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The Complex Puzzle of Common-Core Implementation

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(Californians continue to support the Common Core, as new polls from Children Now and Public Policy Institute of California show.  Yet, the proof of any policy is in its implementation.  Here, Arun Ramanathan writes about the organizational and fiscal challenges to providing the ongoing, high quality professional development teachers will need to successfully change learning.)

By Arun Ramanathan

Policies and initiatives like the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), and Proposition 30 (the voter-approved school tax boost) are typically developed in silos.  Budgets are passed in certain committees. Policies are passed in others.  Regulations are constructed in divisions and departments of state agencies and passed at board meetings.  Ballot initiatives are passed by the voters.

Because policy development happens in silos, policymakers can make the mistake of thinking that implementation at the school district level happens in the same way. But the reality of local implementation is far more complex.

Targeted Training and Support Needed

Take the Common Core.  To implement the Common Core at the district, school and classroom levels, educators will need training and support.  We know that providing that support will take long-term investments in professional learning and a big part of that investment in a state as diverse as California has to be focused on the specific needs of our millions of English Learners and students with disabilities.  

Thumbnail image for arun-ramanathan.jpgIt's natural to believe that increasing state revenues in combination with recent one-time investments in Common Core implementation would support sustained investments in professional development.  But there are other policy issues in play at the district level that run counter to this perspective.

Predictably, the first issue is Local Control Funding Formula.  While LCFF has resulted in more revenues overall, these increases vary from district to district.  Regardless of the district, these increases typically cannot address all of the financial pressures facing the local leaders.  They face strong pressure to restore positions cut during the downturn, increase salaries and pay for the initiatives necessary to achieve the many goals and targets in their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs)—California's new accountability framework.

Districts Hedging Against Fiscal Uncertainty

According to a superintendent I recently talked to, districts have also been hamstrung by the decision to shift a much higher percentage of the rapidly increasing teacher pension obligation onto their budgets and by the looming expenditures associated with new textbook adoptions.  He also noted that his district is putting aside funds to hedge against a revenue downturn if Proposition 30 is not renewed.

So, even while budgets are increasing, the reality of California's boom and bust budget cycles, painful memories of the last bust, recently increased pension and other obligations, pressures for personnel and salary increases (which can further exacerbate pension obligations) and LCAP requirements are competing against sustainable investments in professional learning.  Similarly, when it comes to the one-time money targeted for CCSS implementation, investments in professional development have had to compete against the more immediate needs of districts to update their technology so their students can take the new computer adaptive assessments. 

On top of these financial issues, districts have been operating in an assessment and accountability vacuum.  In the absence of math and English assessment results and evidence of achievement gaps, they face less outside pressure to invest in the professional development necessary to improve those results and close those gaps.  At the same time, policy-makers have been sending mixed messages on the importance of assessment results and the potential accountability associated with them.  If we assume that district leaders will make rational decisions to target improvements in those areas where they will be measured and held accountable, these mixed messages along with the absence of hard data on student performance have diminished their external incentives to prioritize professional learning over other investments.

These combined issues are having a negative impact on sustained investments in high quality professional learning in our state.

The release of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test results this year should call attention to these professional development shortfalls, but it won't fix them.  

Renewing Proposition 30 Funding

A long-term fix would begin with a commitment from our political leaders to renew Proposition 30. This renewed investment will bring much needed stability to our education funding system and district finances.    

Second, we need to leverage the massive investments districts have made in technology to implement the SBAC to change the way we teach, deliver professional development and accelerate student learning.  Our new technology capacity can and should be used for much more than just online testing.

Third, at this critical stage, we need to prioritize Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards implementation over other priorities at the district and school levels.  Our educators have long become experts at doing more with less but there is simply no way to effectively implement more than a few high-impact initiatives at one time.

Fourth, as we develop LCAPs, we should look deep inside our existing budgets and resources to find the dollars necessary to fund professional learning and ongoing support for educators over the long-term. By prioritizing and funding standards implementation and effectively using our new technology capacity, we can build the systems of supports our educators need to improve their practice and help their students succeed. 

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(Arun Ramanathan leads Pivot Learning Partners, a state-wide education non-profit that partners with over 90 of California school districts to support their efforts to improve leadership development, education finance and teaching and learning.)     

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