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Educators Don't Understand Common Standards, Boards Told

White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Southern state boards of education are gathered at a resort here in West Virginia to compare notes and get advice on implementing the common standards. Day One of the conference yielded a sobering mix of both.

Among the advice-givers was Susan Tave Zelman, who was Ohio's superintendent of instruction before becoming a consultant. She urged the gathered board members to approach common-core implementation as a system, integrating them with policy and practice in curriculum, assessment, human resources, and fiscal management. "The real power of this work is the power of alignment," she said.

But she urged the board members to do potent communications work around the new standards, for a reason that might be alarming to those who have been immersed in the work for two years now: Most folks, she said, just don't understand how the new standards are different than the one's they've already got. This is the message she has received over and over as she travels around to states and districts, talking with educators and administrators about the common standards.

"You've got to make sure to make clear what is different between your current standards and the common core standards," Zelman said. "Because I'm telling you, out there people don't see the differences."

Shall we pause here to allow great, deep sighs of frustration from those who have been working tirelessly to let everyone they can think of know what the common standards are? It's a humbling reminder of what a huge job remains in bringing everyone on board who will be involved in implementing these things.

Indeed: Patty Yoo, common core project director for the National Association of State Boards of Education, which is sponsoring this meeting as part of a series of regional implementation conferences, said the biggest challenge right now is one of communications. It's about explaining the new standards and implementing them with full involvement of teachers, principals, district leaders and others "so people feel it isn't being done to them."

Elizabeth Ross, who is working with Yoo on common standards for NASBE, told the group that one of the partners in the common-standards effort, the James B. Hunt Institute, which has been working on communications for the initiative, has brought on the public-relations consultant GMMB to shape a new message states can use in building support for the common core. The message? "That common core is the next generation of your state's standards."

This would be consistent with the theme that common-core advocates have been reiterating as often as possible for a year: that the standards movement was led by the states, and the standards themselves were drafted by the states (in conjunction with panels of experts). This is aimed at tamping down the drumbeat sounded by those who think the standards are a federally driven project, fueled in no small part by the Race to the Top incentives attached to them, and to the federal funding of common assessments for the standards.

State boards didn't come here just to sit and listen and talk. They actually had homework. They had to fill out action plans for implementing common standards. They had to give themselves green, yellow or red lights (think traffic lights) to rate how far along they were in adopting the standards in math and English/language arts, shaping curriculum for them, and adapting things like graduation requirements, professional development, and higher education partnerships for the new learning goals. Curiously, when the plans were posted on the walls of the conference room, it was a sea of green and yellow. Few red dots were in the mix.

The wonders of self-assessment? Or amazing implementation progress?

A recent study by the Center on Education Policy found that states had far to go in tackling all the things necessary for common standards implementation.

Stay tuned, please, as this project unfolds. If you think developing common standards and getting them adopted was a heavy lift, wait until you watch states and districts try to get them into classrooms and assess the results.

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