Is this assignment busywork or critical thinking? A peek behind the Common Core curtain

As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to know whether the assignments teachers are giving your kids are thought-provoking and engaging, or busy work that does little to advance their learning.

A report released today by The Education Trust helps crack open the black box of school assignments by giving policy educators and parents a look at what “college-and-career ready” standards really look like in the classroom.

“More Assignments from Real Classrooms” analyzes six middle school assignments–two each in language arts, history and science–to see whether the assignments align with Common Core, inspire rich discussion, include complex tasks, and ultimately, engage and motivate students.

“Context matters! While we don’t expect or recommend that every assignment addresses every indicator on the framework, practitioners must consider how often students work on extended tasks that align with the rigor of the Common Core; gather and cite textual evidence; think at high cognitive levels when they read, discuss, and write about texts; and receive support from teachers as they engage in interesting and meaningful tasks.”

The report mostly focuses on the positive, with five of the six assignments receiving high marks for meeting this high bar. The one that failed on most fronts in one that is probably familiar to many students and parents—eighth grade students read a non-fiction book about a subject that has little relevance to them, they answer multiple-choice comprehension questions that get at basic plot points (“Where is the Antarctic located?”), they look up new vocabulary words (“use the word ‘treacherous’ in a sentence”), and write their own diary entries similar to what they read in the book.

And what do the highly rated assignments ask students to do?  Write two-to-three page papers exploring character. Debate fellow students about social movements. Re-enact critical moments from history. Use data and observation to support reasoning.

Granted, this report is little heavy on the edu-lingo, written mainly for an audience of policy and education leaders.  It might be a tough read for parents who are looking for more information about how to advocate for more meaningful assignments. But it’s worth the insight.

Take a read. Better yet, share it with your kids’ middle school teachers.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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