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In the Spotlight: Katie McKnight, Professor, NCE

August 26, 2013

ul 8.26.13 by Mark Donahue

One of the mostly highly anticipated — and hotly contested — American education plans ever is now becoming a reality. And an NLU professor is lending her voice to the debate.

The Common Core State Standards is an effort establishing a single set of clear educational standards for K-12 in English and mathematics, which states voluntarily implement. First rolled out in 2010, Common Core has been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia to date and is at various stages of implementation in all.

For those in education looking for a different focus after more than 10 years of the No Child Left Behind Act, it's an exciting time but one also full of questions. Add the noise in the political sphere and media about the perceived intentions of Common Core and things can become confusing. (Georgia and Oklahoma both recently backed away from Common Core, citing costs, and other states have expressed concerns.)

Enter Katie McKnight, Ph.D., professor in the Secondary Education program at NLU. She has become a strong advocate for Common Core in a variety of arenas and serves on the formative assessment panel for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which develops assessments aligned with Common Core.

McKnight, who taught high school English in Chicago Public Schools for more than 10 years, knows the realities facing those at the classroom level in adopting new standards. But she ultimately believes Common Core can give students the critical skills they need to take to college and into their careers.

In addition to her work at NLU, McKnight is an educational consultant, conducting professional development on literacy and differentiated instruction for teachers and school administrators around the country. She's a published author, with four books out on Common Core in the coming year, and also has a strong Web presence. You can follow her at her Web site, on Facebook, and she can be seen in this YouTube series on Common Core.

I spoke with McKnight about her work and the bigger-picture views of Common Core.

What did you think of Common Core when you first heard about it?

Common Core came out in 2010, and I wanted to find every reason that I could to hate it. [Laughs] Because I was not a fan of the first generation of standards that were a result of [the No Child Left Behind Act]. I thought the first generation of standards were actually reductive and harmful to children and really pulled us away from what we know in our heads and in our hearts what good teaching and learning looks like.

When Common Core came out, I had a "Jerry Maguire" moment. In the introduction to the standards, the authors make it very clear that it's teachers and curriculum specialists who know best how kids are going to meet the standards and that the emphasis was on results rather than means. So teachers were finally being embraced after basically a decade of abuse for their professional knowledge. Teachers are not the problem; they're the solution. And I see Common Core as a vehicle that really gets back to what we know is good research-based pedagogy that is implemented by teachers.

How does Common Core intersect with your work at NLU?

My professional focus is getting at the adolescent literacy problem. That's always been my focus ever since I became a teacher at 21: How do we support teenagers to develop the literacy skills they need to be members of a democratic society? That sounds very lofty and whether that translates into college or career, so be it, but it really is about giving teenagers who are conspicuously silenced at that time the tools they need in order to be adults.

For the last 10 years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than 60 percent of our teenagers are not proficient readers, meaning more than 60 percent of our students cannot read on grade level. And we're seeing now that more colleges are offering developmental reading and writing classes than ever before. This is before students can even take credit-bearing courses.

Do you think Common Core addresses the country's student literacy problem?

What's happened with Common Core is that we're finally addressing that issue. The adolescent literacy problem has been around for a long time, and now we have this political attention to that problem. So what's happening is that I am so incredibly busy with presentations and speaking on Common Core and literacy in particular because now it's going be assessed and it's going to be a shared responsibility across all faculty members. Everyone's got the kind of Chicken Little dance going on right now, figuring out what to do. [Laughs] And in all fairness, high school teachers don’t need reading courses or writing courses in order to be certified, so they don't really have that knowledge base as far as how to develop reading skills in teenagers. So I see Common Core as a real flashpoint to start addressing that issue.

What are the biggest challenges facing schools and teachers who must implement Common Core standards in their classrooms?

What I tell principals when I do administrator professional development workshops is you need three things. The first thing you need is a literacy plan, and that's particularly an issue at the high school level because most folks don't really understand that. Elementary [educators] know what that is because they've had a lot of coursework and training in that. The second is that you need a technology plan. [International Society for Technology in Education] had a piece that came out during their annual conference in June that cited that more than 90 percent of educators believed that technology was essential for 21st century learning, and they identified the greatest obstacle was professional development. So we need equipment in schools, and teachers need the training in order to use that equipment. And in all fairness there aren't a lot of people who get that and understand that. Then the third is a PLC, a professional learning community, where teachers can actually collaborate and design the curriculum. And that's probably the most important. You've got to start with a PLC.

There has been criticism of Common Core — everything from claims of social engineering to teaching to the test. What do you have to say to those suspicious of the new standards?

What I see with Common Core in particular is people don't read the document. So there's all kind of mythology going on about it. If many of these critics actually read it, they would see there's actually less dictation or "control" about curriculum and instruction than with No Child Left Behind and the first generation of standards.

Here's the difference: The previous generation of standards tended to be more content based, and the reality in the 21st century is that basically all the content a kid needs access to is in their iPhone, so what my generation spent hours and hours doing of just getting their hands on information a kid can do in a simple Google search. And what's become paramount now — and that's not say that it wasn't before — is kids are spending more time on analyzing information and then have to synthesize and then represent it. So to go back to the criticism that it teaches to the test is nonsense because the focus is on skills not content. It's about can a kid take any text, whether it's something Sean Hannity wrote or whether it's something that Martin Luther King wrote, and can a kid make a claim about that text, cite it, and then provide evidence about the opinion or their opinion.

Those who are critics of it haven't read the document carefully, and if they read the document carefully I would argue that they would see it actually opens things up — that it's more democratic than what we've had in the last 10 years because what happened in the last 10 years was a very prescribed curriculum. We had curriculum-in-a-box programs and scripted curriculum that teachers couldn't make contextual, so that's very harmful to students because basically we're teaching them one way of thinking.

What do you think Common Core can ultimately do for American education?

What we all first knew is that it's teachers who are not the problem; they're the solution. And what Common Core does is more closely aligned to what effective teaching and learning and practice is. It's more aligned with what teachers spent years to learn in order to develop the skills in kids so they can be college and career ready. It mirrors more of what teachers do, and that's a huge "Aha" for teachers.


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