Much Ado About Nothing is a comedic play by William Shakespeare that chronicles two pairs of lovers: Benedick and Beatrice (the main couple), and Claudio and Hero (the secondary couple). By means of "nothing" (which sounds the same as "noting," and which is gossip, rumor, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other, and Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero at the altar on the erroneous belief that she has been unfaithful. At the end, Benedick and Beatrice join forces to set things right, and the others join in a dance celebrating the marriages of the two couples. (Much Ado About Nothing. Captured from Wikipedia. February 28, 2014.)
What is currently taking place across the United States regarding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Much Ado About Something, does not bring to mind a comedy; rather, it brings to mind a tragedy. Before I continue, I must state that my post is not an “I’m on this side or I’m on that side” commentary. It is simply a personal and professional reflection based on working intimately with the CCSS and scores of teachers K-12 across this country and overseas coupled with what I have observed regarding those who are making “much ado”. My hope is that I mirror Benedick and Beatrice’s desire to set things right.
Whether it be politicians, parents, or people in educational circles commenting, I most-often hear them not making comments about the standards themselves – the basic, no-frills standard statements that convey what students need to know and be able to do. For example, let’s take a Reading Literature standard for Grade 7:
CCSS.RL.7.7 Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).
This standard, here as it appears in the CCSS ELA Progressive Continuums App I created to aid teachers in collaboratively designing systemic curriculum that uses italic font to represent learning from a previous grade or grades and boldfaced text to indicate new learning in a grade, speaks directly to 21st-century (modern) learners needing to not only become literary literate, but media literate as well, as my colleague, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, promotes in her new book, Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, 2013).
Before one can compare and contrast, one must know these two literacy forms as stand alones, which generates interesting conversations with teachers I work with as we develop content and skills because they were not taught media literacy when they were growing up (even younger teachers). Our conversations usually result in the seventh-grade teachers realizing they need to become deep learners themselves to best design content and skills associated with media literacy. And, as you can visually see represented in the standard above, comparing and contrasting written works to media is in italics, which means this process and learning about media-based versions has been learned in at least one previous grade (actually, starts in Grade 4 and is expanded on in Grades 5 and 6). Therefore, not only do seventh-grade teachers say they need media-literacy professional development, but fourth, fifth, and sixth grade teachers share they want to be included as well.
Common Core State Standard RL.7.7 is not saying specifically what must be read, what must be watched, or what the focus must be when read and watched, which is what I find many unhappy-with-the-CCSS commentators are up in arms over (excuse the film pun). While myriad companies and non-profits have developed recommended reading/media lists, units of study, and lesson plans that “are align to” the CCSS, these resources are not the standards. These aligned documents, programs, textbooks, etc., are how tos (instruction and assessments) based on someone or some group’s interpretation of the standards. For example, based on this standard, groups can have a wildly different take on what is an appropriate text versus movie/staged production for seventh graders – one group choosing a very liberal text and film and another group select a very conservative text and staged production.
Regardless of the selections, it is not the standard that is making a selection, human beings are. If studied closely, standard RL.7.7 is asking students to be critical thinkers and reason deeply regarding the nuances in a selected text and audio-visual representation, which is exactly what 21st-century students need to be doing – critically thinking and problem solving as well as reasoning and providing text and media evidence for their claims (e.g., requirements also found in standards RL._.1, RI._.1, W._.1). And, if we are truly trying to engage learners and wanting them to own their own learning, how about allowing students to select the text and film or staged production they will analyze?
What I often find interesting is that if you ask someone who is knocking the CCSS (let’s say in reference to a unit of study that is for some reason “inappropriate”) to tell you specifically what standard or standards he or she does not like (e.g., W.7.1a. Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.), the person will hem and haw and can’t state the standard. And, when shown the aligned standard he or she most often comments that the standard is fine, it is the reading or film selection, the activity, or assessment item or task that is not liked. Evidence once again that it is not the standards themselves that is truly the concern.
With this said, I need to make one comment at this juncture: the CCSS are not perfect. There are definitely some flawed standard statements, but the flaws are minimal when compared to the total number of CCSS K-12.
The bashing or knocking of the CCSS, which is getting louder in some states with each passing month, is frustrating to me as a curriculum-design consultant who has worked extensively with the CCSS since they were in draft form and officially adopted in 2010. I know the standards inside and out from Kindergarten to Grade 12. I have spent hundreds of hours of meaningful conversations with teachers concerning the vertically articulated standards. These teachers care passionately about their students’ learning as they develop collaborative, systemic curriculum.
My passion and work has been, and will continue to be, dedicated to aiding teachers in designing curriculum maps with the students’ best interests in mind. The CCSS are our curriculum-design building “codes”, much as an architect uses codes to design blueprints, which Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Jay McTighe, and others have used as an analogy for many years. For the first time ever the largest number of independent United States have chosen to have the same building codes. This does not mean that each state, district, or school has to build the exact same home – one can choose to design a modern two-story, another a log cabin, another a green home, and another a ranch-style hacienda. The point here is that the infrastructure of the home design remains the same regardless of where the home is built. I grew up in the military and lived around the world before I was 15 years old. Today, given our ever-growing mobile society, chances of having a similar (and thankfully not exact) blueprint-based curriculum for a K-12 education is better than it ever was when I was in my formative years.
Academic standards are not the curriculum (Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom. Erickson. Sage, 2007. p.48). I whole-heartedly believe this is true. And while it absolutely takes time and commitment to develop a worthwhile systemic curriculum (oftentimes two to three years to fully develop and implement), I remind myself and others that curriculum mapping is a verb and the deep conversations and collaborations across grade levels immediately impact student in positive ways through teachers who are reconsidering the learning, teaching, and assessments while embracing what is new in the CCSS content and process standards. This immediate and on-going process validates why I have been involved in this specific field of work for over 15 years. Designing CCSS-based curriculum involves a two-phase process: studying and breaking apart the standards systemically to first develop learning based solely on what the standards (and critical ancillary documents, such as the CCSS Math Progressions) explicitly and implicitly require; and secondly, develop meaningful units of study that combine the learning, teaching, and assessment tasks based on a current program or encouraging teachers to create their own program.
Well, I may have not set things right, but hopefully a little bit right, in that it is not the CCSS themselves that are the problem; instead, it is CCSS-based interpretations made in the form of instructional choices and assessment practices, as well as one area I chose not to get into here: teacher evaluations.
As I previously mentioned, I will continue to work diligently with districts and schools who have a like passion – looking collaboratively and critically at the CCSS and systemically designing curriculum that aids their students in experiencing meaningful learning journeys K-12+.