Cutting to the Common Core: Be the Change

Armando Zúñiga explains how we need to transform the ‘instructional core’ to meet the demands of English language learners in the 21st century

The term “transformation agenda” is used in the corporate world to advance systemic, organizational, and cultural changes across their operations. Often, these changes are made with the intent of aligning systems to better meet the needs and demands of the market and the clientele a company serves. Survival in the marketplace depends upon these transformations. Currently, the Common Core State Standards for literacy in English language arts, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects (CCSS) and the corresponding 2012 California English Language Development (ELD) Standards have afforded the field of education an opportunity to adopt its own transformation agenda to better meet the needs of its clientele — the students.

Research in best practices continues with a new urgency as the transition to the CCSS is underway. Of significant importance is how the standards and the complimentary 2012 California ELD Standards will change the current instructional paradigm.

As discussions and conjectures about effective implementation plans continue, educators and administrators must examine the impacts that effective implementation will have upon what Richard F. Elmore, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the “instructional core.” He defines the instructional core, in part, as “how teachers understand the nature of knowledge and the student’s role in learning, and how these ideas about knowledge and learning are manifested in teaching and classwork.” Additional parts of the “instructional core” are the “structural arrangements of schools, such as the physical layout of classrooms, student grouping practices, teachers’ responsibilities for groups of students, and relations among teachers in their work with students, as well as processes for assessing student learning and communicating it to students, teachers, parents, administrators, and other interested parties.”

Investments in professional development opportunities for teachers that support understanding and implementation of the CCSS and the 2012 California ELD Standards will yield poor returns if they are provided in a context void of the essential systems and structures outside of the classroom to support changes in teaching and learning. These systems and structures are especially important as teachers begin to implement the standards in a manner that effectively promotes language acquisition at a meaningful, purposeful, and rigorous level for students. Additionally, time spent on deliberate and intentional planning of collaborative conversations for students to apply the use of both academic- and domain-specific lexicons will be untenable in structures that have remained unchanged in many of our schools since the early 1900s.

As we enter the 21st century, successful preparation of students calls for a new set of skills. The aim of the CCSS is to facilitate student engagement in 21st-century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity while preparing students for college and/or a career.

The College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchors provide the overarching learning for each standard. Each grade-level standard derives its age- and developmental-appropriate complexity based upon the expectations of the anchor standard. Each year, students engage in learning that builds upon and deepens their understanding along a continuum of learning from kindergarten through twelfth grade within each standard. A closer examination of the CCR Anchor Standards for speaking and listening illustrates this point. CCR Anchor Standard #1 states, “Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” It informs Speaking and Listening Standard #1 in kindergarten that states: “Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about kindergarten topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups.” Throughout each grade level, the standard’s overarching purpose is evident but nuanced to address grade-level appropriateness up to twelfth grade. Accordingly, in twelfth grade it states, “Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”

Aligned to the CCSS are the 2012 California ELD Standards. These provide teachers with instructional standards that support language instruction for English learners to have access to the language demands embedded in the CCSS.
This is of particular importance in California, where according to the California Department of Education (CDE), there were 1,056,201 students designated as English language learners (ELLs) enrolled in California public schools (kindergarten through twelfth grade) during the 2010/2011 school year. Additionally, test data indicates that California’s ELLs stagnate at an intermediate level of language proficiency on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which tests listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills — language domains that ELLs must progress through when working to acquire English.

Part I of the 2012 ELD Standards, titled “Interacting in Meaningful Ways,” defines modes of communication — collaborative, interpretive, productive — that will support academic discourse and complement the CCSS for literacy in English language arts. For each grade level, these modes of communication inform the specific instruction of English and provide a list of corresponding CCSS for literacy in English language arts to ensure alignment of instruction.
This cursory glance at the CCR Anchor Standard for Speaking and Listening #1, the CCSS Speaking and Listening Standard #1 for kindergarten and twelfth grade, and the modes of communication found in the 2012 California ELD Standards illustrates that effective instruction, at any grade level, within this new paradigm is multi-faceted. Beginning at the classroom level, the standards inform instruction and require more intentional instructional planning. Initially, it is important to consider the selection of collaborative groups for discussion of content — one-to-one, triads, or larger collaborative student groups — coupled with an understanding of the benefits that each collaborative grouping option provides as related to the specific academic task the students are working to complete. Also, a deep knowledge of the content being taught is essential to ensure that specific content or sections of texts are chosen with deliberate intent of facilitating student engagement, supporting content-area knowledge, and promoting language development within the predetermined collaborative structures.

Equally important to consider are the classroom management and behavioral expectations for students. At an organizational (classroom) level, specific instruction of rules for collaboration, participation, and debate is required. School administrators will support this by encouraging teachers to promote student collaboration and recognizing the need for nontraditional classroom environments that are engaging in the noisy and messy work of collaboration — and within a classroom setup that more closely resembles the collaborative workplaces of the 21st century and not those with the straight rows, individual workstations, and confining student desks of the industrial age.

Finally, it is important to recognize the instructional time that these shifts in instruction requires. Both student learning and collaboration are paced by student needs for support and time that ensure participation and learning for all students. Thus, district administrators can support this type of learning by understanding the need for a closer examination of the role and purpose of the traditional “curriculum map” or “instructional pacing guide.” System-wide recognition that the pace of student learning is the driver of the instructional plan is difficult to plan or define in the context of the traditional pacing guide wherein the academic calendar is mapped to specific textbook pages.
While time is a valuable commodity in the teaching profession, the field can move forward with its transformation when strategic district planning engenders schedules that support teaching and learning, school-site organization of resources facilitates opportunities for teachers to collaborate, and classroom-level changes in instruction are aligned to the CCSS and the 2012 California ELD Standards to better meet the needs of its clientele — the students.

Elmore, Richard F. (1996). “Getting to Scale With Good Educational Practice.” Harvard Educational Review, President and Fellows of Harvard College; Cambridge, MA; 66(1), 1-26.

Armando T. Zúñiga, M.Ed. has been a professional educator in Ventura County, California, for 15 years. He has worked as a secondary classroom teacher, teacher leader, and trainer of educators in the areas of Language Arts and English Language Development. He is also an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Learning and Teaching within the Graduate School of Education at California Lutheran University.