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When the Curriculum Standards Change and the Teaching Lags Behind

Over the past decade, nearly all states changed to new English/language arts and math standards designed to better prepare students for college and the workplace, but teachers have continued to cover some topics from the past that aren't focal points now, new research finds.

The finding isn't a particularly shocking one or even a new one. After all, teachers often reuse and recycle former lessons; letting go of cherished ones can be difficult to do. And as any teacher can tell you, (go on, ask!) good curriculum materials aligned to the new expectations took a long time to come onstream. Nearly all teachers in a recent survey reported using materials they'd created themselves in addition to commercial or district-provided curricula.

But the persistence of those traditional lessons does indicate that the promise of standards—notably the Common Core State Standards—in deepening subject mastery may be a long way from fulfillment.

"If you keep adding things and don't drop any, you just touch on topics and you won't get to mastery," said Andy Porter, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the director of the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning, which conducted the new study.

To be clear, this is not to blame teachers for, naturally, hanging on to familiar things. It is to point out that the standards are silent on what practices or topics educators should discard. (In fact, the creators of the Common Core even hedged a bit on this, allowing states to add up to 15 percent of their own content to the standards.)

So, to parrot Elsa from the animated film Frozen, the lesson for teachers might be summed up as: "Let it Go."

Opening Classroom Doors

The Common Core was a massive shift in student expecations; logically, much of the focus on implementation has been on what teachers needed to learn in order to convey the new academic expectations.

We know that teachers struggled to integrate, for example, the Common Core's standards for mathematical practice into their teaching, and to find enough high-quality nonfiction to pair with novels and plays in English class.

We know less, though, about what teachers actually taught once they shut their classroom doors. 

That's where the new research comes in, from C-SAIL, a federally funded center that studies standards implementation. It's a collaborative of researchers across several universities, led by UPenn's Porter.

For the research, the group surveyed teachers in three states—two that adopted the Common Core State Standards, Kentucky and Ohio; and one, Texas, that wrote its own set of college- and career-ready standards. (There are reports coming out on California and Massachusetts, two other common-core states, but those haven't been released yet.)

The researchers surveyed teachers from a stratified random sampling of districts in each of those states. They asked the teachers to rate on a 1-to-4 scale how much they emphasized several topics, and broke out the results by grade level.

The good news is that, for the most part, teachers reported covering some of the emphasized topics in the new standards in depth, including "compare multiple texts on the same theme" for elementary English/language arts, and "demonstrate understanding of fraction multiplication" in elementary math. But they're also continuing to teach topics that aren't weighed as heavily in the new expectations

Elementary math teachers in all three states covered more emphasized than de-emphasized content than did elementary ELA teachers. In high school, though, the pattern was reversed, with math teachers teaching more de-emphasized content than ELA teachers. (To be clear, the terms, "de-emphasized topics" doesn't mean they're unimportant or excised altogether in the standards; they're just given less weight relative to the emphasized topics.)

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So what's the takeaway?

"Implementation is the real $64,000 question," Porter said. "Implementing these content standards, which are extremely worthwhile, is simply difficult, complex work with which teachers need a lot of assistance. It isn't just enough to give them a line of materials. Someone has got to hold their hand through it."

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