The Common Core is Only the Beginning of How U.S. Schools Need to Change

While the Common Core State Standards in two subjects represent a groundbreaking step forward, we cannot wait another twenty years for American schools to focus on the broader subjects and skills that are necessary to prepare students for success in our changing world.
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In 1994, I was a part of the Clinton Administration team responsible for gaining Congressional approval and supporting the state implementation of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act -- the education reform legislation that launched the standards movement. Twenty years later we finally have a set of rigorous and common math and English standards, the Common Core State Standards, adopted by 45 states. While these internationally benchmarked standards in two subjects represent a groundbreaking step forward, we cannot wait another twenty years for American schools to focus on the broader subjects and skills that are necessary to prepare students for success in our changing world.

The good news is that a number of education and philanthropic leaders are heading the charge to ensure students receive a richer, broader educational experience that includes the traditional core subjects together with the deeper learning skills that are essential in our 21st century economy. My organization, the National Center on Time & Learning, has just completed a study of five high schools that are a part of the Hewlett Foundation's "deeper learning" school networks. Each school in these networks endeavors to instill a set of skills that will prepare students to navigate a future that will be dramatically different from today. While students in these schools gain a solid grounding of academic content, they also are expected to solve complex problems, think creatively, communicate effectively, present their work publicly and be independent learners. Indeed, they are assessed on their capacity to perform in these areas.

Massachusetts' Codman Academy Charter School, for example, embraces just such a bold approach. The school serves a student body that is composed of a majority of high-poverty students (69 percent) and almost all (98 percent) students of color. Students attend school for up to 11 hours each day and for more days than the conventional school year because, in the words of the executive director, "We wanted to instill the habits of learning into as much our students' lives as we possibly can." And with this time, students can master core subjects, participate in internships, perform in major theatre productions, build critical thinking skills and become self-directed learners. Another school featured in our study, New Tech High School at Arsenal Tech in Indianapolis, has a student population that is more than 80 percent low income and boasts a technology-rich learning environment -- including a one-to-one laptop to student ratio -- exciting community internship opportunities and long interdisciplinary class periods designed to intensify learning through student-led projects.

As the networks of featured schools -- EdVisions, Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High, Internationals Network for Public Schools, New Tech Network -- demonstrate the promise of this new approach to teaching and learning, we must recognize that for more schools serving high-poverty students to incorporate these strategies they will need to add significantly more time to the school calendar. Our outdated school schedule of 180 6 ½-hour days simply does not give students the time they need to engage in the complex and multi-layered learning that are the linchpin of these new educational models, and it does not allow teachers the time to design new interdisciplinary curriculum and improve effectiveness through collaboration with peers.

Families that have resources are investing more than ever in opportunities that foster creativity, hands-on learning and connections to the broader world through technology and travel. Students from higher socioeconomic strata attend computer and science camps, take courses in specialized fields or have access to internships or apprenticeships through their personal networks of professionals. But, most often, low-income parents have neither the funds nor the connections to make these opportunities available. As such, our public schools must have the capacity and the mission to fill the gap. They must take the lead in providing students a 21st century education to climb out of poverty. Schools within the Hewlett Deeper Learning network are making great strides to achieve these aims, but such schools must be replicated and America must harness the power of time to furnish such education for all.

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