Ron Berger is the Chief Academic Officer at Expeditionary Learning, a grantee of the Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program. This post is the third in a three-part series on the relationship between Deeper Learning and the Common Core State Standards. 

For the first time in many generations, almost every school in America is questioning whether they are teaching the right things, and teaching them in the right way. At my organization, Expeditionary Learning (EL), which is dedicated to building great public schools and teachers, we believe this is a good thing—a rare chance for transformational improvement in public education—and a time of opportunity.

The provocation for this moment is clear: as a nation, we are not doing an adequate job of preparing our students for the future. This is evident in the poor performance of U.S. students on international assessments of higher-order skills; from the diminished international ranking of the U.S. in percentage of college graduates; from data that suggest our high school graduates are not well prepared with the skills to succeed in college and the workforce; and from the persistent educational attainment gap between students from low-income families and those from high-income families. In short, we need to do a better job of preparing all students with the skills and knowledge needed for college, career, and citizenship.

The Common Core State Standards are one response to this provocation and a key driver of many of the changes at work in school districts across the U.S. The standards describe a set of student outcomes that are more challenging than those that have been in place in most states, prioritizing critical thinking and deeper understanding. There is a great deal of political controversy around the standards and the assessments that will follow them, and it is difficult to know where the dust will settle in the details of implementation. One thing, however, is clear to us: higher expectations for students across the U.S.—as embodied in the standards—are not going away. The higher bar that the standards describe will infuse more challenging standards in every state—regardless of a state’s formal relationship to the Common Core—and will drive school change for the next generation and beyond.

What the Common Core standards are, and what they are not, is often misunderstood. They are a set of ambitious student outcomes. They are not a set of prescriptive teaching practices, nor are they a simple solution to America’s educational challenges. The standards can be a force for positive change only if they are joined with fresh, inspiring teaching practices that engage and impel all students to new levels of achievement, and create classrooms where higher levels of commitment, respect, challenge, and joy in learning are the norm. This is the opportunity before us: to build and share models of innovative and effective deeper learning that support students to meet and exceed these ambitious standards. This is an opportunity to create a new vision of what teaching and learning in public schools can be.

For more than 20 years, Expeditionary Learning has worked to support a new vision of engaging and effective teaching and learning in schools sited in neighborhoods where good schools are most needed. While these schools are high-achieving on standard assessments, the learning in their classrooms is anything but standard and test-driven. Let’s peek inside two of these schools where the real-world, higher-level thinking that is the goal of Deeper Learning is evident every day:

The first is The Springfield Renaissance School, a public district EL school in Springfield, Massachusetts that is beating the odds in its low-income urban neighborhood. Renaissance serves 700 students in grades 6–12 and its results are remarkable. For five consecutive years, almost every student has graduated on time and every single graduate has been accepted to college. Why is this school so successful when so many other urban schools struggle?

Teaching and learning at Renaissance are different than what many of us experienced in our high school years. Classrooms are active: students take a leadership role in their learning— presenting and defending ideas, critiquing themselves and each other, pushing each other through challenges. This short video of a tenth-grade English classroom gives a sense of what this looks like. The academic content is not unusual—an analysis of Shakespeare’s Macbeth using a Common Core-aligned focus on evidence. What is surprising is that the students themselves lead the class, and do so with insight and passion, as this video shows.  

Citing Evidence from Complex Text from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

The second example comes from Polaris Charter Academy, a K-8 EL school in Chicago, Illinois. Seventh-grade students in this school used a Common Core-aligned study of the U.S. Constitution as the jumping off point for a student-led project to curb the epidemic of gun violence in their community. Stepping up with personal and academic courage, these students became actively involved in a civic campaign that successfully curtailed violence around the school. At the same time, they researched and published an evidence-rich book celebrating the lives of local “Peacekeepers”: individuals working to make the community a safer place to live. The project is described in more detail below, in a blog post by two of the students who worked on it.

Moments of transition and change on the scale of we are experiencing currently in American education do not appear often. We have a rare opportunity to elevate a national vision of the capacity of all students, from all neighborhoods, to do the deep, thoughtful, quality work we know they can do.