Bryan Goodwin

If We Don’t Have Time to Do the Standards Right, When Will We Have Time to Do Them Over?

As 46 states move to adopt Common Core State Standards, the opportunity may never be better to rethink not only standards themselves, but also how we get students interested in learning.

Let's face it. We haven't always done a good job getting kids interested in learning. Studies suggest that the longer students stay in school, the less motivated they become; their intrinsic motivation in core subject areas begins to drop off around age 9 (PDF) and continues to fall throughout secondary school years. By the time they reach high school, a national survey of 81,000 students (PDF) found that nearly two-thirds of them (65 percent) report being bored in class on a daily basis.

As educators nationwide labor to bring Common Core standards into their schools and classrooms, a recent study conducted by economist Steven Levitt, author of the popular book Freakonomics, may give us pause. Levitt and his colleagues gave some 7,000 students in the Chicago area small rewards (e.g., cash prizes up to $20 for older students or $3 value trophies for younger ones) to see whether simple bribes would entice them to perform better on standardized tests.

Surprisingly, the bribes worked: students promised rewards for good performance demonstrated about 5–6 months more learning than those who did not. But here's the real kicker: the students only learned about the rewards when they sat down for the test, so they weren't prepping any differently, just taking the tests more seriously. And in most cases, these were the same standardized tests that were being used to hold teachers and schools accountable. All of this begs the question: have we spent the past 20 years adopting standards, creating related assessments, and designing complex accountability systems to raise student performance, yet neglected to persuade students why any of it should matter to them?

And are we about to make the same mistake all over again with the common core?

So what's the answer? Bribing students so that they will play along with our accountability schemes? Probably not. External rewards tend to have diminishing effects over time, requiring greater dosages (or payouts) to be effective. Moreover, they can serve to undermine intrinsic motivation, which can have an even more powerful, long-term influence on student learning.

In Union School District in Tulsa, Okla., they've found a better way to get students to take learning seriously. Through a summer program called "Cosmic Chemistry," a team from McREL gave teenagers, many of whom were initially identified as unlikely to enroll in high school chemistry courses, an opportunity to interact with NASA scientists and experience hands-on, applied science and the joy of discovery. Eighty percent of the students in the course later enrolled in advanced placement chemistry.

This suggests that when we consider student motivation and help students understand what's in standards-based learning for them, we can create relevance in their learning and get them fully engaged without resorting to bribes.

As I've written in my "research says" column in Educational Leadership, project-based learning and providing students with some choice in their learning are but one way that teachers can make standards engaging. Here's an important tip (and caveat) about projects: they should be built around a driving question. Instead of just asking students to, for example, build and fly a rocket, you should challenge them to determine what components of rocket design will make them fly higher.

Fortunately, the Common Core standards have been specifically designed to arrange learning into clusters or blocks around "critical areas" or "big ideas" (PDF), which in turn lend themselves to creating projects and assignments built around driving questions.

Sure, all of this takes a bit more planning, ingenuity, and effort, but the results suggest that it's worth it. Fortunately, teachers don't have to go it alone when designing engaging, standards-based lessons. There are many resources out there to help spark creative thinking and classrooms, such as the nonprofit Buck Institute, which offers a library of ideas of project-based learning, many of them tied to Common Core standards.

Given that implementing the new standards is an enormous task, some might be inclined to focus first on embedding the new standards in classrooms and only then making them engaging for students. Yet we might do well to recall the words of the late basketball coach John Wooden, who famously asked, "If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?"

Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success (ASCD, 2011) and writes a regular research column for Educational Leadership. Goodwin was a guest on the November 2012 episode of the Whole Child Podcast where he and the other guests discussed fair and effective teacher evaluation.

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