Professional Development and the Common Core

By Allison Gulamhussein

Recently, students in New York City took their first round of exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Their experience was far from painless. Many reported that the tests elicited a bevy of worrisome responses: Some children said they had nightmares about bubbling in answers, and others broke down in tears at the end of exams. Such responses stand as a stark reminder that the Common Core standards do not simply ask for more of the same, but instead insist on drastic changes in what students are learning.

The major instructional change demanded in the Common Core is a switch from rote memorization to a focus on critical thinking. Many argue that this change is for the best, but regardless of its merit, a focus on critical thought is a radical shift in instruction.

For more than a century, studies have shown American schools are fact-focused. Research consistently shows that teachers predominately ask students fact-recall questions, and studies analyzing classroom instruction have found that 85 percent of instruction is lecture, recitation, or seatwork, activities which often require very little critical thought.

In the 2012 Measures of Effective Teaching study, researchers observed 7,491 classes taught by 1,333 teachers from six socioeconomically and geographically diverse districts. They found that the following were rarely seen in classrooms: student participation in meaning making and reasoning, investigation and problem-based approaches, questioning strategies, and student generation of ideas and questions. This is exactly the type of teaching the Common Core calls for.

This and other studies reveal that, on the whole, America’s teaching force struggles with teaching for critical thought. In conceiving of how to address the demands of the Common Core, districts need to recognize that meeting reform imperatives demands new teacher learning.

However, in order for schools to engage in teacher learning as a vehicle for improvement, school leaders need to know how teachers learn new practices. Many district officials assume that this process is straightforward: Present information about effective teaching strategies to teachers and they’ll implement those strategies in their classrooms.

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