Core Standards

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You'll be hearing a lot in the coming weeks about a great opportunity in public education—a chance to transform a patchwork of state standards into one set of strong, consistent expectations for what all students should know and learn. It's happening through the project known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), which soon will release final standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.

This effort to bring clarity, consistency and, above all, equity to the education of all children is generating well-deserved attention. And another compelling story tied to CCSSI is flying just under the radar. It's the story of how teachers and AFT members around the nation worked both individually and collectively to bring judgment and real-world classroom experience to bear in drafts of the standards before they were up for public review—and how these educators are planning to stay involved in the months ahead.

The process is engaging teachers like Janice Mesolello, who calls the opportunity to review English-language arts standards the professional chance of a lifetime. That's saying a lot for Mesolello, who has spent more than three decades in the classroom. "What an awesome responsibility to be part of recognizing what students should look like in the college and career-readiness stages of their lives and be able to back-map their progress throughout their educational career," says the middle school teacher from Cranston, R.I.

Also involved was Sandy Orth, an elementary teacher from Toledo, Ohio, who, along with Mesolello, was part of a 30-teacher panel the AFT brought together to review math and English-language arts standards. Real utility in the classroom, Orth says, was a constant focus for the teacher reviewers, who represented all school levels. "We kept asking ourselves how appropriate and useful [the standards] would be for teachers across the country, and offered suggestions that would both guide and reflect the good instruction we deliver to students."

"This type of collaboration is what educational change requires," says Peggy Brookins, a high school math teacher from Ocala, Fla., who participated on the AFT's review panel. "Without the teacher voice, the most important element of change would not be represented."

John Santangelo, a high school math teacher from Cranston, R.I., who also took part in the panel review, describes the experience as "refreshing and rewarding"—and meaningful. "The fact that the recommendations [the team made] are apparent throughout the common core standards makes the document a solid foundation" for schools around the country.

When it comes to the value of keeping teachers looped into the effort, you need look no further than the people who actually wrote the new standards to find support for the approach.

"The AFT teachers took the lead in shaping many aspects of the standards," remembers David Coleman, a standards writer in English-language arts and former lecturer at the University of London. He points to grade-by-grade progressions, the standards for literacy in history and science, and the development of narrative writing in high school as key areas in the standards where teachers made their mark. "The AFT and its members can truly say with pride that they played a fundamental role in the development of the common core standards; the voice of teachers has been heard, and it is a clear and powerful voice."

Beyond the bookends

Standards can't work in isolation, Mesolello stresses. They must be connected richly and purposely to the daily fabric of school life—to things like curriculum, instructional materials, model lesson plans, tailored professional development, and time for teacher collaboration, to name just a few.

That's why the AFT is joining with other groups to help partner district-level pilot programs that will focus on what teachers need to successfully implement the standards. The partners include the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, which were the two lead organizations on CCSSI, along with the Council of the Great City Schools. The AFT will work with these groups to develop district-level demonstration projects that focus not just on standards and assessments, the "bookends" of school reform, but also on the things in the middle that every teacher knows are necessary to make standards-based reform work.

"National standards are critical for creating a world-class educational environment," says Louise Hinz, an elementary teacher from Afton, Minn., who served on the AFT panel. Now that a plan has been proposed, "teachers' voices are needed to ensure the plan supports and challenges our students."

The AFT will work with partners to promote a strong teachers' voice in the pilot projects and to keep the frontline engaged in the general rollout of common core standards.

"I applaud the idea of reorganizing standards to guide educators on what concepts should be addressed at each grade level," says John Ribeiro, a middle school math teacher from West Warwick, R.I., on the AFT review panel. He believes that a key to success lies in maintaining a "balance of deep conceptual understanding of mathematics concepts" with mastery of procedures.

Continued teacher involvement bodes well for success, says Becky Pittard, an elementary teacher from Ormond Beach, Fla., who served on the AFT's review team for math standards. Her experience as a reviewer "reaffirmed her belief that teachers' voices must be an integral part" of the effort. "Education policy without teachers' voices is shallow and misleading."

This potential flaw was recognized and avoided in the CCSSI review process, stresses standards writer Jason Zimba, who is a professor of mathematics and physics at Bennington College. "There's no substitute for the kind of expertise the teacher teams have brought to this process."

And expect to see teacher participation continue as the process unfolds. "I'm glad to be a part of such a 'cutting edge' educational adventure," says Miriam Soto Pressley, an elementary teacher from Hammond, Ind., who served on the English-language arts review team. "I look forward to the continuing journey."