I am a NYC Department of Education Common Core Fellow. This lofty title means that I have been trained (by the NYCDOE) in the evaluation of materials for alignment to the new standards, for ‘focus, coherence and rigor’, and for accessibility to diverse learners. Since my return from Exeter, I have been engaged in workshops in which we (my fellow Fellows and I) are reviewing and revising curriculum materials that have been created by school-based teams, some of which we headed. One focus of these reviews is the culminating task. It is important that the culminating tasks in each unit are structured so that successful completion of said task is clear evidence of mastery of those standards to which it is aligned.
As it turns out, despite our intentions to elicit independent demonstration of learning from our students, we, as teachers, seem to be almost unable – or afraid, more likely – to allow our students to engage in the ‘productive struggle’ in these tasks. “Too much prompting” is a frequent criticism, and “the task should be less teacher-guided.” The gap seems to lie between what we know our students OUGHT to be able to do, and what our actual classroom experience of their ability is. How do we make that shift ourselves?
In my view, the issue is less whether the Common Core standards represent the true direction in which education should move, but whether we can consistently raise our expectations of our students and of ourselves, ask questions that are truly open-ended and craft classroom experiences that allow our students to explore those questions – independently, cooperatively, collaboratively. I would love to be that teacher, and every September, I try again.
Of course, juxtaposed with these lofty goals are the new performance evaluation systems for teachers which include, as one criterion, student performance on standardized tests. It is not to difficult to understand why so many teachers will not leave student performance open-ended. But ultimately I think we need to trust ourselves and our students in order to harness the enormous potential in 21st century learning. Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But I didn’t become a career-changing teacher in my mid-40’s because I lacked imagination.