Voices in Education

Deeper Learning and the Common Core
The first things I noticed when I walked into classrooms at International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn were the dictionaries. In every room, students sat in groups, and in the middle of the groups they placed their language dictionaries: Spanish-English, Uzbek-English, French-English, and more.

The students needed the dictionaries because they were still learning English. Like the students in all the schools in the Internationals network (a group of fourteen high schools, mostly in New York City), students had been in the United States for four years or less and scored at the lowest levels on the state English proficiency exam. But the school did not wait until the students reached proficiency in the language before engaging them in challenging projects that asked them to make arguments backed by evidence, to analyze the arguments of their peers, to communicate what they learned to experts, and to work together with their fellow immigrant-students (see “Diving into Deeper Learning,” Harvard Education Letter, March/April 2013).

These deeper learning competencies serve the students well when they go to college, which most of them do. As the principal, Nedda DeCastro, told me, graduates of the school return and tell her how the work they did in class at International prepared them for higher education much better than the basic skills measured on the state test. “Kids come back and say, ‘It’s amazing—the way they ask me to write papers is exactly the way our teachers asked me to write papers,’” she says. “They never talk about the Regents.”

The type of learning that is routine at International is about to become more common in schools across the United States. The Common Core State Standards, which forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted, call for deeper learning in a variety of ways, in both English language arts and mathematics. If implemented effectively—a big if—students will be doing a lot more of the kinds of things students at International do daily.

For example, the English language arts standards place a strong emphasis on critical thinking: being able to argue from evidence and evaluate the arguments of others. The first “anchor standards” for reading and writing underline this emphasis. The reading standard states: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” A writing standard states: “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” Another writing standard states: “Draw evidence from literary and informational text to support analysis, reflection, and research.”

The speaking and listening standards also require students to attend to and use evidence. For example, in fifth grade, students should be able to “review the key ideas expressed and draw conclusions in light of information and knowledge gained from the discussions.” By grade seven, students should be able to “analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats…and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study.” By grades nine and ten, students should also be able to “present information, findings, and supporting evidence.”

The mathematics standards, likewise, place a strong emphasis on students’ ability to use their knowledge to solve problems. The first standard for mathematical practice is “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” Another states, “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”

DeCastro told me that, because of her school’s longstanding practice of infusing deeper learning into the curriculum, implementing the Common Core State Standards will not be much of a lift for International’s faculty. But for many other teachers, who might be accustomed to teaching in more traditional ways, the Common Core might be a bigger change. There is a strong need for professional development to help teachers understand ways to teach that will enable all students to meet the standards. And, as a 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report on deeper learning concluded, a lot will depend on the assessments that are being developed to measure student performance against the Common Core. Because of the influence of testing on instruction, if the tests assess what the standards expect, schools will be more likely to change in that direction.

At this point, according to a recent study by Joan Herman and Bob Linn of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles, the assessments appear promising. The study found that the specifications for test items and tasks suggest a large proportion of items will measure deeper learning. Educators and policy makers should be doing all they can to make sure the assessments are strong and that professional development is ample. As the NRC report found, there is evidence that those deeper learning competencies are associated with positive outcomes for youths. All young people deserve the kind of instruction students at International are getting.

About the Author: Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.  He is the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011).