Common Core: Separate the Standards and the Testing


I hear the discourse about Common Core and students opting out from taking the tests. Not sure what my stance is on Common Core tests – I do not have kids, so I am not sure of the emotional toll underperforming on a test has on a child’s psyche. And, from my understanding, this is a big reason students are opting out from taking the tests.

Maybe tests results will improve as teachers become familiar with Common Core; according to a recent survey– thirty-nine percent of teachers feel “very prepared” to teach the standards (up 20 percentage points from 2002). Undoubtedly, there is a lot of pressure on teachers who may lose their job due to poor test results. Similarly, many schools must meet expectations or be closed.

Clearly, there are issues with the testing that need to be ironed out – especially when they are used to evaluate teachers and schools. In “Everything You Need to Know About Common Core”, the speaker had this conclusion:

The Common Core standards should be decoupled from standardized testing, especially online standardized testing. Most objections to the standards are caused by the testing. The tests are too long, and many students give up; the passing marks on the tests were set so high as to create failure.

I agree. I think focusing on the testing aspect is narrow and misses the tremendous overall value of Common Core standards. Some of the benefits include: 1) having transparent and easily accessible standards; 2) building ‘core’ foundational skills – critical thinking, problem solving, and analytic skills; and 3) representing a nation-wide audience of students.

Common Core SBA
Common Core SBA

The standards are online and accessible to anyone: students and their parents, teachers, educators, community planners, and third-party organizations.

Companies creating education games match learning outcomes from playing their game with Common Core standards. This is something Sim City has already accomplished, for example. Imagine the improvements in learning through experiences, by playing games, participating in virtual reality, or working on projects.

Students and parents work together to reach desired expectations. This is helpful for students at all levels:

  • For an underperforming student, student and parents find supplemental resources outside of the classroom and teachers craft personalized, more intensive learning plans.
  • Average students choose how much time they want to dedicate towards learning. Those who want to spend more time can compete with students who have more ability.
  • High performing students demonstrate required competencies and move on (if they can).

Moving on after reaching a desired competency is an advantage of Competency Based Learning (“CBL”), something that is gaining momentum in higher education. Do not base learning on how much time is spent in a classroom, but rather on reaching a desired skill competency.

Future versions of Common Core might have CBL, where learning is defined by skill competencies rather than grade levels (as currently implemented). The biggest hurdle is finding a way to accurately measure competencies in an almost instantaneous way; also make the evaluations subtle, where students do not have to sit-down to take a two hour test. Perhaps CBL in K-12 requires a blended learning model (combine classroom with online learning) as the framework and Skills-Based Approach as the platform.

There is nothing wrong in having a ‘common core’ as a national system. Publishers of books and articles, designers of online course and curriculums, creators of games and devices distribute their resources to a larger audience. Per the same survey mentioned above, only 18% of teachers strongly agree that their resources were aligned with the standards (up from 9% in 2002).

Without a doubt, the number of aligned resources increases significantly as large technology companies and education institutions tailor their products to Common Core standards. (Of course, this is another driver of improved test results.) Students will have choices on how they learn because of a plethora of types of resources (books, games, lectures, online classes, etc.). Finally, let’s remove associating education to zip codes and demographics by providing equal access to these resources for all students.

Skills-Based Approach is an ideal platform to work with Common Core. Skills-Based Approach is centered on the development of an evolving skill set throughout education, higher education, and a career. One link between education and higher education is both focus on developing critical thinking, problem solving, and analytic skills. Skills-Based Approach has an expanded interpretation in learning these skills to include their underlying methods and applications. In addition, Skills-Based Approach effectively handles all the technical skills a student acquires along their learning path.


Skills and Their Underlying Methods

Perhaps the single most important skill, a benchmark of higher education is critical thinking. I think the reasoning is with a solid competency in critical thinking, a young professional can learn most technical skills through job training and professional development.

In his book Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok says:

It is impressive to find faculty members agreeing almost unanimously that teaching students to think critically is the principal aim of undergraduate education.

Our current process of assuming students will naturally acquire critical thinking in general education is not working. CLA+ is a standardized test meant to measure critical thinking and other transferable and thinking skills like problem solving, analytical thinking, and quantitative reasoning. In Academically Adrift, the authors share the results of a study of 2,300 students who took the CLA+ before college and two years of college:

No statistically significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills for at least 45 percent of students.

With so much focused on this skill, I think we should be keeping track of imparting (as teachers) and how students are learning the underlying methods and applications of critical thinking. Here is a table of many of these methods related to critical thinking:

Methods Behind Critical Thinking
Methods Behind Critical Thinking

I think we can and should cover this level of detail for all foundational skills and many technical skills. This is the depth I have started to incorporate in a skills database that feeds many of my applications: Skills Label℠, Skill Syllabi℠ and Skills-Based Approach℠. I have also started to integrate them as fields in the website and mobile applications.

The value is not only tracking what methods a user has learned throughout education and career (planning and building stage of Skill-Based Approach), but also signaling the chosen method(s) of an experienced professional (presenting and validating stage of Skill-Based Approach).

For example, I took courses in database design. In doing so, I learn to use applications to build relational databases (SQL) and non-relational databases (Non-SQL). Later in my career, I might choose a preferred application. Similarly, a writer might choose a style and method for their writing. Or an economist might use certain technologies and methods to apply their analysis.

Lets’ dig deeper with skills by understanding the underlying methods and applications behind them.

Coming Up With A Vision

As I spend time with family and enjoy the holiday, in my spare thoughts, I think about how the initial spark of much of my work started this time six years ago. I was going to build a personal website for a relative as a Christmas gift. Of course, I tried to find something already in the market. The problem was there was not a service with all the functionality I needed – a multi-dimensional resume, portfolio, online identity, so my solution was to build a personal website platform. Within a month, I had a 10-page business plan (which approached 100 pages by the end of the year). Within three months, I had a demonstrable concept. For the first couple of years, I was working fourteen-hour days developing, writing, and building awareness of this new concept.

I think the lesson is new innovative concepts do not require applying the Scientific Method, but can come from simply recognizing an opportunity and working extremely hard to seize it.

Leader's Vision
Leader’s Vision

To differentiate the personal website platform I was constructing, I first conceived Skills-Based Approach℠ – a methodology centered on the development of a skill set throughout education, higher education, and a career. A personal website supports each of the stages. Skills are now becoming a focal point of education and higher education reform and policy.

The last two years I have been laser focused in applying Skills-Based Approach as standalone website and mobile applications. This year I built two supporting apps: Skills Label℠ and Skill Syllabi℠. In addition, I have assembled a considerable following in social media, a blog, and given webinars and presentations on the micro (for individuals) and macro (for community and workforce development) benefits of Skills-Based Approach.

I think the lesson is sometimes coming up with new ideas has a snowball effect. Once you get past the initial inertia (something like writer’s block), it becomes easier to come up with new ideas and processes. Sometimes you have enough ideas where you must choose which ones to allocate your time and resources.

I had much of my vision established in these two concepts and a personal branding concept within three years. For the ensuing three years, I have continued to evolve the underlying foundation of these core concepts. I become animated when I talk about my vision; I am passionate about my vision.

I think the lesson is it takes considerable to time to come up with a true vision. (This is my one argument against a serial entrepreneur and my frustration in competing against a large company.) Sometimes you add concepts that add breadth, sometimes you add ideas that add depth to your vision. There is nothing wrong in being repetitive with your core premises; it shows you have conviction.

Skills-Based Approach: An Evolving Concept

About six years ago, I created Skills-Based Approach – a methodology centered on the development of a skill set throughout a lifetime. Users work on an evolving skill set by constantly cycling through four stages throughout their education and career.  Skills-Based Approach was a key differentiating feature of a personal website platform I had been working on for about a year. The genesis of the personal website platform came from building one for a family member and through the process recognizing there was nothing in the market for personal websites – a hybrid of a multi-dimensional resume, portfolio to share work, and establishment of an online identity.

This personal website concept remains a relevant concept and opportunity. (There were two Superbowl commercials in 2016 targeting personal websites; average cost of commercial slot was 4.5 million dollars.) Much of my interpretation of a personal website is discussed on the website .

Skills Based Approach and Current Learning Trends
Skills Based Approach and Current Learning Trends

I continued to think, blog, and write about Skills-Based Approach in the ensuing four years. I also built a considerable following in social media (on all platforms), established being the originator of Skills-Based Approach (own domains, well indexed in search engine result pages), and developed a future vision that I back up with conviction and years of hard work.

For the past two years, I have been laser focused on designing and creating website and mobile applications to actually apply the methodology. I am convinced we should be thinking in skills to solve problems in education, higher education, and professional and career development. Skills-Based Approach is the platform to solve these problems.

There are many micro (for the individual) and macro (for the community, workforce) benefits of Skills-Based Approach.

Micro-Level Benefits

  • Simplifies education and career planning.
  • Way to track learning progress in and out of the classroom; way to track learning progress from one grade to another and subsequently from high school to college. Way to track lifelong learning.
  • Career onboarding and performance reviews are often ineffective for the recipient (and unstructured for the supervisor). Thinking in skill sets and moving through stages is a useful platform for career development.

Macro-Level Benefits

  • Easier to address ‘skills gap’. Professionals know what technical skills are in demand and can move through Skills-Based Approach to efficiently acquire them.
  • Lifelong learning has become a requirement for most professionals. Targeting relevant technical skills is effective.
  • Learning in grade levels is imprecise. Skill-Based Approach implies building skill competencies, so adaptive and personalized learning becomes part of an education plan.
  • Higher education costs are rising rapidly. A Skills-Based Approach suggests breaking down everything into skills, rather than degrees. Therefore, students can and should use alternative ways to build necessary skills.
  • Big disconnect between education (degrees) and career planning. Thinking in skills and competencies is advantageous because it is a ‘single language’ to bridge education with career expectations.

The advantage of Skills-Based Approach over other applications include its simplicity, longevity, and adaptability.

  • Simplicity. Being able to summarize education, employment, and other experiences into a fluent skill set, then move through four stages is simple. Always dealing with skills, behaviors, and values is simple.
  • Longevity. Effective in education (K-12), higher education, and professional and career development.
  • Adaptability. As the latest technologies and applications are adopted, simply plug them into related stage.

Skills-Based Approach: Learning Paths

Within the context of Skills-Based Approach, a learning path is defined as a collection of tasks needed to reach a desired skill competency over a period (what is referred to as an instance in the application). An instance might be an entire program, such as a micro-credential certification to become an accountant, computer programmer, or electrician. Or it might be a semester as part of a degree. Students upload a course schedule and related activities in and out of the classroom.

These instances are not mutually exclusive, so a student can run more than one instance concurrently. For example, I may be a high school student running an instance for required courses in a semester, one for all activities outside of the classroom, and one for my long-term career goals. It makes sense to separate: (1) required learning from non-required learning; and (2) short-term from long-term learning objectives.

Strung together by skills, instances show continuity. There is functionality to access all content and tasking related to current and past instances, so it becomes a repository for all students’ learning. You can plot all the tasking related to building and validating skills in a timeline. Being able to combine learning expectations over an extended period is one advantage Skills-Based Approach has over competing applications.

Another advantage is Skills-Based Approach simplifies everything. Everyone – students, parents, counselors, teachers, etc. – knows what they are dealing with: a skill set (albeit an expanded definition of skills to include soft skills and behaviors); related competencies (measurements of skills); and constantly cycling through four stages.

Students can track and manage all learning in one place. Working in skills and competencies effectively bridges learning expectations. Students can plan for a future career five to ten years in advance while working in short, discrete, manageable tasks. Furthermore, students pivot with their learning based on internal (success or failure building skills or changing career interests) and external (changing demand for skills or jobs) factors.

A cool feature of the Skill-Based Approach learning path is students can share and replicate them (if they give necessary permissions). Working together, students collectively might create an optimal learning plan and the sharing process might be fun. A teacher, professor, or program director can create and disseminate their own learning paths in a similar way.

As students mature and become familiar with the Skills-Based Approach interface, they take control of their learning; they become ‘self-directed learners’ and develop their own ‘personal learning network’. I wrote an article (and gave a webinar) on putting employees in the driver’s seat of their learning, and I think the same applies with high school and college students (though, perhaps with varying levels of guidance).

Self-Guided Learning
Self-Guided Learning

Being able to use one methodology / platform across education and career stages is another big plus of Skills-Based Approach. A user gets introduced to the application, figures out how it works with an ‘aha’ epiphany and then effectively uses it in different career stages.

There is growing support for personalized and adaptive learning. A feature of a Skills-Based Approach learning plan is students merging required tasks with tasks created on a student’s own initiative. It would be great to see students increase the non-required learning for their own personal and learning development, while reaching desired competencies for required learning. (And there are some intrinsic motivators being built into the Skills-Based Approach application. One of them is the accumulation of skill points and leaderboards – still under construction.)

With so many free online learning resources, like Khan Academy and MOOCs, a young, impressionable student can explore any subject or personal or professional interest and build a good foundation. Personally, I am a big supporter of self-guided learning – something I have been doing for the past seven years.



How Should We Respond To High In-Demand Skills?

I find it interesting how we respond to publications related to top in-demand skills needed to be successful. I immediately think: Should we target acquiring the necessary skill competencies directly? Should we simply assume going to college gets me the skills? No, I think we should create ‘learning plans’ where learning is defined in skills and their underlying methods and applications.

A pair of Gallup surveys published in 2014 identified employers as saying: (1) college graduates do not have the skills businesses need; (2) and applied skill and knowledge are more important than a college degree and its pedigree. And perhaps in response, per the World Economic Forum ‘The Future of Jobs Report’, twenty-five percent of the respondents (senior talent and strategy executive) say they will ‘collaborate (with) education institutions’ as part of their future workforce strategy.

I think skills should be one big aspect of ‘learning paths’. These paths might be part of or a complete four-year degree. Some colleges are moving in this direction by implementing Competency Based Learning (“CBL”) programs; a TechCrunch article says colleges offering CBL has grown from 50 to 500 programs this year. Generally, the concept behind a CBL program is to allow students to work at their own pace and replace credit hours (seat time) with competency levels. So, when they pass a test or project, they get credit and move on.

Learning paths might include micro-credentialism, fast, efficient, and direct paths to acquire employability skills. Some types of these programs include: bootcamps, apprenticeships, credential or license programs, etc.

I think learning paths should be: self-directed, personalized and adaptive, linked to employability, sequential for continued growth, and based on skills and underlying methods and applications.

There should be a stage when a student takes on the responsibility for their learning.  I do not suggest changing required courses in high school or a college degree. And I also think parents, mentors, teachers, and counselors should have varying roles in providing necessary guidance.

But, I think students should keep track of their learning more precisely, know their own competencies, choose learning resources whenever possible, and supplement required learning their own way. (Therefore, I think the Skills-Based Approach application should be in the hands of every high school and college student.)

One example of this (and a benefit in Common Core, a standardized and accessible list of standards) is playing an educational game by Sim City for extended learning outside of the classroom. I have created a platform to compare and summarize learning expectations of education resources called Skills Label℠ , which has cross integration functionality with Skills Based Approach℠.

In a Pew Research survey, seventy-two percent of American adult workers say “a lot” of responsibility falls on individuals to make sure that they have the right skills and education. So, the question becomes at what age should a person take ‘driver’s education’ and later the ‘driver’s seat’ of their learning.

Applying personalized and adaptive learning helps students at all spectrums of capability:

  • Underperforming students find other learning resources, perhaps in other media to reach a desired competency. They might also get a more intense learning experience for needed skills.
  • Students in the ‘middle of the curve’ get the standard learning plan and then modify it to accommodate their needs. The real benefit in this category is with the motivated students. They choose how much time to dedicate to learning. An average student who spends significant time learning a skill set gets employed faster and competes with less focused students who have more ability.
  • High performing students need to keep moving forward with their learning. A seat time model makes less sense for these students. They become bored and distracted in the classroom. For these students, it is about finding and putting them on their career track so they can start contributing with their brilliance. Making contributions in higher order skilled professions take years of preparation.

Learning paths should link to employability. Students want contingencies after completing their learning plan. They can think: ‘If I take these courses or pass this certification, I will be employed with this career making a salary in this range’.

Lifelong learning is a requirement for most professions.  According to Pew Research’s survey The State of American Jobs, fifty-four and thirty-three percent of worker say ‘training/ skill development throughout their work’ will be ‘essential’ and ‘important, but not essential’ respectively. Learning plans should have continuity, so students and professionals are always working on their skills throughout their lifetime. This might involve working on the ‘depth of their skills’, where you take a few skills and keep getting better at them – become a master. This might involve working on the ‘breadth of their skills’, where you keep adding new skills to your skill set.

Working with underlying methods and applications of a skill is one level deeper than what is typically in practice. (My interpretation of the relationship is: skills are like atoms and the methods and applications are like sub-atomic particles.) Anyways, I think with ‘learning paths’ it is worth understanding the methods behind applying the skill.

Many of the foundational thinking skills are broad in scope. For example, with critical thinking, there are many methods (Critical Thinking Techniques):

  • Proper use of evidence.
  • Organization of thoughts.
  • Use logic for appropriate inferences.
  • Hear, and process conflicting ideas.
  • Socratic/inquiry questioning.
  • Case-Based Reasoning.
  • Debate.
  • Cost-Benefit Analyses.
  • Summarizing a concept.

Thinking precisely with methods and techniques makes acquiring skills adaptive to rapidly changing technologies. For example, with the technical skill of ‘Database Design’, I might use the entrenched SQL relational database design or the upcoming NOSQL flat, ‘big data’ structure.

Skills-Based Approach is a methodology centered on the development of a skill set throughout a lifetime. There are ways users can create their own ‘learning plans’ within the application. It is possible to merge traditional learning programs with newer ones based on acquiring skill competencies.