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Core of the Matter: Equity and Deeper Learning (#CoreMatters)

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December 16, 2014 04:40 pm


The following blog post is another in the Alliance’s “Core of the Matter” blog series focusing on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and struggling students. It was written by Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and New York University Professor Pedro Noguera. 

Growing acknowledgement that U.S. schools, particularly those working with traditionally underserved populations, are not preparing all students adequately for college and career success has sparked a series of reform efforts.  Among these is the development of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that emphasize critical thinking and analytic skills needed for today’s knowledge-based society and workplace. These standards intend to create “fewer, higher and deeper” curriculum goals.  If implemented successfully, they could support the kind of teaching that would enable students to develop deeper learning competencies, including a flexible understanding and ability to apply core academic content, to solve complex problems, to work collaboratively, to communicate effectively, and to learn how to learn — goals that are not currently supported in the existing accountability system.

While potentially promising, these new initiatives will require a tremendous transformation in teaching approaches, school organization and leadership orientation.   Such changes will be particularly challenging for under-resourced schools serving large numbers of low-income students which were most likely to narrow the curriculum to test preparation strategies under the threat of sanctions during the No Child Left Behind era.  For more than a decade, students in most of these schools have been given few chances to learn to solve complex problems, conduct research, communicate in multiple forms, or use new technologies for finding, analyzing, and evaluating information.

In addition to the need to build educator capacity to learn and use new pedagogies, successful implementation of these major policy initiatives is complicated by the pervasive and profound inequities in family income and school funding that are rampant in the American educational system, complicated by growing economic and racial segregation.  Together, these produce enormous inequities in learning opportunities and learning conditions in homes, communities, and schools.

The recent report of the Equity and Excellence Commission documented these widespread disparities and defined the equity agenda as needing to:

  • restructure the school finance system to insure equitable distribution of resources,
  • ensure access to quality teachers through professional learning and equitable distribution,
  • ensure access to high quality early childhood education,
  • provide external wraparound supports to address the children’s health and welfare,
  • redefine accountability to improve conditions within schools.

These are all essential foundations for meaningful implementation of the Common Core.   To ensure that these building blocks are put in place, a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) should require that states make progress toward resource equity as well as more equitable achievement as a condition of federal funding.   States should consider funding strategies, like weighted student formula approaches used in Massachusetts and California, that provide school funding based on the costs of educating students who live in poverty, are new English learners, or encounter other risk factors, and should allow schools to use the resources flexibly to implement new school models that innovate successfully.

These new school designs should include community schools models that enable the provision of wraparound services and have proven successful in boosting achievement.   Once a major federal investment, funding for these models has dropped dramatically in the last decade even while childhood poverty and homelessness have increased.  States and the federal government must work much more purposefully to ensure that students in high-need communities receive adequate preschool education, health care, social services, summer learning opportunities, and before and after-school care.

In addition, policies will need to support educator development so that practitioners can learn how to make deeper learning accessible to students who have experienced low-quality education in the past and who have significant gaps in their skills.    Fortunately, there are a number of studies that have examined schools serving low-income and minority students that are disrupting the status quo and engaging students in deeper learning.  This body of research, including studies by the American Institutes of Research, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the New York Performance Standards Consortium, among others, has found that redesigned schools have stronger academic outcomes, better attendance and student behavior, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of admission and perseverance in college than comparison schools serving similar students.

Key elements of these schools’ practices include:

  • Authentic instruction and assessment in the form of project-based learning, performance-based assessment, collaborative learning, and connections to the world beyond school;
  • Personalized supports for learning in the form of advisory systems; differentiated instruction; and support for social services and social-emotional learning, as well as skills;
  • Supports for educator learning through opportunities for reflection, collaborative planning of curriculum and assessments, distributed leadership, and extensive professional development.

Across different studies, researchers found that many of these schools organize instruction around major performance assessments, which are collected in graduation portfolios that include research and inquiry projects in each core area – math, English language arts, science, and history / social studies, plus, in many cases, world language, arts, and internships or community service outside of school.  These are developed in courses throughout high school and revised until they meet a “portfolio standard,” then defended orally and in writing before a committee, and revised again if they need more work.  Alumni report that this intellectually challenging work prepared them for college because they had already developed the abilities to plan and organize complex projects, conduct research, weigh and balance evidence, write and speak proficiently, and respond productively to feedback.

Most of these schools also have developed personalized systems of in-school support for students, along with access to health care, mental health services, and social supports. They look at the student as a whole person as well as a growing intellect.

If the kind of learning envisioned by the Common Core is going to be equitably available, federal, state, and local policies will need to sponsor the wraparound resources students need in order to come to school able to learn each day, the equitable funding that will allow all of them to be greeted by high-quality curriculum and teaching resources, and the intellectual resources both educators and students need to develop new practices focused on deeper learning.  Examples of how to do this are available.  We need to create a policy environment in which they move from being exceptions to becoming the norm for all of our children.

Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and is a member of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Board of Directors for the Alliance. Follow her on Twitter at @LDH_ed.

Dr. Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. Follow him on Twitter at @PedroANoguera

Common Core Equity Series

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