Anticipation is growing across the country about Common Core State Standards, as districts and states work at a feverish pace to prepare educators for full implementation. As district and school leaders plan how they will meet the standards, it is crucial that they take three preliminary steps: review research on change in education, reflect on and mine past change efforts for lessons learned, and clarify the fundamental assumptions that drive their decisions.
Change is not new to educators; most have been involved with previous change efforts. Some have even been involved in implementing earlier iterations of standards. Many educators approach their planning for CCSS implementation with background knowledge and experience with change. Too often, in the moment, they generate action plans without pausing to clarify the vision of what they want to achieve. Their theories of change become a series of action steps, the completion of which is more important than attainment of the undefined vision.
The standards are not a vision; they define outcomes. When districts and state departments of education take the time to envision what successful standards implementation looks like, it gives them a resource to measure progress, guide actions, and stay on course. The vision describes what we will see in practice when students are on course to achieve the standards. It defines what key players are doing--students, teachers, principals, district leaders, state leaders, community leaders, parents, elected and other government officials, and business and industry. It describes the conditions in place in schools, districts, communities, and states that support the practices described in the vision. The vision deepens understanding, generates commitment, and spurs effort.
If the vision is missing, those responsible for implementation will create and pursue their own vision of implementation, and it is likely that individual visions will vary dramatically.
Past change efforts offer powerful textbooks to inform new change efforts. By taking time to examine past successes and challenges, school, district, and state leaders will be able to identify actions that contribute to and interfere with success, and to understand more fully the nuances of the context in which they work.
Each school, district, and state has its own unique combination of factors that influence the likelihood of success with change. Engaging in reflection and analysis of what has worked and what hasn't yields useful insights to inform planning for new initiatives. Research and recommended practices can guide decisions about how to achieve the vision, however lessons learned from past change efforts, drawn from the actual context in which the new efforts will occur, are also valid guidelines for new action plans.
Many states and districts will develop theories of change to guide their action plans. Frequently these theories of change specify the sequence of actions they believe produces the vision and goals they want to achieve. In addition to the theories of change, leaders must identify the assumptions that guide decisions about actions.
Assumptions clarify the beliefs that guide the sequence of actions included in their plans. As an example, many states have engaged leadership teams from districts within the state as a vehicle for reaching every district, school, teacher, and student. One assumption underlying this approach is capacity building. By developing the expertise of a few and supporting them to develop the capacity of others, states and districts can exponentially increase capacity to implement Common Core State Standards. This assumption pans out if those whose capacity is being built understand and commit to leadership roles and have sufficient support to serve as leaders.
Too often state and district leaders leap into an action plan without clarifying the fundamental assumptions that drive their decisions. When the assumptions are clarified in advance, they can be studied, analyzed, and adjusted to support actions that are more likely to produce the desired vision. When assumptions are not clarified, actions tend to be fragmented and even contradictory.
Implementing new standards is not a light-switch change. The process will extend over multiple years with multiple adjustments and refinements in the process. Taking adequate time in the early stages to develop a vision around which people will coalesce, understanding and building on what has worked in the past, and clarifying the assumptions that are driving decisions will save effort and resources over time and keep the focus on the desired outcome--all students ready for college and career.
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward