This June marks the close of the school year for Chicago Public School (CPS) students. A year full of change and adjustments, not the least of which involved full adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC test, a new end-of-year assessment aligned to the standards.
While my own experience with the new standards hasn’t been completely smooth, as I look back on the year, I recognize that a new instructional approach motivated by the Common Core is having a positive impact. I haven’t always felt this way. My adjustment to new standards has been a journey.
As a special education teacher in a small, separate classroom, I was really intimidated by the Common Core State Standards when I was first introduced to them three years ago. I found myself moving through a process that seemed to mimic what psychologists describe as the stages of grief.
My first reaction was denial: “New standards, what? No way!”
Then came anger: “This is ridiculous! How can they expect us to change on a dime?!”
Next came bargaining: “Well, maybe we can do a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
Soon after came depression: “How can I ever help my students learn using these new standards…they are so scary!”
And finally, acceptance: “These standards are actually pretty great. I can see my students reaching great heights if I take the time to learn these standards and push student thinking and learning.”
I Know They Can
Over the course of the next months and years I was pushed by my administrators and inspired by my colleagues to create well-rounded, interdisciplinary lessons to meet both the expectations of the Common Core and the intellectual, academic needs of my students.
It was at this point when I began to realize that many of our truths about what teaching can and should look like were changing. We have spent far too much time focused on what our students—whether they have diagnosed disabilities or not—cannot do. I believe that the Common Core State Standards are asking us to change the conversation.
The Common Core’s Application for Students with Disabilities indicates:
Some students with the most significant cognitive disabilities will require substantial supports and accommodations to have meaningful access to certain standards.
We as teachers have the responsibility to identify what these accommodations are and provide our students with the right tools to stimulate their thinking and increase learning potential.
Over the past two years I have seen students gain confidence, grow as abstract thinkers and become deeply emotionally invested in their lessons, especially as it applies to literature. I was encouraged to see my students with cognitive impairments merge concepts of the Jewish Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s through exploration of photographs, video and personal letters from survivors.
I was invigorated to observe my students with multiple diagnoses of learning disabilities, ADHD and behavioral disorder compare the social injustice captured in “The Outsiders” to current issues of institutional racism. And my initial fear of the Common Core has been replaced by excitement and a true belief that these standards truly are the change our students have needed.
‘Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater’
This spring, CPS students took the PARCC assessment, which has been developed to align to the Common Core and measure student achievement based on the new standards. Just as the introduction and implementation of the Common Core was scary, intimidating, and accompanied by many challenges and struggles, so too was my experience with the first administration of PARCC.
For the first time on a standardized test, students were asked to explain their thinking, justify their answers and use evidence to explain their intellectual process. While I have witnessed all of this happening across classrooms through class discussions, small group work, and interdisciplinary creative projects, these successes did not seem to transfer seamlessly to what was being asked of students on the PARCC.
There is room for continued improvement of new Common Core-aligned tests, some of which is already in motion. Starting next year, in response to school district and teacher feedback, PARCC will consolidate its two exam windows into one to reduce the total time students will spend testing—a modest but significant change in our testing practices.
All this is to say, struggles with PARCC don’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Change is scary. And scary can be good. Even the most meaningful change is imperfect and will take time. Maybe instead of moving through the grieving process again we can open our minds and give change a chance.