William S. McKersie, Superintendent of Schools
A Word on the Common Core
William S. McKersie, Ph.D.
Superintendent, Greenwich Public Schools
We should be accustomed to political fights that develop around high stakes educational policies. I call it the Reese Cup Syndrome: you can’t have a Reese Cup without both chocolate and peanut butter; similarly, we can’t have high stakes educational ideas, policy or practice without political tussles.
The nation now is in a political tussle about the Common Core. While this type of debate is not new, as educators we have to understand the politics, and put them in their proper place, so we are not slowed down, stymied, or discouraged.
For understanding tough questions and debates, it is essential to consult multiple sources, ideally from ideologically and methodologically distinct approaches. Early this fall, I distributed to Greenwich administrators two articles regarding the Common Core. The first was an op-ed by Bill Keller of the New York Times (August 19, 2013). The second was a piece in the National Review by Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern of the Fordham and Manhattan Institutes (April 3, 2013).
Combining the arguments of these two pieces, which span the ideological spectrum, a strong stance emerges for why Greenwich should accelerate, not diminish, its work on the Common Core. The challenge is not whether or not these standards are rigorous or correct. The challenge is how we get our district organized to help all our students succeed in our new standards environment.
My readings have continued. Last week, I came upon a well-reasoned and detailed argument for the importance of the Common Core from the Institute for a Competitive Workforce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The report is direct, stating at the outset that the Common Core is essential “to ensure all students are prepared for success after graduation and to significantly improve American competitiveness” (Common Core: College and Career Ready Standards, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, December 2013, p. 2).
We all have to read and study the Common Core. Most people who read the Common Core find value in the new standards. Unfortunately, many who are challenging the Common Core have not read the standards closely nor understand their history or purpose.
What value do I see in the Common Core?
First, the standards are state of the art. They are based on at least three decades of experience in developing and implementing expectations for what students should know and be able to do when they complete high school. The Common Core by design addresses many of the pitfalls of previous versions of standards.
Second, the Common Core has been developed by a mix of experts: content area specialists, higher education faculty, K-12 teachers, and measurement professionals. The standards are not the creation of distant policymakers and attorneys.
Third, the Common Core is based on an architecture that “delineates what students should know at each grade level and describe the skills and performance abilities they must acquire to stay on course for college and career” (Porter-Magee and Stern, 2013). With its grade-by-grade progression, the Common Core provides the basis for educators and parents to better understand where students are on the path to college and career success. Students are not limited by the stated outcomes at each grade level—instead, the outcomes provide a baseline for educators and parents to better gauge student progress.
Fourth, the Common Core is based on performance standards more than content standards. Especially with the English Language Arts Standards, the Common Core outlines what students need to do, not just what they need to know. Intellectual and academic performance skills cross-cut all subjects, disciplines and learning challenges—such performance skills include, problem solving, critical thinking, inquiry, mathematical capacity, literacy capacity, and speaking. The point is that, while knowing facts and information (content) is essential, more valuable is knowing how to tackle new challenges and problems (performance) to arrive at solutions not addressed by known facts or information.
Fifth, the Common Core is truly more rigorous and cohesive than previous standards. They are pegged to 12th Grade accomplishments, not 10th Grade as the ultimate level (as was the reality with past standards). Indeed, the Fordham Institute found that for most states the Common Core is “a great improvement with regard to rigor and cohesiveness” (Porter-Magee and Stern, 2013). Nevertheless, our mantra in Greenwich is that the Common Core “is the floor, not the ceiling!” No matter how much the Common Core pushes rigor, in Greenwich we consider the standards the baseline for our students, not the ultimate limit of their accomplishment.
Sixth, the Common Core is distinct from the SBAC (the standardized assessment being used by Connecticut and many states to gauge student and district progress relative to the Common Core). SBAC results will be only one indicator of the quality of work relative to the Common Core. No one measure indicates human progress; such is the case with the Common Core. We will look at multiple assessments—for instance, the PSAT, SAT and AP, all of which are being aligned to the Common Core. We also will look at performance indicators such as capstone projects and college matriculation. Later this spring, we will introduce a Comprehensive Assessment System.
Lastly, the Common Core enables innovation and choice. The standards are set, but we as educators in Greenwich control the curriculum, the instructional plans and the multiple assessments essential to the delivery of the standards. The Common Core does not dictate curriculum, texts, lessons, or lists of knowledge. Working with the Board of Education, parents and community, Greenwich educators have to be creative, flexible and data-based in how we develop the curriculum and instructional plans. This is challenging work, but with proper support, it should reinvigorate our passion for teaching and student learning. Ultimately, it should serve to accelerate students.
The political tussles over the Common Core will continue. In Greenwich, we must take the high road and drive for greater excellence with the Common Core as our essential framework. Paradoxically, I arrive at this conclusion based on an application of several Common Core Standards: I have studied the source documents; I have sought out varied information and arguments; I have thought critically about the evidence; and, I have formed a “living understanding,” one that I will be regularly checking as more information and knowledge emerges.
November 27, 2013, Superintendent's Thanksgiving Day Message
November 12, 2013, The Roots of Excellence
September 26, 2013, Letter to Greenwich Public School Families on our Call to Action and Strategic Focus
September 11, 2013 Letter to Greenwich Public School Families on Safe School Climate
September 3, 2013 Letter to Greenwich Public School Families on Safe School Climate
April 25, 2012, Superintendent of Schools Appointment Announcement
Resume for William S. McKersie (April 2012)