Growing up in Sandy, Utah, I distinctly remember a high school math teacher pounding into us that the “real world” would never give us a second chance, and thus neither would he allow us to try and try again to get a problem right. I knew, however, that there was something wrong with his logic. Would I really want an architect to have only one chance at designing my house? How effective could an EMT be who had never worked through multiple simulated crises in preparation for the “real world” emergency moment my life depended on? And what about a school that allows students only one shot at mastery of the learning needed for life? In contrast to a simple and traditional focus on teacher-to-student transference of information, Utah’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards initiative systemically re-engineers classroom teaching so that educators work in partnership with individual students as they move incrementally towards mastery of the skills necessary to succeed at college and career training.
Utah has been a charter member of the Common Core Standards movement, and is leading the nation in the innovative ways it is re-engineering public education. But Utah also currently faces significant opposition to its successful implementation of these powerful standards. At the School Improvement Network, we have been documenting how different states, including Utah, are putting the Common Core Standards into practice. What these states have realized is that global economic competiveness depends on a well-educated workforce—a college and career ready workforce.
The Common Core State Standards initiative begins with the premise of college and career readiness for all students. The National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) worked to define a clear and equitable goal for every student in public education: college and career readiness. This goal shifts the educational paradigm from group test scores to individual performance standards that demonstrate the developing skills and proficiencies students need for post-secondary success. Fully developed by a coalition of states independent of the Federal Department of Education, these states—Utah included—have created a powerful framework that is re-engineering public education.
This significant reform, however, faces an inherent challenge: being yet another well-meaning but poorly-implemented school improvement effort. This is where the continued support of Utah’s governor and legislature is necessary to guarantee the successful implementation of these standards. According to a Brookings Institute report [Whitehurst 2009], standards have significant impact on educational reform when they are supported by strong curriculum and assessments. The vision of the Common Core initiative reflects these findings. The Common Core Standards are not curriculum—they are skill-based performance standards that set a clear goal for students to achieve. How a student is taught and supported in gaining proficiency in those skills is entirely driven by the local educational institution.
What this means in practice is that the state identifies the standard of performance—in this case the Common Core Standards. Then the schools and districts create localized curriculum that directly reflect the needs and values of their own communities. Once students are taught this curriculum, the state provides an assessment that measures how individual students have grown in their ability to proficiently perform the skill described by the standard. From this assessment, parents and teachers receive clear information detailing the student’s growth, and where additional support and instruction is needed.
Utah students along with most American students continue to fall behind their international counterparts. As other nations moved towards rigorous study of fewer standards, Utah as with most states maintained “a mile wide and an inch deep” curriculum. Likewise, international school improvement efforts have focused on empowering teachers with the necessary skills and flexibility to succeed with every student. Meanwhile, our partisan debates focus on who controls the schools and who is responsible for student success, rather than significantly increasing the capacity of our teaching force. Having lagged behind global education reform, America is left with a less capable workforce, and high school graduates are unprepared for the academic and professional rigor that lies ahead.
Utah rightly is a member of the Common Core Standards coalition. This allows Utah to collaborate with other states in the development of standards and assessments, while maintaining local control of what is actually taught and how it is delivered. Consequently, Utah benefits significantly from economies of scale derived from sharing the expensive costs of developing standards and assessments, while maintaining its independent governance of schools. The Common Core is not a federal intrusion into our schools. Rather, it is a state-driven effort to significantly increase the college and career readiness of our students by setting clear goals and expectations for students and teachers alike.
As a parent of two children in Utah, this matters to me personally in my desire to see my own children well educated and prepared to compete and succeed in the global market. When successfully implemented, the Common Core Standards drive each individual student equitably towards college and career readiness so that the student can choose for him- or herself what he or she may do upon high school graduation, rather than the educational institution inequitably preparing some and not others.
To learn more about the power of the Common Core Standards to re-engineer public education, please watch the video "Vision of the Common Core" produced by School Improvement Network.
Curtis Linton is Vice-President and Co-Owner of the School Improvement Network, a privately owned business based in Midvale, Utah, which is the international leader in providing online professional development services to over 800,000 educators nationwide. Curtis lives with his wife and two young children in Salt Lake City. For more information, visit www.schoolimprovement.com.