Everyone knows that the Common Core State Standards initiative has turned into a political football. But a more apt analogy might be baseball—spring training, to be exact. That’s because, for all the colorful commentary, the Common Core is still in the very earliest phases of implementation. It isn’t yet time to pay much attention to the score; instead, we ought to work out the kinks and improve the fundamentals.
And to be sure, tons of progress is needed before states, districts, and schools are ready for game day. That’s the upshot of Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers, a new in-depth study from our think tank. Along with analysts at the group Education First, we examined initial implementation efforts in four districts that are ahead of the curve: Kenton County (KY), Metro Nashville (TN), Illinois’s School District 54 (Schaumburg and vicinity), and Washoe County (Reno, NV).
Here are three major challenges they are facing and what they are doing to overcome them:
1. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving to devise their own—with mixed success.
Curriculum publishers were suspiciously quick to proclaim that what they are selling is aligned with the Common Core, and districts are rightly wary of such claims. It takes time to develop and vet high-quality textbook series and other curriculum. All four districts expressed caution about spending limited dollars on materials that were not truly aligned to the Common Core and are delaying at least some of their purchases until they see products that are.
For now, they have approached curriculum development in patchwork fashion. Even districts with the most extensively redesigned curricula have kept at least some of their previous instructional materials, with teachers pulling out isolated lessons, problem sets, assessment items, and so on, as they fit with the new standards. This is understandable; jettisoning all prior materials is expensive, time consuming, and can make teachers uneasy. (And did we mention that there’s a dearth of high-quality, expertly vetted, complete, Common Core–aligned curricula?!) Yet creation of homegrown materials carries the same uncertainty as vendor-developed materials: Are they truly aligned? Are they any good? Will they produce the desired results in students?
Here we must flash a warning light, as several districts in this study are using materials that appear to be at odds with the philosophical underpinnings and instructional shifts at the heart of the Common Core, such as “balanced literacy” and Everyday Math. Indeed, many of the math curricula that predate CCSS are “spiraling”: that is, mathematics concepts are introduced and revisited each year. By contrast, the Common Core requires a “major work” focus in each grade, with accompanying concepts to be introduced and taught to mastery in just a few grade levels. It’s hard to imagine how one could reconcile such fundamental differences.
Still, for all the risks and uncertainties, homegrown stuff fosters buy-in and ownership. In fact, teachers in these districts support a district-wide, common curriculum—precisely because they’ve had a hand in creating, judging, and/or improving it. Engaged in such activities, they welcome the materials as an asset, rather than resisting them as a ploy to undermine their autonomy or professionalism.
2. The scramble to deliver quality, CCSS-aligned professional development to all who need it is both as crucial and (so far) as patchy as the quest for suitable instructional materials.
It’s standard practice—almost boring—to sound the alarm for better professional development, but we’re obligated to say it yet again. Think of professional development as a car that needs not only major body work (updated delivery methods, repurposing of resources) but a new engine, too (novel content delivered to teachers and administrators).
But where do teachers go to glean new expertise relative to the Common Core? Our four districts rely on familiar delivery mechanisms—instructional coaches and master teachers—who are themselves trained via a variety of methods. As early implementers, these educators have gone both to the “source” of the standards and used other proxies for quality and alignment: They’ve worked directly with and learned from the standards’ authors themselves and/or used tools created by them (e.g., the Publishers’ Criteria developed by Student Achievement Partners and several other groups). They’ve checked their understanding against instruments developed by field experts and other states (e.g., the EQuIP rubric). And they’ve scrutinized their interpretations of the standards by consistently returning to them as the basis for professional-development content.
Districts have put considerable thought and energy into cultivating Common Core expertise. Still, major inconsistencies exist in the quality of instructional coaching across buildings. Teachers and principals report that the stronger specialists help them analyze lesson plans and student work in the context of the new standards, while the weaker ones add little value at best and misinformation at worst.
3. The lack of aligned assessments will make effective implementation of the Common Core difficult for another year.
Most states and districts are in the unenviable position of having to implement new standards without the summative assessments in place that will measure student mastery. But they’ve had to make do, to the chagrin of most educators, who—at least in these early-implementer districts—believe that their current state tests are poor measures of student understanding relative to the new standards and may even detract from proper implementation.
This void creates two problems. First, misaligned assessments undermine the critical link between what is reported in accountability systems (test-score and teacher-evaluation data) and what districts purport to value (Common Core–aligned instruction, student success with the new standards). Second, without Common Core–aligned summative data, districts don’t know whether their implementation strategies are effective on a school- and district-wide scale.
Right now, districts are in the near-impossible situation of operationalizing new standards before high-quality curriculum and tests aligned to them are finished. Until we have those in place, implementation will remain confused and patchy. Time is passing, and the new tests and truly aligned textbooks are coming. But districts ought not dawdle: they are just a year away from the big game.
This article originally appeared (in a slightly different form) on Real Clear Education.