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Common Core Standards Promise Uncommon Results ~ by Darrell Hugueley

March 27, 2013

Thanks to Darrell Hugueley for these thoughts about Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a topic of great interest to teachers and parents.  What’s your take on CCSS? Join the conversation!

In January of 2000, I entered my first day in the classroom as a teacher. I had a tie on and carried my briefcase, and I added a confident man with briefcaseconfident swagger to my stride that betrayed the slight trepidation I felt facing my first classroom of learners. I had faced eager groups of salespeople, customers, and committees before, but never students that were depending on me for their education.

My first job was at Airways Middle School in Memphis. The majority of the population of that  inner-city school had likely never been outside an area bounded by their home, church, and school. I called my graduate school mentor to report my good news. He told me sagely, “Those children will teach you more in the next few weeks than we ever taught you here at the University.”

Boy, was he ever right.

The main thing I encountered was an intense pressure to succeed on the TCAP test. From the principal of the school, to the office workers, to my mentor, to my teachers all over the building, everyone was beset with a crazed fervor about testing. I didn’t find out until later, but the school was already targeted for takeover by the State because of failure to make gains on the test. None of this was ever mentioned in my two years of teacher preparation. Not one time was it ever mentioned to me that my main job responsibility would be to improve standardized test scores.

Photo: Diana Zavala for the New York Times

Photo: Diana Zavala for the New York Times

So I went into my first years of teaching with my eyes wide shut, as it were. I was more than a little flummoxed that so much rich experience and talent around me was focusing on teaching students to make correct choices on multiple-choice tests. I was still enamored of my personal teaching mission, which had received full support at the University where I was trained. I said (and thought) that if everyone would just calm down and let me teach, my students would be ready to pass any test given them, standardized or otherwise. Just let me teach my students analytical thinking skills, how to ask good questions, how to organize their thoughts in writing using the conventions of grammar, and with rigorous study and follow-through on their part, I could help them be ready for any test that came their way. I proceeded to teach them Shakespeare, analogies, and assign outside reading material at grade level or higher.


It worked. Scores were excellent, and they proved my point.

Over the next three years I worked on that mission statement and amended it to include taking students where they were when they came to me and moving them along as far as they could go. I further amended it to include being able to utilize effective test-taking strategies on the actual test.

Over the years, under various administrators and through the tenures of several superintendents, my preparation for The Test began to take up more and more of the school year. Now I am in the TCAP prep mode for the majority of the year. My main focus is to drive students toward success at answering low-level, multiple choice questions on a standardized test. We rarely explore the greater themes of literature, defend thematic questions with persuasion and rhetoric, nor do we get many chances to look beyond the State Performance Indicator (SPI) du jour. My students are no longer concerned about “Big Themes” like finding out the truth, solving conflict, communicating their ideas effectively, or divining which is more important: community or individual. While I am still committed to teaching a big novel per year (namely, Treasure Island) and exploring some of the bigger themes in it, I get directed by my district and school administrator to make gains in student achievement scores.

Enter the Common Core State Standards. The CCSS initiative is being rolled out in Tennessee and 46 other states. States have adopted the CCSS as a reaction to the need for students to be college ready – ready to meet the rigorous reading and thinking requirements they find there, so the need for remedial classes is reduced.

The CCSS represent a shift in instructional strategy. Three main shifts are:

1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts.

2. Reading and writing grounded in evidence from text.

3. Regular practice with complex texts and academic vocabulary.

CCSS move away from a skills-based assessment and towards a standards-based assessment.

lang arts ccss

In Language Arts, students will be required to read more informational, primary source texts. Those texts will be grade-appropriate and have a high level of complexity. Students will be expected to answer evaluative and analytical questions in essay form. They will be expected (for the first time) to support their claims with text-based evidence.  They will be expected to produce high-quality writing, presentations, and other research-based products that state a valid, logical position with clearly reasoned evidence.

CCSS will be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year. I am excited about it. It gets me back to my personal philosophy of teaching:  namely, that when you take student learners and push them with rigorous, guiding standards, they can be ready for college.

When I look at that last paragraph, I notice there is not a mention of performance expectation in there. There is not a race towards a goal to be measured; instead, standards for structured performance are built into every assignment.

If you haven’t seen the CCSS, they are here (

These new standards read differently. They read seriously. They seem to be saying, “Everybody calm down and let students think and write, argue, and discuss.” When the higher order thinking skills of evaluate, analyze and synthesize are the largest part of the day, students actually think and plan and produce.

The best result of the move to the CCSS is how instructional strategy (aka teaching) will change. Now there can be short, research-based projects with writing products that display analytical thinking and clearly reasoned argumentation. My counterparts and colleagues in other subject areas will increase the use of nonfiction texts to help meet the Common Core standard of 70 percent nonfiction reading material. I can return to teaching Shakespeare. I can assign meaningful projects.

Under Common Core, I can return to my original, intuitive desire to authentically educate children. CCSS will allow me to teach like I (and many, if not most of my colleagues and coworkers) believe: that we can truly educate children in a meaningful and authentic way.

I am tempted to get my tie and my briefcase back out. Actually, my ties haven’t changed all that much, and my briefcase has been retired to the attic in favor of a messenger bag.

ed reform cartoon

I will settle for the swagger, the unmistakable confidence I had that first year of teaching, and the astute optimism that education and teaching will finally have relative significance beyond performance on a high stakes test.

Darrell Hugueley is a Language Arts Teacher at Cordova Middle School. He is a Teach Plus Fellowship alum and served as a teacher voice in the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and the Teacher Compensation workgroup for Memphis City Schools. He was most recently added to to the joint committee forming the teacher evaluation model for the consolidated school district. Darrell is a published poet and author of  a children’s book, The King of Stories. He is married and has two awesome children.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    March 27, 2013 9:59 pm

    This was fascinating…..I have hope!!!

    Sent to you via “Ottermail”.

    • March 27, 2013 10:02 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Chris! Darrell always brings us great information and insights.

  2. March 28, 2013 11:29 am

    Darrell makes the point that Common Core takes us back to helping children become informed citizens who can make real contributions in the public square. Come Common Core!

  3. March 28, 2013 9:07 pm

    This raises an issue that has troubled me for some time and ignorance is not bliss.

    I am in agreement with Mr. Hugueley’s teaching philosophy, which I see as teaching the subject matter and how to think about it leads to satisfactory scores on legitimate standardized tests, essentially without thought about the tests. Teaching the curriculum takes care of the test. Or it should.

    Are standardized tests not examining the students’ knowledge of the coursework or their understanding of the processes needed to understand the coursework?

    It seems to me if the tests and curriculum are aligned, one need not be concerned about the tests. Students learning the course material should do fine . If the tests and curriculum are not aligned, then the tests serve little purpose at great expense.

    I have been told that, in regards to some sections of the ACT test at least, the standardized test does not examine a student’s knowledge of the subject matter. In an extremely limited review of an ACT practice test, I found 50% of the questions seem to require subject matter knowledge, the other 50% just required the test taker to be able to read and determine a conclusion from the information given, which was sufficient to answer the question(s) correctly.

    This lack of understanding of an apparent disconnect between curriculum and testing comes from someone who has spent hundreds of hours during the past three years observing the policy and administrative functions of a fairly large school system. What I do not get to observe, however, is where education really happens, the classroom. If I do not understand these things, at least on a simple level, then what chance will those who do not have the time or interest have to understand and shape our educational system?

    If changing to Common Core Standards means, among other things, the coursework and tests cover common ground, it makes sense. Teachers can get back to teaching the subject matter without worrying about the tests.

    If coursework and the tests used to measure academic growth and achievement have not covered common ground, why?

    • April 1, 2013 3:54 pm

      Thanks for your comment. We appreciate your thoughts. I have also wondered what TCAP measures, and why it seems to require so much student prep that is taken away from the normal curriculum. Darrell, would you enlighten us?

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