Let the implementation begin!

The adoption
of the Common Core State Standards has upped the quality of most states’
English language arts and math expectations. But, for them to positively impact
student achievement, we must get implementation right. This is a rare opportunity:
States have set the bar higher. Now it’s time to jump.

Unfortunately,
effective implementation is hardly inevitable. Consider the lackluster results
witnessed in several states that adopted strong standards in the 1990s, only to
see them ignored.

In
some states, such as California and Indiana, this was because the assessments
to which the standards were tied weren’t strong enough, or they weren’t tied to
a meaningful state accountability system. In other states, teachers had limited
access to high-quality curricular and instructional resources that were
properly aligned to their state’s standards. These challenges have caused many
to question the potential of standards-driven reforms; to wonder whether we
need to focus our attentions elsewhere.

This is a rare opportunity: States have set the bar higher. Now it’s time to jump.

 
   
 

There
is, however, evidence that, done right, standards-driven reform holds enormous
promise. In Massachusetts, for instance, a combination of rigorous standards
and assessments and thoughtful state-level implementation has catapulted its
students to the top of national and international assessments. In fact, since
Massachusetts adopted its standards in 1993, the state has seen its achievement
levels rise precipitously: from a 23 percent fourth-grade proficiency rate on
the NAEP math test in 1992 to a 57 percent proficient rate in 2009. That same
year, Massachusetts students outperformed every state on the fourth- and eighth-grade
reading and math NAEP, with a greater proportion of students performing at both
the proficient and advanced levels.

So as
states flesh out their plans to implement the Common Core standards over the
next several years, what pieces are most essential to put into place? Here are
five questions state officials and reform advocates ought to be asking
themselves:

1.
What is the role of the state in providing curricular and instructional
resources for teachers?

Everyone
agrees that teachers need access to rigorous materials aligned to the
standards. But who is best positioned to provide those resources to teachers?
And to what extent should the state coordinate—or even mandate—scope and
sequences, curriculum, or instructional resources? States have attacked this
question very differently. Some states (such as Connecticut and Illinois) have
focused on providing assessment frameworks and/or blueprints that help clarify
how each standard will be assessed at each grade level and help teachers set
priorities and plan instruction that is aligned to the state assessment. Other
states (like Virginia and Massachusetts) have gone a step further and developed
“curriculum frameworks” that not only identify priorities but also give
teachers models of how they might teach the standards. And still others (thinking
Texas and California on this one) have linked a list of approved textbooks or
curriculum resources for teachers. As we look towards Common Core
implementation, states will need to decide how heavily they’ll want to
prescribe—or even recommend—curriculum and instructional resources.

2.
What is the role of the state in identifying professional development needs and
training teachers?

All
states have some role in training new teachers—either in setting certification
requirements, mandating a subject-area or other test, or creating guidelines
for state schools of education. But to what extent should they get involved
with professional development for existing and veteran teachers? Should state
departments of education actually provide training to teachers and
principals? Should they play a role in “approving” professional-development
providers? Or should these decisions be devolved to district and school
leaders? It may seem like a no-brainer that states should play some role in
professional development—after all, all teachers will need some level of
training to implement the new standards effectively. But any state-led or
state-approved professional-development activity will necessarily be a blunt
instrument that cannot meet the needs of all teachers. How can states ensure
that professional development opportunities are sufficiently varied so that
they can be tailored to meet the needs of a variety of teachers?

3.
What is the role of the state in student assessment?

NCLB
ushered in a requirement that states develop or adopt summative assessments for
students in key grades (in third through eighth grade and once in high school). But to
what extent should the state provide interim or formative assessments that help
teachers track student mastery of standards over time? To date, few states have
gone beyond developing summative assessments, but both assessment consortia (PARCC
and SBAC) will be developing interim and/or formative assessment tools for
teachers. Should states mandate their use? And, if they do, what impact will
these decisions have on curriculum flexibility and planning for all schools,
including charter and other schools of choice?

4.
What role should the state play in helping struggling schools?

Even
the most thoughtful implementation policies will suffer if implementation practice
isn’t done right. Every state has some schools with weak leaders,
ineffective teachers, or both. What is the role of the state in helping schools
that are struggling to meet achievement targets on their own? Should states
mandate curriculum and/or summative and formative assessment tools for
struggling schools even when they don’t for others? Or, should state policies
focus on turnarounds and takeovers?

5.
What role should standards and assessment play in district, school, and teacher
evaluation?

Both of the Common Core assessment
consortia have committed to developing assessments whose results will be valid
for use in teacher and school-leader evaluations. But to what extent should
state policies dictate how student achievement should be used in teacher
evaluations? How long should teachers be given to adjust to the new standards
in these evaluation systems? And what impact do these policies have on the
ability of school and district leaders to make hiring and firing decisions
independently?

What’s
next?

There
are undoubtedly a host of additional implementation challenges that states will
face over the next year and beyond. But addressing these big-picture questions
is the first step towards setting states up for successful standards
implementation. It will be a long and bumpy road. But the view at the end will
be well worth the voyage.

This piece was originally
published
(in a slightly different form) as one of a
series of policy briefs written for the PIE-Net annual summit. The other briefs
are
available
here
.

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