American education is at a crossroads. In developing standards that ensure our children are learning what they need to know to thrive in an increasingly competitive and global society and workplace, we must balance that imperative with the need to give teachers the space to use creative strategies to reach and teach all children.
Forty-five states have adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which are designed to boost critical and creative thinking and other higher-order skills students need to more actively and positively engage in their communities.
These skills are critical if schools are to be responsible for "shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies ... and forming citizens for our democracy, not just for teaching basic skills," Diane Ravitch writes in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010, p. 167).
Yet the gap between the creation and successful implementation of CCSS -- and ultimately improved education -- can be deep and wide.
I recently heard from a science teacher in a school district that she said has numerous schools that are failing to make adequate academic progress based on the results of state assessments. She lamented the persistent pressure from her principal and assistant principal to be less creative with her instruction, and instead rely on worksheets that they feel will ensure students are prepared for statewide tests.
"The worksheets have very little to do with good science pedagogy and for the most part are busy work that the administration hopes will reduce what it feels are student attention-span difficulties," the teacher wrote in her letter to me.
Instead, this teacher wrote, she brings the Periodic Table of Elements to life for her students with skits and impromptu rap sessions. She painted this picture of a typical day in her classroom:
Dressed as Dmitri Mendeleev (father of the Periodic Table of Elements), I brought Russian culture into the classroom, presented information, and spoke of sharing, giving and receiving electrons. I asked students to develop 'spoken word rap'presentations on assigned elements to include in an interactive periodic table for our studies. Each student was assigned an element and asked to research and produce a 3-dimensional box to add to the table. Here is what my students came up with: 'Yo, oxygen is needed for living and even slumber, 8 is always my atomic number.'
They went on to explain atomic number minus atomic mass equals neutrons, and how electron configuration starts with 2 electrons in the innermost energy level, and the pattern is goes on with 2, 8, 8. They spoke of families of elements, periods of the elements, and why they are classified as metals or non-metals, noble gases, halogens, etc.
This teacher perfectly illustrates the challenge that many others like her in the educational trenches are facing every day.
"Empowering these children with culturally responsive teaching is the most powerful tool I have ever used in teaching," she wrote. "Tomorrow Thor, the god of thunder who is the namesake for Thorium (90), is coming to speak. He is a student in period 3 -- students are teaching students!"
In my opinion, this woman represents teaching at its best. Educators who can model and demonstrate subject matter in a way that engages schoolchildren from their cultural reference point and helps them learn are the sine qua non of education reform.
Relying on worksheets, instead of educators, to teach basic skills is standard practice in all too many schools. The approach often leads to a disjointed and atomistic approach to learning, where students acquire skills but quickly forget them. And sadly, the drumbeat of test-driven instruction is sounded all too often for children of color.
Test-driven worksheets are not new. They emerged during the 1970s in response to the gap between the principles and practice of outcome-based education and the mastery learning movement. Mastery learning gathered steam as an antidote to mediocre student learning and testing soon became the watchword of business leaders and politicians.
To this day, policy and decisions are often driven by the results of a standardized testing metric. Yet testing that drives, rather than follows, instruction is akin to the proverbial cart leading the horse.
The science teacher who wrote me clearly is engaged in another type of instruction -- one that puts students at the front, back and center of the equation. She uses their cultural experience as strengths and a pathway for teaching, and her students are flourishing.
We must bridge gaps if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace. One is the gap between a student's potential and his or her actual achievement. But another is the gap between policy and implementation. Meaningless worksheets and other textual materials driven by state and district standards, where there is a mismatch between text complexity and student comprehension, can lead students to an academic dead-end.
Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at email@example.com.