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Carnegie's Cahill Talks Common Core at Askwith Forum

Standardization has hardly been tradition within the American education system. It was not long ago — within the last 20 years to be exact — that not a single state in the South required algebra 1 for graduation, local governments in Pennsylvania were setting their own education requirements, and the state of New York argued that “a sound, basic education” was equivalent to eighth grade. Educational standards across the nation were far from uniform, and even within single states there was no guaranteed consistency.

To reverse the growing disparities across schools and to create some standardization across the nation, the Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI), was started in 2009. Considered to be one of the most significant initiatives in American education in decades, CCSI will attempt to set forth standardized math and English curriculums in every participating state, thereby providing clarity about what students are expected to learn and creating common goals across states and districts. In short, the initiative aims to ensure that students across the nation are learning the same things, at the same pace.

So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core state standards, which were created through a collaborative effort in which teachers, parents, and community leaders across the nation all weighed in.

At last week’s Askwith Forum, “Transformative Change in American Schools,” Michele Cahill, — vice-president for national program and director of urban education at Carnegie Corporation of New York, — spoke to the importance of transformative change and systemic reform within K–12 schools across the nation, focusing largely on Common Core Standards.

“In my opinion, the key to transformational change is to change school-system design,” she said during the presentation. “And we will not be able to reach the Common Core Standards without reshaping primary education.”

Building on this, Cahill proceeded to set forth a “dynamic model,” arguing that, for true transformation that will allow schools to most effectively move forward with Common Core, schools cannot just focus on one area of design, but instead, need to approach reform from a number of different angles. Specifically, Cahill set forth four main areas that should be addressed, including the school’s missions and expectations, relationships, curriculum and instructional practices, and governance. By reevaluating each of these areas, Cahill believes that schools can foster the type of environment that will create pathways to educational success and economic opportunity.

“One way to think systematically about transformation is to ask, ‘what are the levers of change and where can we intervene?’” Cahill said. “Each of these four areas are critical levers of change, that together, can bring all schools to a higher level of learning.”

In particular, Cahill emphasized the importance of the second lever — relationships. “For transformation to happen in an education system, we have to recognize that it is a ‘people business’ that requires relationships,” she said. “You learn by what you do, who you do it with, and how you make meaning.” Elaborating on this idea, she explained how relationships within the school system extend far beyond the teacher-student relationships that we primarily conceive. For her, effective reform requires recognition that even the relationship between the adults within a given school are important for defining the school’s culture and building an atmosphere for success.

Finally, Cahill reminded listeners that, when you seek transformational change, it is important to know where you are going.

“You have to know what you hope to transform into or what you are transforming towards,” she said. “For the first time in this country, we have agreement among 45 states and D.C. on a set of language arts and mathematics standards, which is critical in allowing us to share a common focus and implement a far more rigorous academic environment. We finally know where we are going.”