Our State Adopted the Common Core Standards—Now What?
Many schools and districts that have been implementing the PLC process are now wondering how to respond to the new Common Core Standards that their states have adopted. They’ve worked hard to respond to the four critical questions teams ask themselves: What do students need to know and do? How will we know if they have learned? What will we do if they didn’t learn? What will we do for those who already proficient? They’ve developed common formative assessments and intervention opportunities based on their current state standards. They wonder how the Common Core will affect their work and whether they need to start from the beginning to redo the products they’ve created.
As we’ve worked with schools/districts making this transition, there are some common questions/issues we’ve encountered. In the PLC model, teams create a list of essential outcomes which address the most important learning targets that the team guarantees all students will know at the end of the year, and then establishes the skills they will teach, unit by unit. With the advent of Common Core standards, the question arises as to whether this process should continue. Should teachers merely be given a copy of the Common Core Standards for their grade level and then be directed to teach those standards, or should they engage in analysis of and dialogue about the standards?
Our experience has been that teams that engage in collaborative discussions regarding new standards (whether they are state standards or Common Core standards) build a shared understanding regarding the meaning of the standards, the priorities assigned to each standard, the common pacing required for teaching each standard, ways to assess student mastery, and the focus of intervention when students struggle. This team dialogue is essential to offering students a guaranteed implemented curriculum that assures students will move to the next course or grade level having had access to the same knowledge and skills. Teachers who study the standards in isolation are unable to provide students with this guaranteed curriculum.
Another frequent question we encounter deals with the assessment of the Common Core standards. Both of the consortia designing assessments (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) have agreed that multiple choice questions cannot be the only type used for these more rigorous standards. In a PLC, collaborative teams ask themselves question two “How do we know whether students have learned our essential outcomes?” Teams who are answering this question for the new Common Core Standards are finding that the learning targets they are assessing expect higher cognitive demand in many cases than their current learning targets. These teams are learning how to create better “constructed response questions.” They recognize that they must present students with a novel situation in the assessment and one or more rich questions that call upon students to provide a clear explanation for the answer. They are hunting for pieces of text with higher complexity for both instruction and assessment. Assessment experts agree that teachers who work in collaborative teams are more successful in designing high-quality formative assessments that will provide them the information they need to know what to do next.
So, where should we start? We recommend that teams get started on the process now so that they are learning more about what they will need to do as a result. Beginning steps include:
- Begin with a review of the structure of the new standards—the idea of College and Career Readiness is an important thread beginning even in kindergarten. Read one standard all the way through from Kindergarten to 12th grade to understand how they build on each other.
- Become familiar with the Appendices for each set of standards. There are hidden gems in each one: Appendix A in ELA has some important vocabulary and discussion about text complexity and the structure of the standards, Appendix B in ELA provides samples pieces of text and ideas for assessment, Appendix C in ELA provides samples of student writing and scoring ideas which can lead to rubrics, and Appendix A in Math explains how the standards are structured for each grade level and the two different tracks for high school math.
- Identify the power or essential standards for your course or grade level. If you are an elementary school, choose one area (math or ELA) to begin with. Get good at the process, and the next subject will be much easier. Unwrap these standards into their learning targets. Don’t rush this step: getting clarity about the meaning of these standards will take some time. Talk about what your expectations for proficiency will be and what instructional strategies will be most effective to get students there. Look at the grade level before and after yours to assure your expectations are vertically aligned.
- Begin writing short common formative assessments for a small number of learning targets (1 to 3 maximum). Become confident writers of constructed response questions. Examine the student responses collaboratively to make sure you are all applying the rubric the same way.
Professional Learning Communities understand that the “L” in the title refers to both student and adult learning. They believe that by working together to learn how to most effectively use these new standards, the ultimate products of their work will be better as a result. This work will take time but each meeting brings new learning to the group. It is better to work carefully and purposely than to rush to “check off” completed tasks. Because you are a PLC, the pay off will be worth it!