A Few Thoughts at 30,000 Feet

As I write this post flying high above the East Coast on my way home from the Annual National Forum of the Education Commission of the States in Atlanta, the things I heard over the last few days are swirling around in my head. The first thing that I must say is that, once again, I found this conference tremendously valuable. (I attended last year’s conference in Denver, too.) Bringing together the education thought leaders with key education policymakers from the states—legislators, chief state school officers, governors, and many leaders of prominent non-profits like Achieve—makes for discussion that is as deep as it is impactful. Whatever our problems in American education, there is certainly no shortage of passionate and knowledgeable individuals who are committed to making the system the best it can be.

As for the issues that arose during the conference, I sat in on sessions ranging from school finance to embedding technology in the classroom to the components of good school building design. We heard from Bill Gates, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Michael Fullan. NCTL also participated in a plenary session with Jennifer Davis presenting on how state laws promoting innovation promise to go far in generating more schools that break from the conventional school schedule. As I’ve noted several times, because school time is so entrenched in the American school system—not to mention way of life—a deviation from it almost automatically signals a willingness and ability to be innovative. Because states are pushing innovation in district schools to an unprecedented degree, the prevalence of expanded-time schools is almost certain to grow. In a follow up discussion that I led with several teachers and policymakers, the interest in expanded time was undeniable.
Surely, the issue that was most prominent, however, was that of the adoption of the Common Core standards. Two plenary sessions and a few breakouts were dedicated to the topic, and it should not come as a surprise. As one of the speakers reminded us, the very fact that 46 states signed on to implement a common set of high standards, all in the midst of a political environment that is highly charged and generally suspicious of national initiatives, seems nothing short of a fairy tale. And, yet, this fairy tale is real, and state and local education leaders are now beginning to grapple more deeply with the realities of implementation. How do you move a whole public education system—especially one as diverse and as localized as ours—to a place where almost all students are learning the same thing and are expected to demonstrate the very same levels of proficiency, whether you are a student in Iowa or Hawaii or New Jersey?  
At 30,000 feet—both literally and figuratively—I remain very optimistic that this effort marks an enormous step forward to creating the kind of rigorous and relevant education system that was imagined three decades ago in A Nation at Risk. After all, listening to experts describe the substance of the standards themselves, it is difficult not to see how this new approach to learning expectations will not improve the status quo. The standards were modeled on those of the top-performing countries and are arranged sequentially to build flexible knowledge—that is, depth over breadth and coherence across and between grades.  When students are learning in this framework, they seem nearly destined to become more adept at using and applying their knowledge. States are also now engaged in an effort (two efforts, actually) to develop assessments that will determine how well each student has achieved to those high standards and to assess them in ways that consistently ask learners to apply their knowledge, not just to regurgitate facts.
For all my optimism at high altitudes, however, I cannot help but think about how these standards will shake out once they hit the ground. (And I’m not the only one, of course.  Speakers consistently talked of the challenges of implementation.) The biggest issue in my mind—not surprisingly—is that of how these new standards will intersect with the actual time needed to get all students to become proficient in them.  Actually, the issue cuts two ways.  On the one hand, the standards are by far more rigorous and the expectations for what might constitute proficiency more elevated than ever. Surely, such a higher bar means that students will need more time to achieve mastery. On the other, speakers emphasized how the standards (especially in math) represent a more streamlined approach to learning. With fewer topics to learn each year, perhaps it will take less time for students to become proficient in the expected content. 
The truth is that no one seems to know for sure. The developers of standards were understandably more focused on the learning outcomes at various grade levels rather than the step by step process of getting students to achieve those outcomes. I’m not faulting the designers; this was definitively their mandate. Yet, despite the progress that has been made, I am forced to pause for a couple of reasons. First, without the thoughtful addition of time for training and planning, including collaboration across grades, implementation is not likely to be very successful. Secondly, I am concerned that without necessarily considering the time implications of how many hours of class time it actually takes to get a student from a state of being a novice to a state of mastery, the Common Core may be asking teachers and students to reach levels from year to year that are not necessarily realistic, at least within the time currently available in most schools. 
It may not be possible to answer this question at this stage because the Common Core is only just being rolled out this year and assessing students in Common Core standards won’t be fully implemented for another couple of years.  Until teachers and schools begin to structure classes around these standards and their accompanying curricula, we may not know the answer to the basic, but by no means simple, question of how long it takes to get students to proficiency. NCTL will continue to track this question because it is so essential.
I would say in closing that the one thing that I am fairly confident in is that schools that do have more time and that have the ability to use time more flexibly to address their students’ learning needs will find it easier to adapt to the higher standards for the reason that I always say: expanded time brings expanded opportunity. And with the arrival of an untested, albeit admirable and necessary, set of expectations, the greater the opportunities for the learning, the better off students will be.