Reporting From Atlanta
States must recognize that they have some heavy-duty work to do before they can put the Common Core State Standards into practice. But they hold key powers that could prove pivotal in making the necessary changes: the authority to regulate teacher preparation and licensing and the ability to collect and publicize data that show how well those programs are doing.
That was the bracing message delivered today by Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, at a gathering of states that are meeting here to share ideas on how best to implement the common standards.
It was frank talk about the rough spots on the road to implementation. And it's particularly notable because it comes not from a pundit or observer, but from someone who knows intimately the workings of state education agencies and has been a chief himself (Kentucky). Wilhoit is one of the common core's biggest advocates, of course, since his group spearheaded their development (with the National Governors Association). But he is also not shy about pointing out the warts in the system that now has the burden of implementing them.
"If we are honest with ourselves, we know we are not ready to deliver against this promise," he told teams from 27 states. "The vast majority of teachers don't have the skill set" needed to teach to the new expectations. They need support to improve both their pedagogical skills and their content knowledge, he said.
Echoing a point made in an address to the group Wednesday evening by the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, Wilhoit said that states must take care not to impose pedagogical methods on teachers, but to find ways to empower them to attain the necessary mix of skills and content knowledge. One way that states could consider doing that, he said, is by creating networks of particularly skilled teachers that could help guide their peers.
Principal preparation needs particular attention, Wilhoit said, as states begin to examine the best ways to help educators ramp up their skills for the common core. Such programs have been "the ugly stepchild" of educator preparation and do not sufficiently prepare school leaders to walk through classrooms and recognize the kind of teaching that should be taking place to reflect the new standards, he said.
Three key levers can be of use to states as they venture into common-standards implementation, Wilhoit said. One is the power to approve teacher-preparation programs. Too often, he said, state education agencies surrender this power to accrediting organizations "that too often emphasize process over content," but they can take it back in order to ensure that the programs are operating the way they should be, he said.
Another potentially powerful lever for states is their authority over teacher-licensing programs, Wilhoit said. Finally, they can collect and publicize data about such programs that will show how well they are doing their jobs, he said.
"No preparation program that is producing inferior teachers should continue to exist," he said, and high-quality programs "should be out in the sunshine."
Wilhoit acknowledged that weeding out weak programs is an uphill battle, politically. He noted that "many state legislators" would rather continue weak programs than close them down. But he urged state education agencies to engage this fight and exploit the power they have to shape preparation and licensing programs.
Helping only a small portion of teachers improve would fall short of the common standards' promise, he said. The point is to improve teaching and learning "at scale," in state education systems.
"The work depends on impacting all teachers, not just a few," he said. "This is systems work, and we are the system.