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Common Core: Lessons Learned in Kentucky

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Following is a guest post from Kentucky's Commissioner of Education, Terry Holliday.

Kentucky has a tradition as a leader in education reform. For years, 1990's Kentucky Education Reform Act served as a model for curriculum, school governance and finance nationwide.

In 2009, the Kentucky General Assembly mapped the course for the state's latest reform efforts when it passed legislation known as Senate Bill 1. It called for the adoption of new, more rigorous and college/career-aligned academic standards along with a new assessment and accountability system based on those standards. The goal was to ensure more students are ready for postsecondary education or the workplace and that they are successful.

With that charge, Kentucky became the first state to adopt, implement and test the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English/language arts and mathematics. This presented both a challenge and an opportunity -- an opportunity to lead and the challenge to do so without the benefit of others' insight and experience.

Thanks to strategic planning; dedicated educators, partners and staff to carry out those plans; and a shared desire for all students to graduate from high school college/career-ready, this work has proceeded smoothly despite the potential for major problems. As other states move forward with the implementation and testing of CCSS, I'd like to share some of the lessons Kentucky has learned:

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. It's important from the start that every stakeholder knows what's changing, why and what the end results will be. That information must be shared early and often. Doing so in Kentucky ensured everyone was kept abreast of revisions and next steps. It also helped establish the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) as a trusted information source in the midst of major change.

2. Partner support is vital. KDE teamed with professional associations (school administrators, superintendents, teachers, school boards), the state PTA, Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, education cooperatives and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to solicit widespread grassroots support and understanding among their respective constituents.

3. Start with teachers. They need to be involved every step of the way. To build capacity for implementing the common core, Kentucky created regional Leadership Networks comprised of content specialists in English/language arts and mathematics from each grade level in every district. More than 1,400 Kentucky educators worked to break down the standards into learning targets, focus on assessment literacy and the characteristics effective teaching and learning. This process resulted in not only a deeper understanding of the standards but also and how instructional practice needed to change -- insights these teachers could share with those in their districts. Instructional support and administrator leadership networks rounded out the team approach to implementation in each district.

4. Business support. The business community in Kentucky has a long history of supporting education reform. College and career readiness is no different, and in many ways answered long-held concerns business leaders had been raising with educators. Recognizing how vital a partner the business community is, we knew it was important to keep the members informed of the changes schools were undertaking and the reasons behind them. To that end, the president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and I toured the state to speak to business and community organizations to build support, explain Senate Bill 1 and how the changes were necessary to grow the state's economy and secure its place in the global marketplace.

5. Stay ahead of potential pitfalls. In Kentucky, we anticipated that student achievement levels would drop significantly under the new assessment system due to the rigor of the new standards and learning gaps that would exist between the old and new standards. In fact, levels did drop but, thankfully, not as much as projected. By warning teachers, principals, superintendents, the media and parents that this would happen, there was less pushback on the new standards than we might have received otherwise.

6. Focus on continuous improvement. This was the reason Kentucky applied for and was granted flexibility on Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requirements. We believed continuous growth and improvement for all our students, as well as all teachers and principals, was necessary if we were to reach our goals of every child becoming proficient and prepared for success -- and all students being college/career-ready when they graduate from high school. It's hard to argue with promoting academic growth for all children.

7. Be open-minded to changes. With massive and comprehensive reform, it's difficult to anticipate every issue and get everything perfect right out of the starting gate, hard as everyone may try. Once the first data comes back, dissect and study it . Look for anomalies, and be willing to tweak the system to eliminate those issues the next time.

8. It helps to have legislative backing. In Kentucky, it was the General Assembly that set the vision and mandated changes. The legislation directed the Kentucky Department of Education, Council on Postsecondary Education and Education Professional Standards Board to work together to develop and carry out a comprehensive, systemic plan to improve student outcomes from early childhood through college. Our mission was clear.

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