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Jose Vilson: Helping NYC Implement the Common Core

The long and short of it is: New York City is not ready in the least for the sort of demands the CCSS makes pedagogically.

A quick glance at the Common Core might fool anyone who is well versed in the previous New York State Standards and assume there are few differences in scope and sequence. Yet, the call from David Coleman – head of the Student Achievement Partners, who created the standards – to go with fewer standards, but deeper is evident in most of the literature of the standards. Children aren’t just asked to read a paragraph and tell the world what it made them feel; they’re asked to speak on author’s purpose in an in-depth analysis. Children aren’t just asked to create a proportion with two fractions and cross-multiply; they’re asked to make connections between all sorts of explicit and discrete instances of proportional relationships, including rates, percents, and slopes, sometimes all at once.

Right now, however, I don’t see how New York City, much less our state, can meet or exceed the expectations laid out for us as a result of the Core nor get students “college and career ready.” Academic standards are only as effective as the organizational standards we hold for our system, and currently, we still have far too many structural issues. For one, curriculum publishers still work under the auspices of the previous way of thinking about instruction: “If we slap a sticker on our textbooks and say they’re Common Core, districts will pick it up and they won’t know any better.” Developing coherent curriculum is far more than just following the textbook. Teachers have to develop their own materials to accompany and bolster any textbook, new and old.

Secondly, our continued emphasis on accountability impairs teachers’ ability to dig deeper into standards. How can teachers as a whole be expected to turn a whole class towards the CCSS if they haven’t learned the CCSS themselves? Because of the sequencing of the standards, students who were taught using the standards didn’t have all the prerequisite knowledge to meet that grade’s criteria, thus forcing teachers to pull material from one or two grades back to teach their current grade’s material. Then, to do all this with a late March to early April deadline seems totally inappropriate considering the stakes currently attached to schools for students, teachers, principals and schools. All this does is push everyone towards attaining achievement on an end-of-the-year exam, not the in-depth learning the CCSS proffers.

Lastly, as with the last set of standards, the sorts of practices imbued in the CCSS, from persistence to problem solving won’t flourish without a proper dose of professional development. If the practices matter as much as the content, that doesn’t just need to be repeated ad nauseum. Rather, we need to develop cogent examples in each school of what these mean. Right now, people have sat through hours of professional development sessions where the administrator or teacher leader spoke at the staff about CCSS, which doesn’t actually help teachers, much less kids, get it.

Thus, I suggest a few items that could tilt New York in the right direction:

  1. Have a consultation meeting with a sample of educators to pore over curriculum items and make solid recommendations about textbook usage.
  2. Decrease accountability measures that use standardized testing, if not stop them altogether for a time.
  3. Use the 150 minutes per week (normally referred to as the 37.5 minutes after school) for concrete professional development, developed by teachers in conjunction with principals.
  4. Focus solely on CCSS implementation and nothing else; it’s better to get this one thing done right than to do plenty of things half-baked.

The good news for New York City is that we’ve had standards for some time, and some teachers had taken steps to evolve their pedagogy in hopes of attaining Common Core readiness. English / Language Arts teachers have worked with science and social studies teachers on whole units and writing skills in those classes. Children read novels in their entirety with less emphasis on their opinion and more with a critical lens of texts. Math teachers have forced themselves to get more specialized in their content, keeping a close eye on what the “next” teacher will need from their students as much as their present teacher. All these things help.

Jose Vilson is a math teacher, coach, and data analyst for a middle school in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He is beginning his 6th year as a teacher.