October 2, 2014

By Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer

Many of us can remember the advent of standards-based education, but few of us envisioned how politicized educational standards would become. Every day brings a new challenge, founded or not, to the Common Core, and educators in states that have suddenly withdrawn find themselves reeling from the change. Several states are left with just one year to write a whole new set of standards, a task usually undertaken over multiple years.

Understandably, there’s anxiety and confusion. One superintendent expressed his frustration to me, stating, “How dare the politicians and the Department withdraw so suddenly! I spent my time, my resources, and my credibility seeking to implement the Common Core, all for them to pull the rug from underneath us. Now where am I left?”

I’ve come to believe that the answer to enduring the political shifts that can occur around standards is in the study and ultimately use of learning progressions to plan instruction. While standards define what students should learn, learning progressions have a deeper, more enduring focus on how students learn.  They attempt to fully articulate the stages that students generally progress through while moving from novice to expert levels of understanding within various topics and subjects. After all, how students naturally move through stages is fairly consistent, regardless of the standards they are expected to master.

A brief statement found in the introduction to the CCSS Mathematics Standards reads, “the development of [the CCSS] standards began with research-based learning progressions.” And while this statement drove significant new interest in progressions, the truth is that the study of progressions is much older than the Common Core. In fact, Renaissance began focusing on this area in 2007 and is now in the process of crafting its seventh learning progression, including a progression for schools in England. Learning progressions provide the backbone for our Star assessments.road_sign

So, if learning is fairly timeless and universal, an important question to answer is, “Why would Renaissance need to produce multiple progressions?” That’s a very valid question! The answer is that each of these progressions is designed to support different standards sets. While they are very similar in most ways, the organization (domains and headings) and language can differ greatly from standard set to standard set.  Learning progressions illuminate the path. Standards articulate the pace of the journey along it.

The adoption of standards is so often a politically charged process. The beauty (and relief) of learning progressions is that they allow us to peel back the political layer and get back to the business of teaching and learning.

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