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Commentary: The Byzantine world of the Common Core

Mark Sass has been teaching high school social sciences for 16 years; for the past 12 years at Legacy High School in Broomfield. He is a member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative, an initiative of the Center for Teaching Quality.

Much of the initial discussion around the implementation of the Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Teacher Effectiveness Law (EQuITEE) has been on the requirement that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student growth, as measured by tests. While assessments are important to gauging a teacher’s effectiveness and impact on student learning, we should not forget to focus on the standards addressed in the assessments. Sound instructional practice requires that teachers establish what it is we want students to know and be able to do. Once this is done, assessments are constructed. So, before we even consider what the assessments look like, we need to make sense of, or “unpack,” the standards.

Have you seen the National Common Core Standards? It is quite an impressive gathering of . . . well, it is hard to say what it is.

According to the Common Core website, “the standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and experts to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.” National standards have been written for Math and Language Arts and, as you begin to peruse these standards, it becomes evident that there needs to be some serious translation if teachers are to clearly understand what the standards should look like in classroom practice.

For example, in Language Arts there are four categories: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These are then broken into grade levels. For grades 11 and 12, there are more than 70 writing standards! Include reading and you have more than 100 standards.

The state has a version of the Common Core, and its take is not much better. When you peel back the layers of standards and sub-standards, prepare yourself to enter into a truly Byzantine world.

There are a total of eleven different subject areas covered by the state. They include: Comprehensive Health, Dance, Drama and Theatre Arts, Mathematics, Music, P.E., Reading/Writing/Communication, Science, Social Studies, Visual Arts, and World Languages. Let’s look at Reading, Writing, and Communication (RWC).

There are 58,293 words in the Preschool through 12th Grade RWC standard. In the 11th Grade RWC Standard, there are 5,246 words. Let’s put this into some kind of perspective:

  • 1,3337 words in Declaration of Independence
  • 4,400 words in the U.S. Constitution
  • 45,679 words in the Colorado Constitution
  • 560,000 in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

The length of each standard is due to a high level of complexity and detail, which includes:

  • Content Area
  • Grade Level Expectation
  • Concepts and Skills Students Master
  • Evidence Outcomes
  • 21stCentury Readiness and Skills Competencies
  • Inquiry Questions
  • Relevance and Application
  • Nature of Reading, Writing, and Communicating

Currently, local districts are adding yet another layer of interpretation. It is a bit like Russian nesting dolls, only not all of the dolls are the same. Each of these entities: national core, state, and districts have turned well-intentioned standards into what Donna Garner has called “pretentious gibberish.”

The problem with the number of standards and the manner in which they have been written is not new. But in the past, teachers basically paid scant attention to new standards and continued with what they had done for years. And why not since there were little, if any, consequences associated with the standards? This is one of the reasons for the call for reform that we see today.

A consequence of EQuITEE is that teachers are now going to be evaluated on the performance of their students based on assessments of student mastery of the new standards. Teachers can no longer view standards as an avoidable nuisance that they use as window dressing in their lesson plans and units. They need to be addressed and embedded in their everyday practice. But to do so, teachers need to work closely with their district content coordinators to ensure simplicity and clarity. If we don’t, reform will continue to elude us, and teachers will become even more frustrated at an evaluation process that fails to accurately assess the learning of their students.

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