Sunday, December 28, 2014

The New Smart

Yes, I know it's the holiday break and students and teachers across the country are off, but really, this is just the calm before the storm. There are only two more months until the new PARCC tests are administered. Then there's a 6 to 8 week break. Then more PARCC tests will be administered.

These tests will wreak some serious havoc on school district calendars and teacher's lesson plans nationwide. They will cause anxiety across the student population and will result in hand-wringing and head-shaking amongst the parents and caregivers. In many states, the tests will determine, artificially of course, who is an effective teacher and whether schools are doing all they can to teach students the 21st century skills they'll need to succeed in college and work.

But the biggest effect of the tests is that they will redefine smart for a new generation.

Prior to the Common Core and the new tests, it was enough for smart students to be able to read, memorize, manipulate and give back facts on an examination. The educational model was based on teachers giving students information or coaching them through their learning as the local curriculum dictated. There were some major modifications in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, but most of them addressed how the information was imparted to students, such as cooperative learning, differentiated instruction and directed learning, that was based on the corporate model of education and teamwork that was then in vogue in the working world.

Even the modifications that teachers were legally required to implement to satisfy students who had classifiable learning disabilities, such as giving out notes, providing word banks, redirecting students who had trouble paying attention, or modifying test questions, were only meant to address content delivery. The skills that students needed remained the same.

That's all changed now. The new Common Core standards require that students know how to read on a more sophisticated level and to master themes rather than discrete facts. They require that students explain how they arrived at an answer, either in written or verbal form, in order to justify and support their thinking. The new standards reward students who can analyze a reading excerpt, any excerpt, and identify the main idea and bias behind the writing. If a student can't do these things, then they will not do well on the tests.

Many students who have been doing well in school will find that their skills are not valued anymore. Others who had trouble memorizing and recalling, but could spot larger themes and issues, will be rewarded. I suspect that this was the real intent of Education Secretary Arnie Duncan's unfortunate remarks about why people are opposed to the Common Core. He didn't help himself by saying that “white suburban moms who realize — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” The truth, though, is that many parents will find that their child doesn't respond well to the new standards because they ask the children to manipulate information in different ways. Students will need to be taught how to do that, and once they are, many will succeed. For the first year, though, scores will not be what some people expect them to be. And even if the PARCC tests went away tomorrow, the Common Core standards won't, so students would still need to master the new academic skills. We're not going back to the old ways. Bank on that.

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