No Child Left Behind are four little words that strike fear and anger in the hearts of many educators. What seemed like a positive reform at one time, the idea that all children should be nurtured in education, has increased high-stakes testing, encouraged a lowering of standards, and saddled schools with bills they can’t pay. Forty-four states have now enacted or applied for waivers allowing them to skirt the 100 percent state test passing rate required on state tests by 2014 under NCLB. This doesn’t mean that states will forego standardized testing: the aim is to raise student achievement without beating testing into every child’s mind.
One of the major changes around the country is a uniform set of Common Core Standards. These standards rearrange skills in a logical progression that ensures that students around the country are acquiring core knowledge at a common, yet rigorous pace. A focus on college and career-ready skills are intertwined throughout to ensure our students are ready to meet the challenges they will face in the classroom, but also beyond. Any time standards are moved and changed it can create pressure for the classroom teacher. What can you do to ease the burden while making sure students are achieving at the levels needed?
First, take your standards from the state level. Your district, like mine, may offer pacing guides, but the heart of the standards lies at a higher level. If you are using Core Standards in your state, as 45 states and 3 territories are, then you can go right to the source. With standards in hand, break them apart. Figure out when you teach each skill. Are you leaving anything out? One of the hallmarks of Common Core is that skills are taught to mastery, so teachers must take ownership of their standards like never before.
One of the most valuable workshops I attended when switching to Common Core math this year color coded the standards we formerly used by grade level and put them on a huge poster. Then they had a second set of new standards, in the same color, cut into strips. We attached all the matching standards we could find and then went out to other grade levels and traded until we found everything we were now required to teach. By looking at the standards this way, we could see exactly what had moved, what was added, and where old standards went. The impact was great, and everyone had a better understanding and appreciation of the learning progressions.
If you are on your own, take your standards and cut them up so you have one at a time. Take a big calendar of your year and start laying them out. When, specifically, are you going to teach fractions? Which reading unit will help you teach summarization? Know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you have covered each and every topic to mastery. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself.
Once you have those standards covered, you need to assess your students where they are. Start today. Give formal and informal assessments, pretests, post-tests, quick checks, small comprehension quizzes, or simply talk with your kids. Know where they are, where they struggle, and begin attacking. Differentiated instruction is nothing new, but it is meaningless until you have a specific skill you are targeting and a reason for changing up what each child does. Once you have this information, you can group like-minded students together and start your work. Reassess often and make new groups. My groups change daily with each new skill or need.
Finally, focus on the growth. Leaving NCLB doesn’t mean children will be left behind. It means we will no longer beat our heads against the wall for every child to make a 100 percent. My first year teaching, I had a child go from reading 6 words a minute to 96. The goal was 110. I went to my principal crying that he had worked so hard and didn’t meet the magical number. She said, “Yes, but look at the growth.” The wonderful thing about Common Core, focusing on the standards, and leaving NCLB is we can finally do just that. Happy growing!