It only took a few paragraphs of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail for EDC’s Nancy Clark-Chiarelli to see the promise of the Common Core.
“My heart soared,” she says, recalling her study of the letter during a recent professional development workshop. “We were digging into the text that King wrote, analyzing how he built his argument, paragraph by paragraph. This is one of the hallmarks of the Common Core instruction.”
Common Core is the shorthand name for the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a joint effort between the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to align academic standards in math and English language arts (ELA) across the country. The movement was born out of the concern that existing standards do not do enough to equip all students with the skills they will need when they finish high school. The aim of the Common Core is to create a more level playing field across the country.
Though participation is voluntary, as of March 2012, 45 states have fully adopted both sets of standards. It seems the Common Core has enough traction that it could transform the way learning and teaching happen in U.S. schools—if it is supported correctly. Through a number of teacher professional development initiatives, EDC is working to turn that if into a when.
An expert on literacy, Clark-Chiarelli offered feedback on the Common Core ELA standards during a period of public review. She says that ELA instruction will now emphasize content literacy more, preparing students for the increasing demands of the English, science, and history texts they will encounter.
Mathematics classes will also look different. The main change is that teachers will be asked to help students develop mathematical ways of thinking that are generalizable across grade levels.
EDC’s Al Cuoco is a strong advocate of the new Common Core standards for mathematics, and for good reason: he sees a convergence between the new set of standards and the mathematical thinking approaches that EDC has promoted for years.
“The ideas that we’ve developed here at EDC over the past 15 years have really been made prominent in the Common Core, especially around the ideas of mathematical practice,” Cuoco says.
In fact, the Common Core mathematics standards are founded on eight standards for mathematical practice, such as “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them” and “Look for and make use of structure.” These practices are also emphasized within EDC curricula, from Think Math! (a K–5 math program) to the CME Project (a four-year program for high school students).
Cuoco believes professional development is essential as teachers get to know the Common Core and the new, heavier emphasis on mathematical practices. “The mathematical practice standards stand for a much larger web of ideas,” he says. “And teachers are having a hard time understanding how those things play out in a classroom.”
Last summer, EDC ran a week-long workshop for Massachusetts teachers on this very subject. It will now become a permanent fixture in the state’s professional development offerings.
EdTech Leaders Online (ETLO), which offers online professional development workshops to educators, is another EDC initiative that is helping teachers implement the new standards.
ETLO’s Leinda Peterman sees an opportunity here. “There hasn’t been a lot of professional development done about how to teach with these new standards,” she says. “At ETLO, we’re filling that gap.”
Designing for the Common Core is more sophisticated than just inserting new standards where the old ones used to be. Instead, it requires thought and attention to the meaning behind the new standards—and a close look at how different skills progress grade by grade. ETLO’s online workshop developers have been updating their catalog to ensure that these new academic standards are met.
Clark-Chiarelli is optimistic that with professional development, the Common Core will benefit students for years to come.
“The Common Core institutes more rigorous standards across the country,” she says. “So the challenge, at this point, is how to make them powerful.”
Originally published on May 1, 2012