Building Successful 21st Century Learners – the Common Core and Beyond

I spent the week last week with colleagues from around the country as part of the C.S. Mott Foundation-funded White-Riley-Peterson Policy Fellowship, strategizing individual and collective action necessary to garner the support necessary to fully fund one of the most important and effective achievement gap closure strategies we have at our disposal – extended learning opportunities.  These opportunities reach beyond the school day and often the school walls to provide additional space for quality teaching and learning to occur.  The research clearly illustrates that quality extended learning opportunities can help with achievement, behavior and graduation.

Bill White at the Mott Foundation said it better than most – extended learning is not a silver bullet for all of our educational system woes, but it does represent a silver lining in our education reform conversation.  This is particularly true when we look at the best strategies for gaps that start early and layer through a child’s educational career.  We keep hammering on the fact that literacy gaps emerge by 9 months.  There is research indicating that even when gains are equal through the school year (which they too often are not), gaps in literacy and math skills increase by nearly 2 ½ years of schooling by the 5th grade due to academic ground lost over the summer for children who cannot access quality programs during that time.  We know that once you are behind by the 4th grade, particularly in reading and math, you are fighting an uphill battle in the higher grades, and kids who repeat a grade before high school have only a 20 percent chance of graduating with a diploma.  Struggling kids clearly need more time to graduate and more support to catch up than most communities currently provide.

Our Michigan Legislature is currently focused on a couple of specific topics of education-reform conversation – both critical, both extremely impactful in the educational success of our young people, and both connected to the silver lining of extended learning in ways that you might not expect.   The first, known nationally as the Common Core, is about the need for a tough, universal, consistent curriculum in our schools that reflects the skill-base necessary for success in the world today.  Whether or not we think that Michigan students should master similar skills as students in the rest of the country or the rest of the world (the “common” debate), we can certainly agree that they are at a disadvantage if they fail to master a wide skill base – a wider skill base, perhaps, than we have needed in the past, to be college and career ready and to be well positioned to assist Michigan in our economic recovery.

It is completely rational and realistic to allow Michigan’s education system to continue on its path to implement the Common Core and support that implementation with adequate preparation, training and evaluation structures in place for the staff who are responsible for teaching and learning through the school day.  Thankfully, the Michigan House is acting today to again allow that to happen, and we have terrific research and advocacy involved from the Michigan Coalition for High Student Standards suggesting necessary components to do that effectively.

However, it is not rational or realistic to suggest that all of those skills should or even could be adequately gained during the 20% of a student’s time that they are spending in school.  Where else can they gain these skills that we can’t argue are essential?  In their homes and communities – extended learning opportunities are connected to the K-12 learning day, but can expand on that learning, can help students get motivated and engaged, and can help them catch up.  Supporting partnerships between schools, community colleges, workforce partners, youth serving agencies, parents and many others can serve to bolster educational and life success.

Michigan has a structure in place to connect the dots between state departments and other partners to take full advantage of this silver lining, but now we are relying entirely on federal 21st Century Learning Center funding to do that, despite some history of state support that has faltered in recent years.  Our State Superintendent has bravely taken on racial equity gaps as a focus for the Department of Education, and resources in that Department are being devoted to gap-closure strategies.  We need to think about how we are going to prioritize public dollar in Michigan to make sure more students are successfully mastering the wide range of skills necessary for career and college success.

So, we must support school staff and administrators in doing all that they can within the timeframe they have to support tough, universal, consistent learning standards in our schools that reflects the skill-base necessary for success in the world today.  And, we must consider what else is needed to make sure that all of our young people are ready for the challenges ahead of them.

Stay tuned for the 2nd big Legislative conversation – teacher evaluation, which is also clearly connected to all of this discussion.

-Michele Corey