This post is the first in a three-part series on the relationship between Deeper Learning and the Common Core standards. The other posts in the series will be published later this week –Ed.
Lately, a lot of people have been asking me about the relationship between the Hewlett Foundation’s work to promote “Deeper Learning” and the Common Core State Standards. Some of this is because the Common Core has become much more politicized and controversial; some of this is because there is confusion about whether or not deeper learning complements—or somehow competes with—the standards; and some of this is because the new Common Core assessments are being field-tested and folks are unclear about what exactly is being measured and if the tests are any better.
Here’s how we think about it at Hewlett’s Education Program:
Deeper learning is a shorthand description of the student “competencies” (or mix of academic content knowledge and higher-order skills) that are most critical for success in the rapidly changing world of work and civic life. Ample research has clarified that those skills include critical thinking and problem solving, effective communication, collaboration, learning to learn, and developing an academic mindset. When this potent mix of skills and dispositions are applied to a mastery of core academic content, deeper learning is to educational outcomes what jet fuel is to airplanes.
With its goal of “fewer, higher, clearer” standards for both English Language Arts and Math, the Core moves the ball forward by providing educators with a useful yardstick for measuring both a student’s understanding of fundamental principles and concepts, and the higher-order thinking skills that are key components of Deeper Learning . To date, 43 states have voluntarily adopted the Common Core standards in an historical show of commitment to educational excellence.
The Common Core and deeper learning are connected because many of skills emphasized by deeper learning will be advanced through successful implementation of the Core. Independent research from a number of prominent experts confirms this. Notably, a research paper from Achieve (a key architect of the Common Core standards) and an analysis of how Deeper Learning and CSSS interact from researcher David Conley (one of the country’s foremost experts on college readiness) have both documented the strong relationship between the deeper learning competencies and the Common Core standards.
For us, the Common Core represents a rare opportunity in US education reform to ensure at scale that students are exposed to a more rigorous education that will better prepare them with the knowledge, skills, and learning mindsets they’ll need for success in college, career, and civic life. For these reasons, the Hewlett Foundation has been deeply supportive of the Common Core standards, with a particular focus on better assessments as a way to signal and support school systems for continuous improvement.
But we recognize that, like any education reform, the Common Core can either be implemented well or it can be implemented poorly. If done well, teachers will be given the freedom, support, space, and time to adapt instruction to meet the individual needs of students and to develop their higher order thinking skills, and the Common Core will be a runaway success. If, instead, the Common Core is viewed as a “flavor of the month” fad, if it stifles teacher creativity and risk taking, if it becomes another “top down” reform tied to high stakes accountability, or if it simply results in no real changes in practice, then the historic adoption of common standards by the vast majority of the country will go down as a squandered opportunity in the annals of education history.
As we look across the country, common core implementation has been highly variable—in some cases, it looks like the best case scenario outlined above and in others a less rosy picture has emerged. To be fair to all students and teachers it is critical that many more districts and schools become deeply engaged with the new standards. That’s why we think it is so important to support effective Common Core implementation. Schools need to align high quality curriculum with teacher professional development and to deliver the standards with fidelity to deeper learning. Expeditionary Learning’s excellent English Language Arts model curricula—selected by New York for all of its schools in grades 3 to 5, is a good example. Chicago’s Polaris Charter Academy is another, offering living proof that the Common Core can spark exuberant and creative teaching and learning in some of the country’s most challenged communities.
The Common Core is not a magic potion that will cure all of the ills of the education system. Nor will it deliver all of the skills that students will need to prosper in a complex and changing world. But it represents a significant, scalable step forward for deeper learning that offers schools flexible guidelines, improved measures, and the opportunity to raise the ceiling of student achievement.
If we hope to step up as a nation to improve public education, there is no question that standards must be raised for what students know and can do. We believe that the Common Core State Standards provide an excellent set of academic benchmarks. If they are implemented with integrity and creativity in service of the ultimate goal—powerful deeper learning for all students—we believe they can be a key part of the solution.