As reported in Education News Colorado, on June 30th the Colorado Commission of Higher Education and the State Board of Education formally adopted a description of postsecondary and workforce readiness (PWR), the first major step in implementing the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K).
There is much to be applauded in the adopted PWR description. There is strong recognition of the non-academic skills that students need for success in school, work and life, echoing the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The listed skills in this area include creativity and innovation, global and cultural awareness, civic responsibility, work ethics, personal responsibility and collaboration skills.
There is also a strong emphasis on the use and application of knowledge in new situations, on problem solving, and on critical thinking.
I do, however, have two concerns about what happens next. My first is that these crucial new skills will be added to a too-long list of content knowledge that all students will be expected to master. And my second is that even if the new content standards get it right with regard to balancing content and skills, a far more challenging task lies ahead in preparing teachers to be able to teach in ways that achieve the desired outcomes.
And it is not clear that the state has the intention or the resources to make this happen.
Let me address each concern in turn. The core task of rewriting the standards to implement the PWR description will be winnowing down the specification of the content that students will need to master to leave enough room in the school day and year for teachers to orchestrate learning activities that actually cultivate the academic and non-academic skills that the document values.
Less content can be covered when students are expected to work more skillfully with it. When students talk things over, work in groups, generate new solutions, present their knowledge to others and apply knowledge and skills to new situations, there is simply less time for classes to get through long lists of material.
The actual statements regarding content in the PWR description are the following:
o Use concepts and techniques of probability and statistics
o Understand the core scientific concepts, principles, laws and vocabulary…
• Social Studies and Social Sciences
• The Arts and Humanities
While these statements seem straightforward, they in fact mask debates and downright fights within each of these disciplines.
Which algebraic, geometric and statistical concepts does everyone need to know?
What are the core scientific concepts, principles, laws and vocabulary needed by every graduate?
What are the key social studies concepts and who are they key innovators in the arts in the humanities?
With good rationales, such lists can be expanded to include the entire contents of a library or they can be short enough to allow teachers the opportunity to focus on insuring that all students actually master and can apply what is taught.
One of the key issues in determining what is actually included in each of these six bullets is deciding who gets to make their recommendations to the State Board of Education. If you only ask teachers (and/or university) specialists to identify necessary key concepts, the lists will grow and grow and grow because the more anyone knows about a subject the more they think others need to know about it as well.
But if you don’t involve teacher and/or university specialists in making the recommendations, the lists won’t have any credibility with the very people who must bring this work to life in classrooms across the state. The solution of creating committees that balance content specialists with strong community voices to insure that the list is “just right” is a complex and time consuming task.
And it is one that is not consistent with the short turnaround time that CDE has been given to do this work.
A second challenge is the fact that among specialists within each discipline there are widely divergent views of what is to be taught. In literacy and mathematics the national curriculum wars have been fought over the balance between content and skills. In the social sciences the battle has been fought over whose story is told and from what point of view.
For example, national history standards were mired in acrimonious in fighting over how to tell the story of American history. Is it a pageant of celebrations or a litany of exploitation? Similar debates between dominant and non-dominant voices exist in each of the sub specialties of the social sciences.
And while these may seem like “academic” debates, the fact that high proportions of our failing students come from non-dominant groups makes the question of what is taught a central issue in moving student achievement forward. Engaging students of poverty and students of color in learning becomes far more challenging when what they are studying doesn’t provide frequent opportunities for them to connect the learning materials to the experiences of their own families and communities.
As more of these non-dominant student voices (oral and written) are heard in order that they become more skillful communicators, their divergent perspectives will lead to increasingly rich but often messy and contentious conversations that will need skillful facilitation by their teachers.
Implicit in these comments on curriculum standards is the basis of my second concern about teacher preparation to meet these standards.
Classrooms that truly promote the knowledge, skills and behaviors essential for all high school graduates to be prepared to enter college and the workforce and compete in the global economy are very different places than classrooms that simply focus on dispensing knowledge and practicing discrete skills.
As I have suggested, it is no small matter to change the standards to appropriately reflect this new goal. It is an even more complex matter to change teachers’ skills sets so that they can actually manage classrooms that are hives of active learning. And it is yet more challenging still to provide teachers with the skills they need to competently support learning when controversies and conflicts arise.
CAP4K is on a very ambitious, (in other words, short) time line even as state education leaders’ attention has been unexpectedly drawn into efforts to compete for Race to the Top dollars. If we want to take advantage of the historic opportunity that CAP4K offers to rewrite standards to include the skills we know our students will need in this new century, we should slow things down so that we can think long and hard about the complex issues involved in genuinely reinventing K-12 education.
If not, we face one of two unhappy outcomes – developing yet another set of standards for the bookshelves of districts and classrooms across the state or dealing with the public outrage that will arise if teachers actually attempt to create more active classrooms without having the skill sets to do so.
Rona Wilensky was the founding principal of New Vista High School, a small, innovative public school of choice in Boulder Valley School District. She retired from that position in June. This year she is a Resident Fellow at the Spencer Foundation in Chicago Illinois.
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