Rethinking the Learning Experience: Part II

One of the key drivers to the recent surge of technology implementation in K-12 classrooms has been the federal government's not-so-subtle guidance toward a curricular standard. The White House understood that the United States could no longer be an academic nation of insular colonies each speaking their own language. The country (and planet, for that matter) had become too inexorably linked both socially and economically by the dawning of the Internet; something as fundamental as what a future member of the workforce should be expected to learn could no longer be so fragmented.

The disconnect didn't help anyone.

However, programs enacted by both the Bush and Obama administrations have ramped up our capacity to collect and interpret wide-scale data on both teaching and learning by gradually luring these colonies into one corps with a common language.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has its critics -- perhaps with good reason. However, the Act did turn a spotlight to the achievement gap suffocating our public schools, and reasoned that standards need to be enforced to ensure that no student is at an academic disadvantage for purely geographical reasons.

Race to the Top (RTTT) soon followed, and where NCLB used nationwide testing to assess student achievement levels, RTTT went one step further by asking states to create and implement multi-faceted standards for the evaluation of their teachers' effectiveness. President Obama's initiative has focused on expanding upon the data revolution by incentivizing states (offering barrels of cash) to wire their classrooms, streamline their processes, promote charter schools, and adopt and align their curricula and testing to the recently created Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in ELA (English Language Arts) and Math (now adopted to varying degrees by 46 states -- the remaining holdouts: Texas, Alaska, Nebraska, Virginia).

With their education budgets shriveling up before their very eyes, most states were captivated by the $4.35 billion being offered up by Arne Duncan and the Department of Ed, and the federal government eagerly dispersed billions of dollars. In exchange, thousands of districts pledged to modernize and reform various aspects of their education models in one fell swoop. Race to the Top is structured in a way that (theoretically) satisfies everyone: the federal government does not force the hand of individual states (as public education has, and always will be, a locally driven institution) but rather nudges them in the direction of progress, offering to fund reform in those states that understand the need and the allure of a stronger, and increasingly cohesive, national model.

The CCSS have even been tailored by some states to merge with previously drafted standards to both ease transition and continue to reflect locally held values by the state. For example, New York has combined the CCSS with some critical former New York State Standards to create the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS). The state education department is using the CCLS to create the next generation of state tests (Regents exams).

The Common Core not only unites states under a shared curricular standard but also seeks to advance what we expect of our next generation of adults, stressing skills in areas like new media and technology, and typing in place of cursive. The creators and defenders of the standards believe that the Common Core reflects the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers, and will thus position our local communities to better succeed in the global economy.

The enthusiasm with which states and districts have taken to the Common Core is certainly heartening (even if the billions in funding renders the exercise fairly obvious), but it still remains to be seen what implementation of the standards will look like within the classroom, and if the standards will serve as effective drivers toward achievement. The mission statement listed on the initiative's website explains in the very first sentence that:

"The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them."

Of course, what is missing here is exactly how the teachers are supposed to use these standards, and to what extent the existence of the standards should influence their general strategies.

Implementation strategies of the CCSS are often decentralized. New York State and New York City, for example, have created various curricular modules aligned to the Common Core, as well as professional development opportunities to train teachers on the new standards, but all of the support for implementation happens at the local level. For more information on this visit, New York's main website on this work, and the NYCDOE has the Common Core library online.

For now, we can take some relief in the fact that attitudes of teachers toward the Common Core are increasingly positive: Archipelago Learning announced the results of a study just last week reporting that 97 percent of teachers surveyed hold favorable attitudes towards the Common Core Standards. Archipelago's Study Island 2011 year-end customer survey found 57 percent of teachers were "very favorable" towards the Common Core Standards, up from 27 percent just two years previous. Cathy Caldwell of Archipelago Learning summed up these results fittingly:

"Broader acceptance of Common Core Standards among teachers will ease application of those Standards in the classroom... Acceptance on the state level has given the Common Core momentum, but how it is applied in the classroom will determine its success."

The sheer volume of dollars being thrown at Common Core-based initiatives has created an environment where content not mapped to the standards is essentially rendered useless. If content creators, whether they be billion-dollar corporations or committed teachers with spare time and passion, hope to achieve adequate distribution of their material, the words "Common Core" are likely plastered all over their respective marketing materials. We have already reached a saturation point where the words themselves mean far less than would their absence.

In my next post, I will continue this discussion into the content itself: who are the big players, how does the democratizing power of the web transform what kinds of materials are available, and how are teachers navigating the treacherous minefield of open educational resources?