The Fordham Institute’s new report Common Core in the Districts paints a vivid picture of four different school districts’ efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards. Each district follows a comprehensive strategy, developed in relation to its own particular portfolio of resources and constraints, and each district has had its own particular successes and failures—but all four share a passionate dedication to the goal. The authors of Common Core in the Districts draw upon these districts’ experiences to make valuable recommendations for educators across the country who are also trying to implement the standards.
The four districts studied intensively by Fordham’s researchers—Kenton County School District in Kentucky; Metropolitan Nashville Public School District in Tennessee; Elementary School District 54 in Schaumberg, Illinois; and Washoe County School District in Nevada—are not alone. At Student Achievement Partners, we have been inspired by our work with educators at the district level.
For example, educators we’ve worked with in Reading, Pennsylvania, discovered that newly purchased reading anthologies didn’t lead students back to the text to search for evidence, nor were the classroom activities sufficiently challenging. The district, however, had recently lost 10 percent of its Title I funds and could little afford new teaching guides at a cost of $400 per classroom. Professional-development director Sue Vaites recounted how the district turned this challenge into an opportunity. Seeing little possibility of new funding, and refusing to use subpar materials, the district and its teachers took charge of creating their own resources. Like educators in Washoe County, Vaites used Basal Alignment Project (BAP) exemplars to help her teachers understand what aligned lessons looked like and how teachers could adapt the lesson structure to any text. “It wasn’t just the money,” said Vaites. “We really wanted teachers to be able to understand what kind of questions would lead students back to use the text. We didn’t want them to just stand at the front of the classroom reading from the teaching guide.”
Deirdre Skinner, an instructional coach in Atlanta, found that, at first, many of her teachers struggled with the increased responsibility of helping design their lessons. Teachers came to her frustrated, wanting to know the “right way” to teach the lesson. Her response was initially a shock to them: “I can’t tell you the one right way to do it. You want to focus on building your toolbox and deepening your understanding of the subject.”
Each Tuesday, Atlanta holds Common Core Tuesdays professional-development trainings. Skinner recalled that a teacher who had been quiet and withdrawn attended one of the trainings on behalf of the school and returned to her school excited and confident about redelivering the lesson to her colleagues. Each month, Skinner’s school completes a new online professional-development lesson, with each grade taking charge of learning one module. Then they meet in groups that cut across grade levels to redeliver the content to their colleagues. Meeting regularly in this format of cross-grade groups—a recommendation from Common Core in the Districts—allows teachers to see how lessons fit together across grades. The district also published materials for parents explaining the standards, separating myth from fact, and providing activities that parents can do with their children at home.
The environment has changed enormously since the standards were released nearly four years ago. As time goes on, things will continue to evolve rapidly. Old curricula are being revised; new curricula are being produced. Old tests are being phased out; new tests are starting to come online. Paradigms are in flux; political winds blow to and fro. Yet at the end of every school day, teachers in school districts across the country go home with a little more understanding of the task at hand. Common Core in the Districts shows what hard work this is, but for the educators profiled in this report and for the educators we work with across the country, the benefits belong to the students and the struggle is worthwhile.
– The team at Student Achievement Partners