many can simply be revamped to include the CCS in them. A listing is available on all Department of Education websites, along with the corresponding DOE subsections. Many schools have moved to a fluid 'mapping' where the core standards are broken down into time periods on the school's year to date calendar. This way there is standardization between departments and by regions. However, if this seems like micromanaging at its finest, rest assured that there are ways to allow flexibility within the mapping to accommodate those students who may be divergent learners or who simply need more time to grasp the concepts. With the new core standards there seems to be a trend toward more creative integration in the classroom. The use of technology makes integration of the standards easier as well. Many standards lend themselves well to multimedia and an entire host of educational companies have offerings geared to these common cores.
As with all new things, there will be growing pains with the applications of the Common Core Standards. The key to making this all work is going to be the teachers educating themselves not only in the new standards but also in how the change process works. There also needs to be an understanding that change does not happen overnight. This process is going to take years to truly implement. Couple with that the fact that there is going to be a new nationwide evaluation tool tied to the Common Core Standards, and this process may seem impossible.
What everyone in education, including parents, needs to do is relax and let everything unfold in a natural way. The problem is that there are going to be discussions about teacher salaries and the results on this new evaluation tool. There will be reports printed in the newspaper about whether these new standards are working or not working. What everyone needs to understand is that nothing can be changed overnight and these standards have already said they will be changed and improved on a regular basis. This means that these standards are a living and breathing idea that need to be given five to ten years before any judgments are passed.
Most people have developed a need for instant gratification. From the Internet, to satellite TV, to smart phones, we as a population expect things to happen as fast as possible. When it comes to learning, however, things take time. For some students embracing change takes longer than others. While teachers should be dedicated professionals with the focus of educating students, teachers are not miracle workers. Teaching and learning is the kind of magic that needs to simmer, like a fine sauce created by a chef. The students of America can and will improve once people stop screaming about what is being done wrong and start to focus on what is happening correctly. Then, and only then, can the systems put in place be improved every year.
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