Washington D.C. gambles Common Core

May 24, 2013 by

By Catherine Gewertz

The big clock in Dowan McNair-Lee’s 8th grade classroom is silent, but she can hear the minutes ticking away nonetheless. On this day, like any other, the clock is a constant reminder of how little time she has to prepare her students—for spring tests, and for high school and all that lies beyond it.

As an English/language arts teacher in the common-core era, Ms. McNair-Lee is part of a massive nationwide push to turn millions of students into powerful readers and writers.

The District of Columbia, where she’s taught for 11 years, was quick to adopt the Common Core State Standards. But putting them into practice demands a heavy lift: With their emphasis on mastery of complex text, the standards require far stronger literacy skills than most students here—and many in the 46 states that also adopted the common core in English—currently possess.

Serving mostly disadvantaged children, the school system in the nation’s capital faces an especially steep climb as it implements the new standards.

“Every day when they come to class, there is so much they don’t know,” Ms. McNair-Lee said one day last winter. “Every day, I’m trying to fill in those gaps. Some days I feel like I just can’t do enough.”

Mikel Robinson is one of the students she is trying to support. The 14-year-old has had an uneven year in her class. His work shows promise, but too many assignments are incomplete or missing; he bombs too many tests. Ms. McNair-Lee watches over Mikel as much as she can with 128 students revolving through her day. But she agonizes about him as his teetering grades hover just at the edge of her reach.

How well the school district can reach Mikel is an open question as it brings the common standards into the classroom. And it’s one that resonates nationwide, where students like Mikel sit at millions of desks in schools that are trying to do the same.

In districts of all sizes, teachers are scrambling to get their arms around the new guidelines. The demand for good curricular resources and professional development outstrips their availability.

The response here to those dynamics has been to bet big on the common standards, with a full-bore K-12 English/language arts implementation that features some of the most leading-edge instructional resources and far-reaching professional development in the nation, experts say.

“The district has done this more comprehensively than most places in the country,” says Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which analyzed the district’s emerging common-core program. “DCPS is in full tilt, whole-hog.”

The school system brings key assets to the work: optional model instructional units and lesson plans, and thousands of new books; coaches who work with teachers in nearly every school; professional development that reaches all teachers and administrators at least five times a year.

Stuart-Hobson Middle School, where Ms. McNair-Lee teaches, brings strengths of its own to the common-core challenge. It’s one of the highest-achieving of the district’s 13 middle schools; it is blessed with extra staff for academic intervention and social-service support.

Ms. McNair-Lee, who chairs the school’s English/language arts department, brings a rare level of familiarity with the standards. She studied them in depth for a graduate-level urban-literacy course she teaches at a nearby university. Through a teaching fellowship, she is attuned to the policy and instructional debates sparked by the common core.

And she knows her students exceptionally well, since she taught them as 7th graders and “looped” up to 8th with them this year.

The story of putting vast new changes on the ground can show off a system’s strengths, but can also showcase its limitations.

Mr. Casserly’s report pointed out a pivotal trickle-down challenge facing the district as it puts the common core into practice: “how the reforms conceived at the central-office level are put into place in schools and classrooms.” Also daunting: the “significant” amount of professional development teachers need and the “enormous gaps” in students’ skills and knowledge.

To be sure, the school district’s work is tested daily by its own limits. It struggles to reach all 4,100 of its teachers in ways that will deeply affect their practice. Its army of coaches—a key conduit for its common-core work—varies in effectiveness. Stuart-Hobson administrators search for sure-footedness as they try to lead teachers to better practice. Teachers feel alternately inspired and overwhelmed by the size of the job they have to do.

And students: They’re all over the achievement map. The ones with stronger skills are doing well. Those furthest behind are inching forward with special help. Many of those in the middle, like Mikel, need more support than is available.

Much is at stake, too, as the district tries to get the common core right. How well its students progress is central to its accountability system, in which lackluster results could mean less control over the way it spends federal dollars. Its viability is on the line, too; it competes with a burgeoning charter school sector that steadily siphons away students—and funding.

The district is also acutely aware that it could influence the national dialogue at the nexus of race, poverty, and education.

“We have the opportunity to rewrite the narrative on urban education in a city where everybody in the world is watching us,” says Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Teachers, coaches, and administrators have much at stake, too. They are being judged in part on their students’ and schools’ test scores. And for students, the stakes couldn’t be higher: How well prepared will they be for life after graduation?


via Washington D.C. bets big on Common Core | Hechinger Report.

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