Transform versus Reform: Splitting Hairs

[Education] 1.0 is when we managed access. 2.0 is when we thought about school improvement and got pretty good at it. 3.0 is when we start to move toward a different, and we hope, transformed paradigm.

These were the words of Valerie Hannon, a director at the Global Education Leaders’ Program on the topic of redesigning education. Her statement caused me to reflect on two previous posts: one on resting on your laurels of high performance using NCLB expectations in a Common Core world and the other on authentic transformation.

Since the turn of the millennium, I have argued that instead of focusing on educational reform we should focus on authentic educational transformation, and particularly now to address the Common Core. Here’s why. At their core reform means,

to make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it

and transform means,

to make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.

Today I began purging my bookshelf and I noted several papers and books produced by high profile educational institutions with the similar theme of closing the achievement gap. I would argue that if we continue attempting to “close the gap” by simply making changes to an existing system, there is a high likelihood that the gap may never close.

Perhaps it is to time embrace authentic educational transformation, that is, making a thorough changes to the way we do education. Should you as  a leader decide to accept this challenge, allow me to be upfront: it won’t be easy.

Transformation occurs when leaders create a vision for transformation and a system to continually question and challenge beliefs, assumptions, patterns, habits and paradigms with an aim of continually developing and applying management theory, through the lens of the system of profound knowledge. Transformation happens when people managing a system  focus on creating a new future that has never existed before, and based on continual learning and a new mindset, take different actions than they would have taken in the past (Dasko and Sheinberg, 2005, pg. 1).

Last school year I coached a school leadership team through the process of embracing authentic transformation through the lens of a system of profound knowledge (SoPK). As a result, they experienced their highest gains in the history of the school. (Contact me if you would like to know their story.)

Therefore I advocate that if your goal as a leader is to facilitate equity in educational excellence through authentic transformation, you can do two things:

  1. Begin exploring your team’s position as it relates to SoPK by processing your thoughts using the resource below, and
  2. Expand your exploration with a progressive partnership.

Distinguishing between transform versus reform may appear to be an exercise in splitting hairs, but it is clear that reforming (improving) a system that was not designed to be functional in the 21st century may not be the answer. It’s time for Education 3.0. It’s time to transform.



Daszko, M. & Sheinberg, S. (2005). Survival is optional: Only leaders with new knowledge can lead the transformation. Retrieved from


Persepolis, House of Spirits & the Common Core

The Situation

Student A produced the following piece of writing in response to her teacher delivering instruction on CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

“The Islamic Revolution affected Marjane as a female in Iran. In the book Persepolis on page 3 panel 4 it shows Marjane at a young age where she was forced to wear a veil. It affected her as a girl because the veil had to be worn by women all ages, whether they wanted or not. Marjane was forced to wear something she did not want to wear at a young age.”

Student A was a ninth grade female English Language Learner whose school population was almost 70% Latino. This student is NOT fictional.

The Task

Her teacher took on the task of deconstructing the standard using  The Core Deconstructed® process.

The Action

Student A’s teacher explains her actions here. Specifically, a few highlights of her actions in her own words were the following:

  1. I modeled my table after a few from Dr. Brown’s book.
  2. I numbered each cell in the matrix with the idea that this would make targeted instruction for small groups easier to illustrate in my lesson plans.
  3. I tracked students’ progress towards mastery of this standard over the course of a unit.

The Result

Student A produced the following piece of writing in response to the same standard mentioned above after her teacher deconstructed the standard using  The Core Deconstructed® process.

“The government has control over individuals, but it’s not strong enough to determine your destiny. Many people think that the government controls them but in reality, they make their own decisions without them realizing. For example, in The House of the Spirits,  Pedro Tercero always made his own decision by choosing his way instead of the governments’. In page 154 it says, “And so it was the one day Esteban Treuba, who was resting on the terrace after lunch, heard the boy singing about a bunch of hens who had organized to defeat the fox.” This story, the fox and the hens, represent those people who decided to make their own decisions and go against the government, these people don’t depend on the government at all and it doesn’t influence their decisions or destiny.”

Please note that Student A’s work is unedited for the purpose of emphasizing her improvements.

As the teacher reflected on her actions and student outcomes, she noted that,

  1. I found that this system makes it easier for teachers to see the big picture and build towards the Practitioner/Expert level over the course of a few lessons rather than overwhelm students or unintentionally instill a sense of defeat in them
  2. I can link websites with enrichment or re-teaching exercises, online games, web-based assessments or supplemental texts to each cell in the matrix. This will enhance my ability to more effectively target instruction in my diverse classes.
  3. Students were able to see their need to master one objective before they could master the next objective
  4. I was able to pinpoint exactly where students were struggling in the process of mastering a standard which is essential not only for a data-driven school, but also for students.
  5. Teaching with the deconstructed standard led to great reflective discussions in teacher-student conferences, as students were able to see their progress and reflect on exactly where they were struggling.

Finally, the teacher stated, “The beauty of this system is that each teacher can tailor the results of the process to their own teaching style and the needs of their individual students.”

Have you deconstructed the core? If not, I challenge you-as I did the teacher of Student A-to start now.


How to Common Core: Professional Learning Action Steps

I do. We do. You do.

This was the mantra I heard daily at several schools  I was called on to help a few years ago. Everyday. Every lesson. The challenge with this–as teachers voiced–was that every lesson every day did not require this process, but teachers were required to write their lessons in this format everyday. That was problem #1. Teachers wrote lessons in this format to meet the expectations of leaders, but as they informed me, did not always teach those lessons because they didn’t always make sense to the teachers. That was problem #2. Problem #3, which I considered a larger problem, was that designing and teaching lessons in shrouds of secrecy did not allow for effective supervision or the ability to truly analyze student progress and growth through authentic teacher/leader reflection.

James (1885) suggested there are three levels of knowledge: (1) knowledge of – awareness of information; (2) knowledge about – ability to apply and analyze information; and (3) knowledge how – ability to solve problems with the information. When considering the three levels, one could infer that a major decision maker in the schools had knowledge of the need for students to practice, but was unclear about when to apply the method. Furthermore, there was an uncommon understanding about how instructional methods should be used and when each is appropriate.

Level 1 – Knowledge of: increasing awareness of novice to expert learners

The Common Core and other internationally benchmarked standards require clear thinking and common understanding on the part of adults mainly because we must deliver (or lead the delivery of) instruction that moves students from novices to experts. This notion has been explicitly shared here,

The Standards for Mathematical Practice describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise (CCSS for Mathematics, p. 8)

and implicitly shared here,

They [students] build on others’ ideas, articulate their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood. […] More broadly, they become self-directed learners effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them (CCSS for ELA & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, p. 7)

Level 2 – Knowledge About: increasing understanding about  novice to expert learners

Given the need to move students from novices to experts, the first thing we must get clear on is what the levels mean. The excerpt below from The Core Deconstructed helps with this first step.

Excerpt from The Core Deconstructed by Sheron M. Brown.

Excerpt from The Core Deconstructed by Sheron M. Brown.

Level 3 – Knowledge How: increasing knowledge of how to plan for novice to expert learners

Entering the school year with common understanding and expectations can alleviate the frustrations I witnessed in the schools mentioned above. Consider the following steps for a professional learning activity.  Use them to help move professionals from knowing of and about the need for advancing students from novices to experts to knowing how to do it.

Using the descriptions presented in the table above,

  1. Restate the meaning of a learner at the novice level
  2. List appropriate instructional methods that align with learning on this level
  3. Brainstorm acceptable examples of student work products that align with learning on this level
  4. Peer-review work products and provide actionable feedback (if necessary)
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 (perhaps in additional sessions) for apprentice, practitioner and expert levels

The Core Deconstructed Practice Journal further supports the development of your “knowledge how” level and will be released soon.  If you’d like to know when, just let me know. In the meantime, please share how the professional learning action steps works out for your team.


Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (n.d.). Common Core State Standard initiative: Preparing America’s students for college and careers. Retrieved from

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects  (n.d.). Common Core State Standard initiative: Preparing America’s students for college and careers. Retrieved from

James, W. (1885). On the functions of cognition. Mind, 10, 27-44. Retrieved from

Close Reading the Common Core: Professional Learning Action Steps

I tend to keep my voice out of the “to be or not to be a Common Core proponent” debate. I have made this choice because, in my opinion, that is not the critical argument. Regardless of whether the standards are embraced, we–educators–still need to get clear. We must get clear on topics such as how do we define critical thinking; how do we decide on the appropriate learning process in relation to the purpose for learning; how do we interpret the language of the standards; how do we coach for performance excellence and my list can go on.

Earlier today I read an article written against the CCSS that gave me pause. I won’t cite the source because it is not my intention to incite a negative disposition. On the contrary, my desire is to encourage insightful dialogue. In the article the author stated,

According to the […] Common Core “Standards for Mathematical Practice,” first-graders are expected to “decontextualize — to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents — and the ability to contextualize, to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved.” I’m sorry, but that is further out there than Pluto, and I have no idea what that means. Neither will 7-year-olds and their hapless teachers.

This gave me pause because of the suggestion that  a 7-year-old nor their unlucky teacher would be able to interpret the supporting language of the standards. My immediate thinking-outloud thought was, “I do not believe the CCSS’ authors intended for 7-year-olds to read that; however, they most likely intended for professionals who should be knowledgeable about pedagogy and their discipline to be able to interpret the language–even if it required several attempts.”

My response reminded me of a professional learning session I delivered to school leaders two years ago. In the session they were required to engage in close reading in order to understand and reflect on it so that they could improve their ability to lead literacy.

Let me be clear: close reading can be challenging.

That being said, the majority of school leaders (instructional leaders) balked at the process indicating that there was no need for them to learn the “how” or “why” of close reading in order to evaluate and support teachers. (Please note that there was a silent minority who disagreed with this position.) The questions I asked and continue to ask are these: If you’ve never done it before and aren’t familiar with close reading, how can you evaluate and support others in their delivery of the process? Furthermore, how much value do you believe your teachers will ascribe to your feedback and how might their attitudes contribute to your culture of adult learning in the short and long run? Finally, how might the impact on your adult learning culture influence student learning?

Now as I remove myself from the “to be or not to be” debate, I leave you with a practical recommendation: Close Reading the Common Core – Professional Learning Action Steps.

  • Step 1: Select the language of focus from the CCSS (not an actual standard, but the language about the intentions of the standards)
  • Step 2: Apply Level 1 of close reading to the language
  • Step 3: Share the results of Level 1 with peers
  • Step 4: Apply Level 2 of close reading to the language
  • Step 5: Share the results of Level 2 with peers
  • Step 6: Apply Level 3 of close reading to the language
  • Step 7: Share the results of Level 3 and arrive at a consensus


Note: To push further, apply Levels 4 and 5. If you embrace any portion of this challenge, please share your results with me as I would love to hear about your learning. Or if you’d like me to do it, drop me a line.

If we are going to move forward with the standards, whether in agreement or disagreement, we must first get in the minds of the CCSS’ authors (Level 5 of close reading.) We must get clear.

The Core Deconstructed can help you with that and will be available for all mobile devices later this month. If you’d like more information, simply drop me a line.

What’s Common About the Common Core?

“All students are not alike.” This is one of the arguments used against the Common Core. I agree all students are not alike and it’s because of the standards that you get to acknowledge they aren’t. That’s my counter-argument. In the revised version of The Core Deconstructed, I open by sharing more thoughts on the argument and describe what’s common about the Common Core. Here’s what I had to say.

“The word common in some cases refers to being alike. When discussing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), this definition can lead educators, parents and stakeholders to believe that the standards were designed as if all students were the same and to make all students the same. This places the emphasis on students being common; however, the emphasis should be on the standards. The common in CCSS speaks to the standards and denotes how success is defined for a particular situation, with the situation being preparedness for success in college and the world of work. 

It’s like the safety standards for your car. You’d like to know that at a minimum all car manufactures work with standards in mind for your safety, yet the standards don’t preclude luxury car manufactures from creating cars that exceed the safety standards. The same is the case for education. The standards are a minimum criteria and they do not preclude educators from cultivating learners whose performance exceed them. The standards simply represent a general expectation of what preparedness looks like for the world beyond 12th grade. Yet, before we can prepare students to exceed the general expectations, we must first understand the foundation and the multiple levels within the standards. We must get grounded.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Benjamin Bloom have all provided the foundational information to help us ground ourselves in the standards. SBAC created Achievement Level Descriptors (ALD), PARCC created Performance Level Descriptors (PLD) and Bloom generated a framework for categorizing educational objectives. On the one hand, the descriptors are needed to understand the levels of success within a standard. On the other hand, Bloom’s taxonomy helps to understand the levels of learning and performance within a standard. Looking at the two separately can possibly be confusing and yield frustration” (Brown, 2012).

The thought continues in the graphic below.

Copyright 2013 by Sheron M. Brown.

Copyright 2013 by Sheron M. Brown.

To see the remainder of the alignment, just ask me here. In the meantime, I leave you with two questions:

  1. How have you been defining success with the Common Core?
  2. How have you been planning to exceed the minimum criteria for success?



Brown, S. M. (2012). The core deconstructed: How to deconstruct the Common Core State Standards so you can teach. Laurel, MD: ESbD Publishing.

(un)Common Core – Part II

Last summer, August 2012, I attended a Common Core workshop. Since my focus tends to be literacy, I decided to break away from the norm and attend a math session. The first activity of the workshop required that we break up into groups. In my group of 5, I was the only member with a literacy background. The other 4 members were middle and high school math teachers.

Each group was assigned with a math practice standard. My group was assigned Standard 3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Our task? To analyze it and list the skills demanded by the standard. Given my literacy background, my perspective differed from the rest of the group. Upon reading Standard 3, I immediately began making connections to the ELA/Literacy Standards. Initially, members of the team dismissed my recommendations with some jest making statements such as, “Okay ELA Lady, this is math.”

I continued to build my list of ELA connections as I observed them talk about each sentence in detail. I smiled on the inside upon our presentation to the other groups when the member who called me ELA Lady closed the presentation with, “I was surprised to see how connected to literacy this standard was. We are going to have to collaborate with our ELA peers.” Members from the other groups concurred.

His statement caused me to arrive at a conclusion: until we were required to analyze the standard, they took for granted that it was “just math”–a statement made to me–and overlooked the depth of the standard.

Last year I wrote about the uncommon understandings that were surfacing in my work with educators. Today I write again to say that uncommon understandings about the Common Core still exist.

Last week while listening to someone vent about the standards, she stated, “the Common Core makes teachers teach to the test.” This weekend while supporting another educator, she became fixated on convincing me that Common Core testing had already begun despite the fact that I shared evidence that proved otherwise. Today as I read an article, I was reminded once again about the uncommon understandings as the authors opened with the following:

One of the rumors making the rounds of K-12 educators goes something like this: The Common Core State Standards don’t allow “pre reading”–or for that matter any classroom activities that contextualize a text through outside sources. The interesting part of the rumor isn’t the rumor itself […]What makes the misunderstanding interesting and vitally relevant to teachers is that it sheds light on some of the practices and underlying assumptions…(Sandler and Hammond, 2012/2013)

Misunderstandings appear to be prevalent.

So here’s my question: what are you doing to ensure a common understanding of the Common Core?

A few weeks ago, through my micro-PD campaign, I tweeted questions to consider about math practice Standard 3.


Today I suggest that you consider a few of the questions to ignite discussions for deeper insight and common understanding among your team or staff about what Mathematically Proficient Students (MPS) should be able to do.

  1. MPS justify their conclusions. How do your ELA peers help students support their claims? –
  2. MPS construct arguments. How is it done in ELA? –
  3. What tools can MPS use to distinguish flawed reasoning? –

(You can also foster discussions and common understanding through collaborative efforts in deconstructing the core.)

I close with the obvious: unless there is a common understanding of the Common Core, the deep-learning that we seek nationwide will be an uncommon occurrence.

Continue reading

What’s Your Brand of Common Core Change?

Only Leaders with New Knowledge Can Lead Transformation. That’s the subtitle of the research report that is the origin of the table below.

There’s much talk of transforming teacher practice. Along with that is discourse on how different the internationally benchmarked Common Core standards are from standards States have used in the past. With that being said, I wonder, what brand of change do we collectively believe needs to occur–traditional, transitional or transformational? Most likely we’d agree on transformational, but are our actions truly transformational?

Consider these questions as you examine the types of changes below:

  1. What is your motivation for change? To be better, fix a problem or for breaking through beyond the typical results?
  2. To what degree do you want to see change occur? To move from old to new or to accomplish something revolutionary?
  3. Has your mindset shifted? Did it need to shift? And how are you sure of either?
  4. Will your actions lead to whole-system/structural changes (within your school or district)?
  5. Do you believe your change will lead you to an ending destination or is it ongoing?
  6. Does change involve professional development and no consistent coaching?
  7. Are your outcomes sustainable? How do you know?


If we argue that teachers’ practices must transform to deliver instruction in ways they haven’t before, then one could reason that leaders’ practices must transform as well. Otherwise, can we truly purport transformation?

The Common Core requires a specific brand of change–transformation. Transformation is a collective effort for which new knowledge is required. How will you, as a leader, begin your transformation?