Opening up the black box: Common Core as a classroom-level reform

This post is adapted from comments delivered at the Manhattan Institute’s Curriculum Counts! event.

Classroom
If Common Core is really going to "change everything," we must focus on what these standards mean for teaching and learning.
Photo by horizontal.integration

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of school reform: systemic reform and classroom-level reform.

Systemic reforms are those aimed at reimagining school systems, and they include things like charter schools, vouchers, portfolio districts, and even accountability and some systemic teacher-evaluation policies. Classroom-level reforms, by contrast, are those aimed at actually changing what happens in the classroom. They focus, for example, on changing what is taught, how it is taught, or even how student mastery of essential content and skills is measured.

Over the past decade, education reformers have focused the lion’s share of our attention on systemic reform—to the point where conversations about Common Core implementation are often even dominated by how the standards will impact things like state accountability, teacher evaluation, certification, and on.

Of course, those are all important. But if Common Core is really going to “change everything,” we need first and foremost to focus on what these new standards mean for teaching and learning.

Yet, in many ways, the classroom is a black box to systemic reformers. While many leaders have made it their business to understand inputs and student achievement outputs, too few have focused their attention of what it takes to drive achievement within the four walls of an American classroom.

In many ways, the classroom is a black box to systemic reformers.

There are many reasons for this. For instance, you sometimes need to shake up the system in order to set the stage for classroom-level change. But another reason is that, while driving systemic reform means influencing state departments of education and district offices, classroom-level reform necessitates touching teaching and learning in more than 3 million classrooms. Yet, while classroom-level reform is far more complicated, it is classroom-level changes—those that directly impact teachers and students, curriculum and instruction—that hold the greatest promise for our students.

Of course, there are many nations that have recognized the promise of classroom-level reform practice, and they’ve simply forced changes. National education bureaucracies have made decisions about curriculum and pedagogy, and they’ve dictated what must be taught and how it should be delivered. America obviously—and to its great credit—has a far less centralized education system, grounded in deep respect for local control and autonomy. But while that allows our schools to more nimbly respond to the needs of students and communities, it adds another layer of complexity to the challenge of influencing what students learn and whether all children are held to equally rigorous expectations.

And while we have made significant progress in pushing systemic reform—particularly in places where visionary reform leaders are at the helm (i.e., Florida, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and on)—we’ve made comparatively little progress reaching beyond and into the black box to influence classroom-level change.

Moving forward, if we want Common Core to more directly impact teaching and learning, we’d do well to focus our implementation efforts on three things:

  • First, we need to accept the hard truth that when it comes to Common Core implementation, we may be trying to do too much too soon. If we are serious about getting implementation right—and having a classroom-level impact—then we need to take a page from the standards themselves and focus. We need to be thoughtful and systematic about the changes we make and how those changes interact with other policies and reforms.

  • Second, while most states don’t have the capacity to wade into every aspect of school-level implementation (professional development, curriculum development, formative assessment, and on), state leaders can give clear and unambiguous guidance that would help practitioners better understand—and internalize—what the Common Core asks. They can organize, develop, and provide resources that clearly communicate, for example, the instructional shifts in ELA and math. And perhaps even more importantly, they can give clear and explicit guidance about what it means for resources and curricula to be aligned to the CCSS so that practitioners can distinguish between resources that are faithfully aligned to the Common Core and those that have merely been “rubber stamped.” As implementation ramps up, they can also create feedback loops so that information about alignment and resource quality flows both out of and into state and district offices, and so that school leaders and teacher leaders are involved in the process.

  • Finally, states need to prioritize getting the Common Core–aligned assessments right. The Whiteboard Advisor surveys of education insiders now show that majorities say both consortia are off track. If they are, we need to do whatever we can to get them back on track. And states need to push for higher quality assessments across all content areas—tests that will better measure content and skills mastery, tests that are less predictable and less likely to lead to the kinds of curriculum narrowing and “teaching to the test” we’ve seen, and tests that are valid for the purposes they’ll be used. After all, it’s the assessments that provide the foundation for so many other policies and system-level reforms.

In the end, it is exactly because Common Core is pushing reformers to take classroom-level change more seriously that it has the potential to have such far-reaching impact. But realizing this potential means accepting that, so far, our efforts may be falling short of what the moment requires.

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