Remarks at the Teaching & Learning Summit
March 14, 2014
Public education is the single greatest instrument for equal opportunity in America. That is why Melinda and I focus on public schools. And that is why we support a change that can trigger big gains for our students: the Common Core State Standards.
After studying them, talking to teachers about them, and seeing students learn from them, we are convinced that the new standards are a platform for innovation. They will give teachers the freedom you need to be creative, the tools you need to be effective, the feedback you need to keep improving – and the rigor that our students need to become great learners.
As you know, the standards are benchmarks in math and English for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. They emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving, and they are now being implemented in 45 states and here in the District of Columbia.
They’re also inspiring heated debate. Some of the debate comes from people who want more time and support for teachers to implement the standards. Some of the debate comes from people who want to stop the standards, which would send us back to what we had before.
As someone who passionately supports the new standards, I want to offer my views today about what they are, why we need them, and what should be done to help teachers master them. I feel honored to be making these remarks to teachers who have done so much to advance the standards of the teaching profession. There are many voices in this debate, but none are more important or more trusted than yours.
Last month, we had more than a dozen teachers from across the country come talk to our team at the Foundation so we could hear more about what they’re facing as they switch over to the Common Core.
One teacher told a story about the old standards that for her captured the need for the Common Core. She said: “We have kids who fail, and it’s not [just] the kids who think they’re going to fail.” Then she talked of a student of hers she called a “success story kid.” She said “I told [him he] was ready. He trusted me, and went to college and dropped out because he wasn’t ready.” Then she added: “What we were doing before was not always working, even when we thought it was…. that is why we’re asking more.”
Millions of students have suffered through the same story. From kindergarten through high school, they meet the standards we ask of them, but we don’t ask enough. Then after years of not asking enough, we suddenly ask way too much – and they learn too late that their high school diploma didn’t prepare them for college. They have to pay out of their own pockets to take remedial courses to learn what we should have already taught them. And most of them never make it through. They drop out. And they never did anything wrong.
This is a defining challenge for our schools today. There is a huge gap between what it takes to graduate from high school and what it takes to be ready for college or work. This gap is why the nation’s governors joined together in 2009 to call on teachers and education experts to design new standards. The standards they developed are a direct response to our biggest challenge, and a striking advance over what we had before.
The Features of the Common Core
First, the new standards are set high to match the needs of students who want to go to college or get a job that leads to a career. If we teach to these standards, we will finally make good on the covenant between schools and students: “If you learn what we teach, you will be ready to succeed at the next stage.”
Second, the standards are clear and focused. In math, the common core focuses on the essential concepts that are crucial to mastering the next year’s concepts – from multiplying and dividing – to working with fractions – to using ratios and proportions. The common core is not a list of skills; it’s a staircase. Each standard is a step toward the higher skills that will help students solve complex problems in the classroom and beyond.
In English Language Arts, research has shown that the single most important predictor of student success in college and career is the ability to read complex text. The approach of the common core to reading is simple and effective. The students should read text – understand it, explain it, apply it, analyze it, draw inferences from it, and cite evidence from it – at ever higher levels of complexity – with ever greater independence. When students master this, they open the door to everything.
Third, the standards are consistent from state to state. Some people who see the value of higher standards don’t see the need for shared standards. Why can’t we have 50 separate sets of standards, so long as they’re higher? The answer is: Inconsistent standards punish students. When students want to go to college, they take the ACT or the SAT. When they get into college, they may take placement tests. Students who haven’t been taught what’s on these tests are at a huge disadvantage. Under the old standards, if you were from Kentucky, you didn’t have to know the quadratic formula, but your neighbors in Tennessee did. If you were from Maryland, you didn’t have to learn trigonometry, but your neighbors in Virginia did. If you didn’t learn an area of math that other students did, you might find out about it for the first time on a test that helps determine your future. That’s blatantly unfair to millions of students.
Advancing the Profession of Teaching
There is another crucial reason for making standards consistent from state to state: Clear, consistent standards will advance the teaching profession. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards demonstrates even in its title the essential link between standards and a profession.
Consistent Standards: A Platform for Innovation.
But let’s be open about this. When most of us hear that the government is going to set a new standard, the first thing we think is – ‘this is going to get in my way.’ Believe me; I understand this reaction. But it’s important to explain to people that this is different – that the common core standards don’t limit freedom; they promote freedom.
As you know, a standard means, in one sense, a ‘level of performance’. But there is another meaning that is relevant here – a standard also means ‘a common definition that everyone understands and accepts’.
These standards are so ubiquitous in society that we often don’t see them, but they are crucial to innovation. A standard electrical outlet allows technological innovations to be used in every home. A standard computer language (TCP/IP) allows billions of people to share information on the internet. A standard shipping container lets us move goods from ships to trains to trucks. Standard units allow scientists to share data. Without consistent standards, we wouldn’t be able to share information or spread innovation.
When there are 50 different interpretations of what students need to know, it’s harder to make progress toward big goals because it’s hard to agree on the goals. On the other hand, when everyone embraces consistent standards, you can define goals, test methods, and see what’s effective. That’s why consistent standards are so important to teaching: they provide a shared platform that allows teachers to communicate, cooperate, innovate, learn from each other and keep pushing to get better.
I’ve discussed this with people who say – how can standards be a platform for innovation if everyone has to teach the same standards? They’re confusing standards and curriculum. They’re not the same. Standards say only what your students need to learn; they don’t tell you how to teach it.
Here’s an illustration. This is a common core standard for high school geometry:
“Prove theorems about lines and angles.”
That’s it. That’s not curriculum; it’s a standard. No one can learn geometry without knowing it. No one can make a rational case for excluding it. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest how you teach it as long as the students learn it.
There’s a standard for eighth grade literature that is basically this:
First read a book, then watch the movie, then analyze and evaluate the differences.
That is a standard. It doesn’t tell anyone what to think; it doesn’t tell you what to read; it doesn’t tell you how to teach. It just describes the kind of thinking the students need to be able to do.
That’s how clear and consistent standards drive innovation. They set teachers free to try any method, compare their results, and share the ones that work best. This opens the door to insightful teacher feedback that can be tied to great professional development and customized for each teacher. Teachers can build their strengths by watching videos of their colleagues in the classroom—or studying their lesson plans.
Consistent standards give teachers access to the most valuable resource possible: each other. Teaching is suddenly not an isolated pursuit, but a shared enterprise. It lets all teachers learn from each other, and that’s what drives a profession forward.
Consistent Standards: Innovation in Teaching Tools
Consistent standards will also lead to tools that help teachers reach each student. Until now, different standards in every state made it hard for innovators to design tools that a lot of teachers could use, so teachers haven’t enjoyed the technology advances that benefit other professionals. Consistent standards can change that.
Imagine you’re teaching the standard on analyzing the differences between a book and a film. How can you engage every student at the highest level? What if someone developed software that allowed students to choose the book and film that interest them most? That would personalize the experience and help engage each student.
Or imagine you’re teaching students to “prove theorems about lines and angles.” You could point them to an on-line program that demonstrates how to do the proofs and then tests their knowledge. If the student doesn’t get it, the software can review the concepts, taking her as far back as she needs to go to start getting it right. Meanwhile, teachers no longer have to spend class time delivering content; they are now free to do the things that software can’t do – work with students one-on-one or in small groups, motivating them and boosting their confidence.
We’re just at the start of this. There is a lot of innovation happening on-line that is free and interactive. It can show students where they stand and share that information with the teacher.
I think you deserve this kind of support. Doctors don’t sit alone in their offices trying to design new tools for healing. Athletes don’t stay late at the stadium trying to design themselves a lighter shoe. They’re supported by huge industries that are designing new tools to give them an edge. You should benefit from innovation at least as much as they do. To get innovation that advances quickly and works for all 50 states, we need the consistent standards of the common core.
I am very enthusiastic about the Common Core, but I know that implementation has been bumpy in places. Teachers have talked to us about the challenges. One teacher said: “When I looked at the standards and started understanding them, I was excited about the opportunities to… develop my own materials on it. I loved that. But a lot of teachers just don’t have that perspective right now.”
Another teacher was having a harder time. He said: ‘Everybody in my school is complaining about the lack of curriculum … now we have to jump all over the place and find extra materials to make things deeper and richer.”
Progress is faster in some places than others, and the states that are doing implementation well are following a few key principles.
No one who supports the common core wants to raise the standards just to see students fail. We all want to see them succeed. So as we raise the standards, we have to make sure that teachers get what they need to teach them well.
Fortunately, teachers across the country are mobilizing to support each other. Colorado educators have created more than 600 curriculum samples based on the standards. The Georgia State Department of Education has a library of more than a 1,000 videos of common core lessons. The NEA master teacher initiative has brought together 95 teachers to develop a year’s worth of common core-aligned lessons.
These are all encouraging signs that teachers will get the new materials and support they need.
There is one thing that worries me, though. It’s the false claims that some people keep making about the standards.
It’s a federal takeover. It’s a national curriculum. It’s the end of innovation.
None of this is true, and the controversy it stirs up takes the focus away from helping teachers. When people are yelling about problems that aren’t there, they make it harder to solve the challenges that are there.
Even if it will never persuade some people, it’s important to repeat the facts. The states designed the standards, not the federal government. The standards are goals, not methods. They say what should be learned, not how it must be taught.
We don’t have time to answer every false tweet and post. The best response to these claims is the voice of an experienced teacher talking to a concerned parent.
The teachers we heard from had a special respect for the parents who came in and complained, because it proved how much they wanted their kids to be successful. Some parents would come in and say: “You’re experimenting on my kid.” And the teachers’ reaction was: ‘We’re not experimenting on your kid. We’re trying to help your kid be a better learner… and get into college and not live in your basement.’
That’s a goal that unites a lot of parents.
The transition to the new standards is hard – but it has to be. We’re trying to get America’s kids ready for life in a global knowledge-based economy. As one teacher put it: “The kids that are leaving my room – they’re not all going to be trying to get a job in the town where I teach.”
The standards shouldn’t be a mark of where students came from, but a key to wherever they want to go.
I hope each one of you can be involved in this discussion and bring it back to what’s real. I hope you can find time to sit down with parents in your community and tell them what the standards really are.
The Common Core isn’t just another policy debate; it’s a pivotal issue for the future. It will help prepare all our students for college and career – and that’s the best idea our country has for giving every child an equal chance. Thank you.