An Educational Revolution

by Anita Fitzgerald Henck

Working with children of migrant farmers as an elementary education major at Indiana University’s laboratory school was part of my career preparation in 1976. As a former military dependent who attended five schools by eighth grade, I felt an immediate connection to these students, their transitory education, and the innate obstacles they faced. After experiencing a variety of U.S. school types (private, public, and Department of Defense), I imagined a standardized system for academic placement with a consistent curriculum that would eliminate duplicated courses, avoid curricular gaps, and address the challenges children across the country face.

Fast-forward nearly four decades and the microcosm of my field experience emerges as a more common reality given our mobile 21st-century lifestyle, a weak economy, home foreclosures, and increased job losses. All contribute to a spike in school transfers of American children. In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported on the impact of geographic mobility on students’ academic preparedness. Titled “Many Challenges Arise in Educating Students Who Change Schools Frequently,” the report documented that 34 percent of U.S. eighth graders had attended at least two schools, and 13 percent four or more. Added to this, highly mobile students showed decreased scores in reading and math achievement and higher rates of school dropouts when compared with more traditional peers. These factors, coupled with disconnected curriculum during the transfer process, heighten mobile students’ academic risk levels.

Case for Improvement
The United States, once a world leader in educational standards, has slipped significantly in international rankings. The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked 15-year-old American students 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math out of 34 countries assessed. The PISA exam, along with several others with similar findings, measures students’ ability to apply their learning to real-life situations, drawing upon their knowledge of math, reading, and science. These studies revealed a lack of advanced critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by U.S.-educated students as compared with international peers. Further, U.S. employers report difficulty in hiring graduates with adequate skills in communication, collaboration, technology, presentation, and reasoning.

The source of these problems may lie within the educational system itself. The lack of consistent curricular standards and uniform measurements of student performance across states results in a decentralized K–12 curriculum with the inability to adequately compare performance from state to state. Andreas Schleicher, former head of the Indicators and Analysis Division at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the French entity that developed the PISA system, noted in a 2010 USA Today article the broad variation among countries’ school systems. “Some of the top systems are centralized, while others are very decentralized,” he wrote. “There was also much variation in class sizes, with some of the best performers finding success in putting quality teachers in larger classes. But in each case, teachers are subject to evaluations and have a high standing in society. Also, schools have a degree of autonomy in determining their curriculum—but are also held accountable.”

The tension between autonomy and accountability ignites debate about the United States’ K–12 systems of education. The lack of explicit mention of federal oversight of education in the U.S. Constitution allowed a decentralized system of schools to emerge through westward expansion. In the early years of U.S. history, the vast differences between agrarian communities, industrial towns, and ports-of-entry metropolitan centers meant that individualized community-based curricula proved practical, necessary, and appropriate. However, even then, reading, writing, and arithmetic remained the common baseline across all schools. Ironically, in the 21st century, in a world increasingly more interconnected by technology, schooling experiences across the nation have become more fragmented and disengaged.

Emergence of the Common Core State Standards
Upon the expiration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which included Title I funding (financial resources for low-income students) to public schools, and the conclusion of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers began working together to address these looming national education issues. With the goal of preparing high school graduates for the workforce and/or collegiate success, this bipartisan, state-based initiative addressed concerns about the lack of consistent standards and integrated educational delivery across the country. With 98,817 public and 33,366 private schools in the U.S. that operate within more than 14,000 districts, a state-led groundswell has emerged for intentional curricular connectivity.

Titled the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the initiative’s articulated mission is “to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” In short, it demands a reinvented curriculum that is less reliant on rote learning of subject matter and emphasizes depth of knowledge, integration across subject areas, and the ability to synthesize and correlate information from multiple sources or disciplines. Assignments will focus less on multiple-choice assessments and more on developing the skills needed for more comprehensive, open-ended questions. This paradigm shift requires not only curricular changes, but also a fresh approach to helping students learn.

Plans for the Common Core Roll Out
Implementing such wide-reaching change calls for collaboration among many entities to ensure comprehensive consultation and accelerate program development. At the federal level, financial incentives encouraged states to adopt these standards. Meanwhile, private organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, provided resources—human and financial capital—toward program development. Early in the process, 48 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories committed to the CCSS; since that time, 3 states have withdrawn.

Two consortia—Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—emerged with curricular and assessment materials for participant use. States appear evenly divided in choosing between the two, with strong support for the freedom of choice and checks and balances represented. With preliminary implementation slated for 2014–15, schools, districts, and states have embraced reorienting methods of operations, teaching, and assessment in preparation for the new performance-based assessment delivery of education.

Political and Social Challenges of Common Core
While bipartisan, state-led efforts generated the CCSS, supporters and detractors abound. CCSS is largely supported by state governors and educational leaders. Opponents comprise three key groups. The first expresses concern about large government intervention in locally run schools. This ideological impasse pits local rights against concerns about lack of calibration to employers and international educational standards, as we leave the educational impact of student mobility unaddressed. Second, some point to the lack of detailed plans for implementation. Those representing these views prefer to fix the existing systems rather than committing to large-scale change. The third resists the changes based on political ideologies, citing lack of trust in particular political figures and partnerships.

Despite these opposing voices, the need for systemic alignment, improved curricular focus, and performance-based assessment of this nation’s education system remains imperative. Incremental change fails to address today’s generation of students’ needs and threatens our nation’s competitive capability in the future. Almost a century ago, philosopher and educational reformer, John Dewey, stated in his 1916 treatise, Democracy and Education, “Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth, something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.” The call to teach students how to think critically rather than merely memorize content calls for a revolution —a dramatic shift that will transform our schools, our students, and in turn, our nation.

Implications for Higher Education
The widespread national changes for K–12 curriculum carry significant implications for America’s colleges and universities on at least two levels—aligning undergraduate curricula to Common Core-prepared high school graduates, and recalibrating educator preparation program curricula. Both involve new paradigms for university faculty.

Within APU’s School of Education, the move toward improved assessment, collaborative assignments, cross-disciplinary teaching, and enriched content linked to specific pedagogies presents changes for teacher preparation faculty, teachers-in-training, and previously prepared K–12 teachers. All-day workshops introduced the CCSS to all full-time and adjunct faculty in January 2013, and a general overview of the Smarter Balanced curriculum provided materials to more than 100 faculty members, spurring planning and curricular adaptations. Faculty workshops held in spring 2014 revisited implications and refined preparations ahead of the fall 2014 rollout in K–12 classrooms, and department chairs continue to work with district leaders discussing calibration of APU’s teacher preparation program offerings with K–12 curricular changes.

In addition, APU’s School of Education partnered with Azusa Unified School District in September 2013 to host the president of the California State Board of Education, Michael Kirst, Ph.D. He spoke to APU doctoral students, faculty, and local superintendents about the state’s efforts to move to the CCSS, as well as the change in the funding formula for state allocations to districts. Two months later, the School of Education invited area district leaders to hear a presentation by Jannelle Kubinec, director of the Comprehensive School Assistance Program of WestEd, a nonprofit public research and development agency that services the state of California. She provided the latest updates about the new California Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that she helped shape and implement, and answered questions from district personnel involved in LCFF implementation. Such dialogues keep APU teacher educators at the forefront of the historic changes facing the nation’s school system. As the School of Education team continues to facilitate conversations between university, local district, and state leaders and provide resources for area educators, we emerge as a trusted advocate for children and heed the call to care for them deeply.

Originally published in the Spring '14 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.