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Three years ago, teachers at Woodland Middle School in Taylor Mill, Kentucky, began using a newly developed tool to structure lessons. Kentucky had been the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, now known as the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, and the tool they were using, known as the Literacy Design Collaborative, was designed to help teachers implement the shifts in instruction the standards called for.

Literacy Design Collaborative
Robert Rothman

In one unit, students wrote argumentative essays on topics such as child marriage, human trafficking and even school lunches. In another, they conducted a literary analysis of short stories and poems that centered on the theme of the pains of growing up.

“It was very different from what I was used to teaching in the past,” says Melissa Henderson, a seventh and eighth grade language arts teacher at Woodland. But, she says, the approach got great results. “I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome — especially students I considered low performing. They really were, if not proficient, definitely on the way toward being proficient.”

At a time when the Common Core State Standards have sparked heated political debates, the experiences of teachers like those in Woodland Middle School show that, below the national radar, teachers are quietly implementing changes in instruction. Given the right resources, teachers can transform classrooms and help students learn more.

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And these teachers are not alone. A survey of teachers who have used the LDC, conducted by the Philadelphia-based organization Research for Action, found that the vast majority of teachers who used the tools said they improved instruction and learning. Eighty-two percent of the teachers said the tools led them to increase expectations for student writing; 77 percent said they helped them engage students with different learning abilities; and 80 percent said they resulted in higher-quality student writing.

“There are common standards, but how we get there might be different from teacher to teacher and student to student. I love the flexibility. We are able to cater to students’ needs, but still get to the same end results.”

A separate study of students in Kentucky, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, confirmed that the tools improved student learning. The study found that students in classrooms using the LDC gained, on average, 2.2 months in reading achievement compared with similar students who did not use the tool. And low-income students gained even more. The study also found that students in classrooms using a companion tool in mathematics, the Mathematics Design Collaborative, gained an average of 4.6 months in achievement in that subject.

To teachers like Henderson and her colleague, Rosalind Koop, the LDC works because it enables teachers to tailor their instruction based on student needs while keeping the goal — the standards students are expected to reach — constant for all students. In that way, the standards remain constant, but teachers can use whatever curriculum they deem appropriate to enable students to meet the standards, rather than impose a curriculum on them.

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The LDC and MDC are not scripted curricula. Rather, they are templates that allow teachers to use whatever materials they think are appropriate but guide them through student activities and products that meet challenging standards.

For example, here is an LDC template:

[Insert optional question] After reading [literature or informational texts], write [an essay or substitute] in which you compare [content] and argue [content]. Support your position with evidence from the text(s).

A teacher in a science class could take that template and create a unit that asks students to compare nuclear power and fossil fuels as sources of electrical energy. A social studies teacher could use that template to ask students to compare the Seneca Falls Declaration of Independent Sentiments with the Declaration of Independence.

“There are common standards, but how we get there might be different from teacher to teacher and student to student,” says Koop, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Woodland. “I love the flexibility. We are able to cater to students’ needs, but still get to the same end results.”

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Teachers in science and social studies classes agree that the LDC has helped instruction and learning. As one middle school social studies teacher told the RFA researchers: “It has made me focus more on the [literacy] side of teaching rather than just history. If I didn’t have this tool, I probably wouldn’t do writing assignments like these ones. I’d do smaller ones. I’m glad I’m doing it. It definitely benefits the students.”

Yet as the UCLA study showed, students did not sacrifice content knowledge when teachers engaged them in literacy tasks. Students in classes using LDC performed as well on a social studies content test as comparable students.

Teachers from across the country are now engaged in a project to create common assignments using the LDC. This work has enabled teachers to collaborate with peers in other states — something that would not have been possible when each state had its own standards — and to build and refine powerful lessons. Yet these units do not amount to a national curriculum. Rather, they will allow teachers to use their own curriculum based on their students’ needs. For example, in a unit on literature on the theme of growing up, teachers could use whatever stories and poems they thought were appropriate for their students.

The experience of using the literacy and math tools has made believers of teachers. The units could become the structure of the entire curriculum, suggests Koop. “I would love to create five or six LDC units and use them to teach the whole year and cover all the Common Core Standards,” she says. “They are powerful. They help students gain the knowledge they need for college readiness. The LDC gets us to those goals.”

Robert Rothman is a Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C., and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about the Common Core.

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