In 2010, The Illinois State Board of Education joined 40 other states to adopt new standards for K-12 education in math and English (called The New Illinois State Learning Standards Incorporating the Common Core*). The “common core” standards are, in effect, benchmarks for the knowledge and skills students should have at the end of each grade level.
“Our goal is to prepare students for success, both in college and in the competitive global economy,” says Dr. Karen Saffold, Chief Area Officer of Area 16, Chicago Public Schools. “The new standards prompt schools to tailor curriculum to fit the needs of the students. My own motto within this effort is ‘task predicts performance’: if students are given critical thinking activities, they will rise to the challenge and be engaged in their own learning.”
Three areas within the Chicago Public School system asked Barbara Radner, associate professor and director of the Center for Urban Education, School for New Learning, for assistance in re-crafting the curriculum of 74 schools to ensure their compliance with the “common core.” Radner is working with area curriculum directors to develop new instructional frameworks for each school.
“DePaul was asked to help out because we have a track record of increasing achievement — for improving math and reading scores — at every level,” Radner says. (See note below for more information).
“I’ve worked with schools to improve literacy by plotting out a week-by-week instructional plan, just as the ‘common core’ is pushing the schools to do now. In the past, we succeeded by embedding literacy across the curriculum. Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to do two hours of reading,’ we created programs where reading and writing happen all day — in science, social studies, and math. Reading and writing are actually thinking, and thinking should be developed in every subject.
“Now, following the objectives set by the ‘common core,’ I am working with Area leaders to clarify what to teach and how to teach it; then, through Area forums we guide school leaders to organize plans to change teaching and increase learning. The framework we introduce at the forums is a guide that enables teachers — classroom by classroom, week by week — to move students along in the right direction toward a shared performance goal. The frameworks enable teachers to look at 38 weeks and ask, ‘What do our students need to learn? How can our programs be well organized, well taught, and well assessed?’”
Within the frameworks, each school has a customized curriculum based on the needs of its student population. For example, one school might need to emphasize levels of thinking; another might need to work on basic skills. Dr. Saffold explains how this customization works in Area 16:
“When we assessed our students at the beginning of the school year, we found that quite a few didn’t do well in drawing conclusions and summarizing. So, with the new curriculum framework, we’re tailoring instruction and resources to address this deficit, per child and per school. Of course, every child is different, and everything is not remediation; we have enrichment programs, as well. Overall, we want to develop each child’s strengths, while helping each facilitate in his or her own learning.”
To ensure compliance with the “common core,” Dr. Saffold is giving teachers materials, support, and professional development. “I’m blessed with a phenomenal instructional team that worked collaboratively with Barbara to develop a framework that fits our own Area’s needs,” she says. “Now, we’re executing that framework by going to schools, coaching teachers, and monitoring their activities. The teachers are focusing on skill gaps by school, class, and child. There’s no room for error, since we’re telling them what to teach and giving them the resources to do it.”
So far, the enthusiasm among teachers is huge. “I’m confident that we’ll see positive results from our intentional efforts to raise students’ achievements,” says Dr. Saffold.
* The Common Core refers to The Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers which worked with teachers, school administrators, and experts to develop educational standards that have already been adopted by 40 states.
The Center for Urban Education works with 30 community schools. With one exception, all made positive gains on the ISAT composite, with an average gain of more than double the city-wide average: in reading, 2.48 points (more than triple the city-wide average); in math, 6.91 points (more than double the city-wide gain). Although these numbers are in the single-digits, they represent significantly higher achievement gains that for the city schools as a whole.