Seize the Day: Change in the Classroom and the Core of Schooling

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Seize the Day: Change in the Classroom and the Core of Schooling

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Leadership Institute Conference, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
January 27, 2014

January 27, 2014

I am pleased to speak to ASCD's leadership because I believe educators across the country today have finally reached a long-sought turning point.

All education stakeholders, many of whom are represented in this room today—teachers, principals, district and state leaders, non-profits, researchers, parents, and students themselves—all now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to both dramatically enrich and accelerate learning and improve instructional practice.

This is the educators' moment. This is your chance at an educational moonshot. Please seize the day.

ASCD's recent report says that, thanks to college- and career-ready standards, which so many states have chosen, educators now face, quote, "an unprecedented opportunity for professional learning and collaboration."

I applaud ASCD for its long history of promoting collaboration and aspiring to set high expectations for everyone in the profession. And I hope ASCD will continue to help lead this transformation at the classroom level.

I urge you to make sure your work continues to inform educators' efforts to create rich, rigorous, and research-driven curriculum for all students.

I urge you to continue your leadership in providing professional development and preparation for teachers and principals, who are now implementing these demanding college and career-ready standards and far-reaching instructional shifts in classrooms throughout the country.

A decade ago, Harvard professor Richard Elmore wrote an influential essay in which he argued that education reform rarely succeeds at scale because it typically fails to change how teachers' ideas about knowledge and learning are reflected in teaching and class work.

Professor Elmore's thesis was that, quote, "the closer an innovation gets to the core of schooling, the less likely it is that it will influence teaching and learning on a large scale."

There's a lot of truth in Professor Elmore's axiom. But I believe that we have learned from past efforts at reform, and that the next decade will be different in some basic ways.

Over the next few years, I believe we will see—and our nation will benefit from—a fundamental shift in our expectations for students, and that this shift will be made and controlled by educators and state and local leaders.

I don't have to tell you about the new college and career-ready standards. You know them well, and you know that they were initiated and developed by the states without federal input, and subsequently voluntarily adopted by states that chose to sign on, one at a time.

And since you are curriculum experts, I don't have to tell you that the federal government has long been barred by law from mandating school curriculum and from selecting instructional materials for any school system.

Curriculum, instructional materials, and instructional practices—Professor Elmore's "core of schooling"—are your business, not ours. And I want to recognize how essential your work is at this pivotal moment.

Now, these new college- and career-ready standards have the potential to be transformative for students, inspiring them, helping them to reach their full potential—but only if state and local leaders, principals, and educators implement them well.

This tough but transformative work of translating standards into curriculum, new instructional practices, new professional development, teacher prep instruction, and high-quality assessments is the difficult on-the-ground work that truly can change the core of schooling in the classroom.

I want to briefly reiterate that standards and curriculum are two fundamentally distinct things, though they are sometimes confused in the public discourse.

Standards—learning standards, academic standards—are the goalposts, set by states, specifying what students should know and be able to do by a certain grade.

Curriculum, on the other hand, is what teachers work with to help students meet those standards—the textbooks, the reading assignments, homework, in-class exercises, handouts, papers, the planning and pacing guides used for a course, and, increasingly, the apps used for a course, and other content.

Curriculum doesn't set the goalposts—in fact, its Latin root means a "course to be run." Curriculum helps students to get down the field, but it's not the goal line.

Unlike standards, curriculum is generally chosen at the district level or even at the school level—and in many cases, individual teachers decide on the curriculum and classroom content.

In the United States, curriculum has never been nationally uniform. Our 15,000 locally-controlled school districts and more than three million teachers are just as likely to all eat the same breakfast every day as to choose the same teaching materials.

As I mentioned a minute ago, the federal government is not going to assign any textbook or reading in schools. It's not going to draft, create, or require a lesson plan in any school. It's not going to tell teachers or local officials what to study—or what sequence to study in it.

In fact, not a word, not a single semi-colon of curriculum will be created, encouraged, or prescribed by the federal government. We haven't done so—and we won't be doing so, and that is how it should be.

Now, much of the hard work of developing rich, rigorous, and research-driven curriculum and instructional materials lies ahead. And an opportunity of this magnitude, to enrich and accelerate learning at the classroom level, is not likely to come along again anytime soon.

Educators today have an unparalleled opportunity to cultivate creativity, collaborate with their colleagues, deepen learning, and build a broad, rich curriculum that prepares the well-educated citizens that a democracy needs to flourish.

For every English teacher who lamented the lack of close reading by students and the shortage of opportunities for them to write and speak effectively, this is your chance to deepen learning and transmit your love of the written word to your students.

For every social studies teacher who worried that testing in English and math was narrowing the curriculum and shutting out history, this is the opportunity you've yearned for to have students read more primary sources and information—like letters, records, diaries, great speeches, and the U.S. Constitution.

For every parent who wanted teachers to go beyond the textbook and challenge and inspire their kids to really think and develop a lifelong love of learning, this is your moment.

For every principal who watched low academic standards encourage drill-and-kill memorization and straitjacket pacing guides for teachers, this is your chance to provide the instructional leadership that made you want to become a principal in the first place.

For every learning specialist, and literacy coach and math coach who saw how their states' low standards had led to dumbed-down curriculum that bored students and turned them off from school, your opportunity is now.

And for every district curriculum officer and every district technology officer who wanted to collaborate with their peers in other states but struggled to do so because those states had different academic standards, this is your chance to collaborate across boundaries to advance learning in the classroom.

Now, I am absolutely optimistic that change at the classroom level, change for our students, will happen because I see it starting to happen all across the country—thanks to the leadership, creativity, and courage of teachers, principals, district and state leaders, non-profits, teachers unions, and associations like ASCD.

I know some teachers are concerned about the pace and scope of change in their classrooms. But at the same time, many teachers are excited by the prospect of teaching to high standards, of creating classrooms and learning opportunities that feel very different for their students.

No one knows better than teachers the need to develop the higher-order skills and habits of mind that students need to succeed—not just in school, but in life.

Gene Carter, your esteemed Executive Director, summed it up well when he said that ASCD has "found a thirst for knowledge and information" about the new college-and career-ready standards. Teachers and school leaders, he says, "are eager to be part of a transformational movement that prepares students for college, careers, and citizenship."

Let me give you just a few examples of this transformation that is happening in classrooms across the country.

At Belle Chasse Primary School in Louisiana, the district and the school held voluntary professional development sessions throughout last summer to work on new curriculum in response to their state having the courage to raise the bar for expectations of student performance.

Almost every day, 20 or more teachers showed up to brainstorm new lesson plans, sometimes working into the evening hours.

Like so many of the teachers at Belle Chasse, first grade teacher Debbie Giroir made big changes to her instructional practices. As reported in the Hechinger Report, she no longer has a teacher manual that spells out what to do on day one, and day two, throughout the semester.

It's been a challenge for Ms. Giroir to see herself as in charge of the pacing of lessons and units. But the changes she instituted in her math classes are visibly accelerating her students' math skills—and make her think she'll be able to introduce abstract word problems much earlier in the school year.

In Amy Lawson's fifth grade English class at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Delaware, the goal is no longer just to have students remember basic details about the plot of a short story. In the past when students read a short story, Lawson might have had them fill out a work sheet, asking students to identify what characters in the story said what.

But as the Associated Press reported, when Lawson taught a Judy Blume short story this, she instead assigned each student a character in the book, and told them to write an email message from that character to a friend.

That very different assignment forced her students to think more deeply about their designated character—and made them critically question whether their character was an honest narrator.

Andrew Vega, an eighth grade English teacher at the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston wrote that he used to be afraid of the Common Core standards and their impact on his teaching performance.

As many teachers do, he struggled to adjust in his first year under the standards. Change always is hard. And by his own account, his students initially struggled on new, more difficult assessments.

But Andrew, his fellow teachers, and the principal at Orchard Gardens are nothing short of amazing—together they have led a remarkable turnaround of their school. Student achievement there is soaring.

They stayed the course, and didn't choose the easy path of dummying things down again. And in their second year with higher standards, Vega found his students thought more deeply and participated in classroom discussions with greater ease. They moved fluidly from discussing Tim O'Brien Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried to discussing primary source materials from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At Madison Crossing Elementary School in Mississippi, teachers have formed professional learning communities at each grade level and are busy collaborating to incorporate the new standards into their teaching.

They are creating new curriculum and new metrics for grading student writing under the leadership of principal Martha D'Amico. Every week, Principal D'Amico meets with each professional learning community. And as she told a reporter, her first grade teachers are no longer just "teaching five facts of caterpillars and having [students] copy them down into a journal." Instead of just being graded largely on punctuation and grammar, the school's first-graders will have to research topics, and write explanatory responses using details.

All across the country, principals and teachers are also reaching out to parents to explain how the higher standards will impact their children's learning in the classroom.

In St. Louis, Missouri, fifth grade teacher Jenny Kavanaugh is using Parent Night meetings to discuss the higher standards—and plans to post the learning goals being addressed week-by-week in her parent newsletter.

Just to be clear, the college- and career ready standards that many states have adopted together are one path to stimulating richer, more rigorous ways of teaching and learning, but they are not the only path.

In the handful of states that have chosen not to adopt the Common Core State Standards, many schools are preparing students for colleges and careers, and educators are working within their state to transform their practice.

In Virginia, for example, which did not adopt the Common Core State Standards, Hanover County has initiated a Teacher Leader Cohort to identify and develop leaders and teachers to ensure that all students in the districts meet the expectations of college and career readiness. And those teacher leaders are accountable for documenting with clear evidence how they are making strides to improve student achievement.

Across the country, many other states and districts are also showing a lot of innovation in creating new curriculum and supporting new instructional shifts in the classroom.

In Kentucky, the integration of higher standards into the classroom has been taken on both by the state and by a strong non-profit sector.

The Kentucky Department of Education built a rich online technology platform that offers lessons, tests, and curriculum materials, and allows teachers to post their own materials and share and rate resources. It also includes podcasts by higher education faculty, to help introduce teachers to new instructional strategies for the new college and career-ready standards.

Already, two-thirds of Kentucky's teachers have used the new online platform to create lesson plans, and two-thirds of teachers in the state have used it to create assessment items.

Kentucky Educational Television also had a great idea of creating online modules for parents and teachers to explain the new standards. We all know that teachers and parents should be talking about the new standards together. We have to strengthen the partnership between school and home.

And AdvanceKentucky and Project Lead the Way, two non-profits that promote STEM education, have helped develop new science and math courses.

The state of West Virginia, meanwhile, plans to provide extensive professional development to all its teachers on the transition to higher standards. Teams of teachers there have already created project-based learning units to fill gaps in the state-adopted curriculum materials.

Work done by teachers for teachers, is almost always more helpful than work done by outsiders.

Last summer, Tennessee used Race to the Top funding to provide 30,000 teachers with intensive professional development for the transition to higher standards, with sessions led by 700 well-trained teacher coaches. These coaches helped their fellow educators to identify units and tasks they could use in their own classrooms.

A rigorous evaluation of Tennessee's teacher-led training sessions found that both the quality of teachers' questions to students and their instruction in problem-solving techniques improved. And student achievement rose more quickly in the classrooms of teachers who participated in the training than in the classrooms of non-participants.

As Tennessee has both raised the bar and relied on teacher leadership, great things are happening for students. Tennessee improved at a faster rate on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than any other state in the nation.

There are also great examples of non-profits, associations, and teacher unions stepping up to take on the challenge of developing better instructional tools to meet college- and career-ready standards.

Non-profits like America Achieves, Student Achievement Partners, and the Aspen Institute are producing free, high-quality instructional materials, including videos with examples of great teaching.

Two years ago, the American Federation of Teachers launched its free Share My Lesson digital platform, which now has more than 250,000 resources on it to help guide teachers in implementing higher standards.

And earlier this month, the National Education Association launched its partnership with BetterLesson, which features more than 3,000 lessons from over 130 master teachers of effective classroom instruction, by district and grade level.

At the Council of Great City Schools, big-city districts are working smarter, more collaboratively, and moving outside of their traditional silos. They are pooling their significant collective purchasing power to demand that publishers produce textbooks and instructional materials that are closely aligned with the higher standards—and not just in name only.

Other districts and states can learn from the example they are setting. The idea of 15,000 districts all buying books individually is a waste of scarce resources that could be much better spent in the classroom.

There are multiple routes, and never one path for improving instruction at the classroom level.

A group of math educators, for example, decided to form the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership to redesign teacher preparation programs, so secondary school math teachers would be better prepared to teach to high standards.

In less than two years, that partnership now spans 30 states—and includes nearly 90 school systems, close to 70 universities, and nine community colleges. Last, but not least, I want to give a big shout-out to the invaluable work that the team here at ASCD is doing to support professional development and classroom teachers in the transition to implementing college- and career-ready standards.

Your free EduCore digital tool has attracted more than 130,000 users—130,000—and the site provides videos of great teaching, example lessons, and other resources, including professional development opportunities and instructional materials from some of the great non-profits that I just mentioned.

And you are walking the walk when it comes to professional development. Your one-day and two-day institutes covering the new standards in math and English language arts, taking place all across the country, are helping educators learn new instructional strategies for teaching the new standards.

We need more of that collaboration across states and districts. Teachers in West Virginia should be sharing and learning from teachers in Delaware, and vice-versa. There is no good reason to reinvent the wheel in tens of thousands of schools across the country. What's working we should take to scale—quickly. What's not working should be dropped much more quickly than it has in the past.

Now, I hope that, even as you help educators implement these big instructional shifts in the classroom, you will also work to continue to study curriculum and instructional materials for their effectiveness in enriching and accelerating student learning.

As I mentioned earlier, the federal government does not and will not have a role in creating or requiring curriculum and instructional materials in our schools. But our Department has a long history, dating back to the days of Ronald Reagan, of sponsoring research on curriculum to determine if it is effective in boosting learning.

From the What Works guides of Ronald Reagan's administration, to the Exemplary and Promising Practices Panels of the Clinton administration and the What Works Clearinghouse established under George W. Bush, the federal role has always included sponsoring research on the effectiveness of curriculum and other educational interventions.

All told, our department has now funded more than 200 randomized control trials of a variety of educational interventions.

The reason for that rigorous research is simple—we want curriculum and instructional materials to be based on compelling evidence and the findings of cognitive science where possible, rather than on fancy marketing fads or popularity.

In randomized studies, some popular curriculum programs fail to produce positive effects, while others have a large impact or generate unanticipated benefits.

Our studies have also found, not surprisingly, that effective implementation of a new curriculum takes time—and some patience is always warranted before judging it a success or failure. Many of our evaluations, for example, build in a practice year in which schools or teachers get used to implementing the curriculum and supporting materials.

So, this transformation of classroom practice isn't going to happen overnight. We all know there will be bumps along the way in implementing higher standards and new assessments to better measure students' progress, growth, and gain.

I know that states and districts will make mid-course corrections as they see fit. And we must be both nimble and humble. We must learn from each other—and challenge each other with the hard questions. Our children deserve no less.

This is extraordinarily demanding work. And it is tough for teachers and principals to absorb all this change in a relatively short period of time.

We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to our nation's educators for having the commitment, courage, and caring to rethink their classroom practice. As is the case in all true professions, the need to learn and grow is constant.

Yet if the challenges are great, the opportunity to now advance learning and help all of our children to fulfill their true potential is even greater.

The rich, well-rounded, rigorous education that once seemed like an impossible dream for too many of our students is now no longer so impossible to imagine. With your help, educators can and will collectively embrace this opportunity—and seize the day.