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Core of the Matter: Setting Students on the Right “Track” for College (#CoreMatters)

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July 21, 2015 09:55 am


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 Monica Martinez, education strategist and author of “Deeper Learning: How Eight Public Innovative Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century.”

I went to high school in the late 1970s and had what would be considered the typical high school experience. I had a good set of friends, played sports, and was generally engaged in all of the extracurricular events that go along with high school. At the same time, I was seemingly a serious student. I earned good grades, good enough to be on the honor roll and in at least the top 20 percent of my class, and did not struggle academically.

Then I went to college and suddenly I experienced academic failure, receiving Ds and Fs and maybe some Cs on my course work. I did so poorly that after my freshmen year I received the distinction of being on “academic probation.”  I wondered to myself, “How could this be? After all, I was an honor roll student in high school and had strong grades.” I certainly did not share this new academic distinction with anyone, nor did I really understand the implications or how I was to redress this status and the recriminations of this unfamiliar, if not enigmatic, academic status.

It was not until multiple years later that I realized I was one of the multitudes of students who had been “tracked.” Tracking lays out different curriculum paths for students headed for college and those who are not, dividing students into separate classes for high, average, and low achievers. I was never explicitly told by my counselor or anyone else that some administrator in my high school decided I was not going to college, even though I had a strong academic background, identified myself as college bound, had a peer group who was college bound, and, in my opinion, took school very seriously. What was the basis of their decision?

Tracking is subtle, and if you are not equipped with the knowledge to know what courses to take to meet college requirements and prepare for college-level course work, then you cannot advocate for yourself and dissuade the individuals who placed you on a specific track. For me, instead of taking chemistry, I took basic chemistry. Instead of continuing onto trigonometry after Algebra II, I went into a lower-level upper-grade math course. Instead of taking other high-level electives, I took typing or shorthand. If I knew then what I know now, I would have understood my own academic failure and certainly not have been surprised that I was on academic probation my first year at college.

Unfortunately, tracking still exists and is common for first-generation students, and particularly low-income and students of color. My personal experience with tracking, and my subsequent lack of college readiness, led me to be a fervent advocate for states to adopt and support quality implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to minimize the unevenness of learning experiences and ensure that all students, no matter their ethnicity or economic status, graduate prepared for college, careers, and citizenship.

The CCSS are aligned to the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in college and careers, and are internationally benchmarked to ensure students are globally competitive. While I love that the standards can replace existing lower-level academic tracks with a more academically rigorous program, to me, The CCSS represents a historic opening to usher in a new mode of learning that reflects the times in which we live and puts at the center of education the goal of teaching for deep understanding,” as I said in my book Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century. My coauthor and I wrote the book to show how education leaders and teachers can usher in this new mode of learning and what it can look like. We identify six common strategies and pedagogical practices that provide a vision for how teaching must shift for the 21st century and align with the CCSS:

  • empower students as learners;
  • contextualize knowledge so it is coherent;
  • connect learning to real world experiences;
  • extend learning beyond the school;
  • inspire students by customizing learning experiences; and
  • wire learning, purposefully incorporate technology to enhance, rather than automate, learning.

The CCSS provide educators with a framework of what should be taught, but they also imply that instruction must shift to enable students to meet the new standards. Consequently, it is not enough for teachers simply to be aware of the standards and the concomitant instructional strategies that support them. They also need support to develop the capacity to adjust their instruction. Teachers need structured opportunities to collaborate and draw upon one another’s expertise and experience to design, revise, and critique one another’s curricular units and pedagogical practices and examine student work to identify trends in their mastery, acquisition, application of knowledge, and development as critical thinkers. These structured opportunities can include teacher-directed and school-embedded professional development led by peers, third-party providers, and district leaders about teaching aspects of the standards and using specific pedagogical approaches, or involve instructional coaches who conduct classroom observations to provide feedback on individual teaching practices.

Research shows, as do personal experiences like mine, that without access to a rigorous core curriculum and good teachers students cannot succeed in college. And yet, all students, but particularly those of color and those who are of a lower socioeconomic status, still do not have access to the quality teaching that has become necessary to meet higher standards for learning and college readiness.

I was fortunate and somehow had the resilience and opportunity to turn my academics around. Since then, I have spent my entire career understanding my own academic failure and working to transform our public school system to offer equitable opportunities to all students to prepare them to take on the demands of college-level work. The CCSS can help with that transformation by offering all students rigorous college-preparation course work, thereby stopping the entrenched and systematic tracking process based on ethnicity and/or socioeconomic status. As I say in my book, and as so many others have said, “The Common Core is in fact at the core of the most important equity issue of our times,” so we need to get it right and mobilize our resources to ensure we can transform teaching and learning.

Dr. Monica Martinez is an education strategist and consultant for philanthropy and nonprofits for ConsultEd Group, Senior Fellow for Deeper Learning sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and appointee to the White House Commission of Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She is the author of “Deeper Learning: How Eight Public Innovative Schools are Transforming Education in the 21st Century Follow her on Twitter @DrMonie. 

Common Core Equity Series

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.