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Shael Polakow-Suransky: On The Right Track, But A Long Way To Go

More than two years ago, Phil Weinberg, principal of the High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology in Brooklyn, wrote about the early promise of the Common Core standards and Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. While noting the challenges ahead, Phil was hopeful that the standards in particular signaled a “shift in the discourse around education” and a greater focus on teaching and learning.

In the spring, I visited “Tellie,” as it’s affectionately known, and saw how Phil, Assistant Principal Xhenete Shepard (who is leading the school’s instructional shift), and the school’s staff were actualizing that promise. In a 9th-grade English course, students were sitting in a circle, leaning forward in their chairs, and eagerly engaging in a Socratic seminar based on a book they’d been reading. Unprovoked by the teacher, the students challenged each other to defend their ideas with evidence from the text or risk losing the argument. Later, we visited a teacher team meeting, where it became clear how such instructional practices were coming to bear. Also sitting in a circle, the teachers were taking time to discuss student work and analyze how their instruction led to that outcome.

Such scenes have played out in schools across the City over the last three years as we have begun transitioning to the Common Core standards. The deep investments that schools and the central office have made to shift instruction to align to the standards are showing signs of paying off. On the 2013 State Common Core tests, students in grades 3-8 nearly closed the gap that has historically existed between the City and the rest of State. Black and Hispanic students outperformed their peers in the four other large cities in New York Cities in nearly every subject and grade.

The State growth scores based on the State Common Core tests in grades 4-8 found that New York City had more than twice the percentage of highly effective teachers and about half the percentage of ineffective teachers as the rest of the State.   

Shifting instruction in meaningful ways does not happen overnight; right now we’re at the early stages of a multi-year process. But the shifts are already leading to greater student engagement. The rigor of the Common Core engages students—instead of being asked simple who/what/when/where-type questions, students are more often being asked open-ended questions that start with “how?” or “why?” They’re reading more interesting texts. They’re being asked to show evidence to support their work and to solve complex problems.

City teachers are certainly capable of handling this transition, but as anyone who has taught can understand, they will need time. To support greater opportunities for teachers to plan and participate in job-embedded professional development, our teachers need time built into the regular school day, as is the case at Tellie. Schools can empower their teachers by organizing their resources so teachers have time to meet and talk about curriculum, review student work, and visit each other’s classrooms. Time is always a vital resource, and that’s especially true during this transition.

In particular, many teachers need opportunities to build capacity in three areas in order to best prepare students for future success: math content knowledge, developmentally appropriate early childhood assignments, and literacy across the curriculum.

The Common Core calls for more depth and less breadth, and that shift means generalists will need to develop greater familiarity with mathematical concepts. At the early childhood level, the Common Core in New York State starts at pre-kindergarten. While this does not mean our youngest students should be citing evidence from informational texts or solving multi-step math problems, it does mean these students should be expressing themselves with words, drawings, and emergent writing, playing with blocks, and engaging cognitively at a deeper level.

And as the Ready/Hatch/Warner/Chu study for EdFunders found, literacy is a strong indicator of future success. The responsibility of building students’ decoding skills and familiarity with academic language does not rest solely with English teachers—literacy instruction needs to be infused across content areas so teachers’ efforts build on each other and students receive integrated support.

In sum, when it comes to Common Core implementation, City schools have begun to realize some of the promise Phil wrote about two years ago. We are on the right track, and we have a long way still to go.

Shael Polakow-Suransky is the Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor for the New York City Department of Education.