Moving beyond adoption

The final drafts of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math are slated to be released next week. While there has been some controversy in a handful of states over their adoption, the majority of states seem poised to adopt these standards quickly and with little fanfare.

One consequence of moving quickly towards adoption has been surprisingly little public discussion of what state-level implementation of these standards should entail. Yet this topic should concern everyone who wants to see the new standards actually drive student achievement.

Just as it would be irresponsible for wannabe parents to adopt a baby without intelligently weighing the many challenges that accompany raising that infant to adulthood, so it would be foolish for states to adopt new standards without seriously pondering—and committing themselves to—their successful, long-term implementation.

In reality, however, it’s impossible to divorce successful implementation of rigorous standards from the systemic education reforms that will create the conditions necessary for these standards to affect achievement in the classroom.

To date, most of the meager discussion around implementation of CCSS has consisted of such platitudes as “we will, of course, need to adequately support teachers by providing rigorous new curricula and targeted professional development and training.” That’s simplistic and glib, for it masks innumerable specifics that will make the difference between these standards being a primary driver of student achievement or just a form of wishful thinking.

After all, as we’ve learned from those states that already have rigorous standards accompanied by persistently poor student achievement, adopting great standards is no quick fix for student achievement woes.

On the other hand, we have models of excellence from which to learn. And we’ve learned that translating rigorous standards into stronger pupil achievement normally demands that at least four key elements be in place from the get-go:

  1. Data-driven instruction. Standards drive student achievement only if they are used every day to drive planning and instruction. In practice, that means teachers must use the standards as the foundation on which to build their short- and long-term instructional plans. They must frequently pause to assess student progress towards mastery of each standard and use the data from those assessments to drive whole-class and small-group instruction, and to identify individual students who need targeted intervention in particular areas.
  2. Ownership of results. Instructors who successfully drive student achievement in their classrooms are those who “own” their students’ outcomes. They actually believe not only that it is their responsibility to ensure students master essential content, but also that it is within their power to guide students towards life-altering achievement gains. What’s more, they recognize that they—and not other external or family forces—are the main drivers of those results.
  3. Accountability. Belief and ownership aren’t the whole story. Teachers and schools who successfully use rigorous standards to drive achievement are also held to account for what their students learn. If you look, for example, to successful charter school networks, student achievement (measured in multiple ways) is always a factor—generally the most important factor—in judging a school’s effectiveness. Such accountability is essential. It helps keep the conversation focused in these schools and classrooms where it should be: on student learning.
  4. Flexibility. The most powerful way to ensure that ownership of student achievement results is held at the school level—rather than the district or state level—is to pair accountability with flexibility. On the school level, this means giving school leaders authority over their school budgets and staffing decisions. We all know that great leaders can be creative in allocating scarce resources—dollars, time, personnel, etc. They should be given the chance to do this. On the classroom level, this means holding teachers accountable to student outcomes, not to fidelity to a particular curriculum or pedagogy.

Over the course of the next few months, much will be said about standards adoption. In the long run, however, states will be better served by facing now the tough implementation decisions that lie just over the horizon.

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