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'Early Implementers' of Common Core Grapple With Aligning Tests, Curriculum

If you want a primer on the sink-or-swim implementation issues for the common core, you should read a new cluster of reports. They profile the work of four school districts that jumped into the new standards earlier and more aggressively than most.

The collective portrait that emerges from the work of these districts maps the long, slow climb up the peak of putting the common core into practice in ways that drive positive change. The flip side, however, is that the stories offer a stark picture of the many ways to take shortcuts around the base of that peak—and the many ways to slip backwards on the climb up.

Katie Cristol and Brinton S. Ramsey, consultants at Education First, wrote the reports for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that has been a supporter of the Common Core State Standards.

The authors chose four districts to illustrate different demographics and dynamics, each connoted by an assigned nickname: Kentucky's "trailblazer" Kenton County; Nevada's "creative" Washoe County in Reno; Nashville as the "urban bellwether," and Illinois' District 54 in Schaumburg as the "high-performing suburb." They examined the districts in five areas: communications and engagement, leadership, common-core-aligned curricular materials, professional development, and assessment and accountability.

Going Deep

In an overview, Cristol and Ramsey share conclusions that echo much of what we've found in reporting on the common core over the past few years:

• The field hasn't produced enough good instructional materials that reflect the new standards, so educators are struggling to create their own;

• Professional development for the standards is too often quick and shallow; and

• Educators are caught in a tough spot now as their students approach tests that aren't aligned to what they're teaching.

Here is how the authors summarize a key lesson that too often eludes states, districts, and schools as they try to do this work:

"Implementation gains traction when district and school leaders lock onto the Common Core standards as the linchpin of instruction, professional learning, and accountability in their buildings."

The five areas of implementation they studied are the ones that can make the common core sink or swim. The authors chose not to focus on another pivotal problem for the common core: the political controversies about the federal government's role in promoting the standards and funding the accompanying tests. Those, of course, could also sink the common core in states. And it's probably a key reason why the authors noted a common lesson in their districts as they keep "opposition and misinformation" from taking hold: "avoiding political debates by focusing their messages on instruction."

More Centralization

One of the most interesting things that emerges from these reports is how the four districts are tackling the thorny problem of curricular materials. Even as they steer clear of the marketplace's dubiously "aligned" materials in favor of writing their own, there is a shift to a more centralized approach, Cristol and Ramsey found.

"Letting a thousand flowers bloom isn't consistent with ensuring that all teachers are using high-quality and well-aligned materials," they write.

The districts featured come at this in various ways. In Illinois' District 54, teachers and district leaders wrote a new curriculum from scratch. Kenton County chose the College Board's Springboard curriculum. Nashville went the state-approved-textbook route, and Washoe wrote its own sequencing guides and course maps. Only District 54 has yet cobbled together enough stuff to form a complete curriculum; the others are working their way toward that end.

Also worth noting as we read about these districts is that each appears to have enlisted teachers deeply in developing or choosing common-core curricula and instructional materials. When that happens, the authors note, buy-in and support—even for a curricular approach that is more centralized than before—is strong.

When it comes to professional development, the reports make clear that what's needed to make the common core work is stratospherically different from the "sit-and-git" that defines most such sessions. Teachers must now spend multiple class periods teaching a single text, since the new standards expect text- and evidence-based reading and writing, the authors note. That demands development of "more sophisticated lessons." The emphasis on going deeper in fewer math concepts can bring some teachers face to face with the "limits of their own content knowledge," the report says.

Practicing the Change

"Professional development must go beyond basic workshops describing the common core standards at a macro level," the authors write. "Teachers need extensive opportunities to deeply understand, practice, revise, and practice again the changes in content and instruction reflected in the common core."

The building of professional development and the use of instructional coaches in the four studied districts show how they went beyond the typical quick-hit PD. Washoe County's Core Task Project is especially noteworthy in this regard. That district has drawn wide notice for its home-grown, grassroots approach to immersing teachers in the common core. That teacher-led project developed its own training course for teachers.

One overriding message of the four case studies is that deep, substantive implementation of the common core takes immense amounts of time and reflection. How possible is that, given all the pressures on educators, schools and districts? 

There's the federally imposed deadline of using common-core tests in 2015. There are states' promises to use test scores to evaluate teachers. Layered over that are the politically charged debates about federal overreach that throw doubts over states' willingness to continue their embrace of the common core. Moving ahead with a ticking time clock, not to mention uncertainty about whether your state will hang in there, complicates an already gargantuan task.

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