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Chiefs at CCSSO Event Say Implementation Focus Put Politics on Backburner

Cross-posted from the Curriculum Matters blog

by Catherine Gewertz

Washington

Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.

Four state education commissioners sounded their version of that battle cry today as they described, for a Washington audience, the work they're doing to implement the Common Core State Standards, despite pushback from teachers unions, lawmakers, parents, and activists on the right and the left.

Sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers to counterbalance the accumulating newspaper headlines about botched common-core implementation, the forum featured education leaders who have been among the standards' strongest backers: North Carolina's June Atkinson, Maryland's Lillian Lowery, Tennessee's Kevin S. Huffman, and New Mexico's Hanna Skandera. 

Each commissioner took a turn detailing his or her state's work to immerse its teachers in the new standards and to design curriculum resources for them. (See more on the meeting from my colleague Andrew Ujifusa over at State EdWatch.)

Building New Systems

North Carolina, for instance, created an online "home base" system that houses free instructional supports, and the state is in the process of hiring and training 450 teachers who will become experts in that system and teach their colleagues how to use it. New Mexico has built online resources that its teacher-preparation programs can use in preparing aspiring teachers.

Tennessee has spent $20 million training 40,000 teachers in four-day summer sessions and deploying 750 coaches into the schools to help them. It spent another $25 million on what Huffman called "no-stakes assessments" to help teachers see how their revamped instruction is going. For three years now, Maryland has been reaching its teachers through summer trainings that last three to four days; every school in the state had to send a team that included the principal, along with representatives of the mathematics and English/language arts faculty. The state has built frameworks that local districts can use to write their own common-standards curricula, Lowery said.

In one way or the other, however, each commissioner has had to deal with varying types—and levels—of pushback. And most acknowledged that they had underestimated how intense that pushback would get or that they'd ignored rumbles of opposition for too long. 

"The footsteps were behind us and we didn't listen," Lowery said. Educators were so focused on implementation that they didn't take strong steps early on to counter the negative messages with positive, explanatory ones, she said.

"The extent to which the political conversation rose up on the right and on the left was surprising, because we've been talking about this for four years," Huffman said.

Rhetoric vs. Front-Lines Work

The commissioners vented their frustration with reports that there is, as Lowery put it, a "bedlam" of opposition to the new standards. When she visits schools, she said, she sees teachers working hard to make the big shifts required by the common core. When she talks to parents, they tell her they can see how their younger children are being asked to do more challenging work than their older children had been asked to do. 

North Carolina's Atkinson said she is frustrated that so many people see common standards as the force that brought on testing and accountability measures. Her state has had accountability since 1996, she said. State and federal law—not the common core—require North Carolina to administer standardized tests for any set of standards, she noted. 

But of course it's not just the administration of standardized tests that has folks riled up. It's the adoption of the common standards after the federal government dangled financial incentives to do so through its Race to the Top Program. It's the federal measures (think Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers) that require states to base teacher evaluations in part on student test scores. North Carolina, Tennessee, and Maryland received Race to the Top grants. (North Carolina, through a waiver, has won additional time before it must link teacher evaluations to test scores. Maryland has too, although it did so through an act of its legislature, a move Lowery said brought teachers a "sigh of relief." That bill is awaiting the governor's signature.)

Creating Uncertainty

Political opposition has ramped up recently in Tennessee, with the news last week that the state legislature wants a year's delay in using tests by PARCC, the consortium whose assessments Tennessee had been planning to use next year. Huffman dispensed with any attempt to hide his frustration with that situation, but instead of unleashing on state lawmakers, he reserved his harshest words for the state teachers association, which contends that common-core implementation isn't sufficiently funded to succeed and wants to back out of PARCC. Huffman said that stance "completely undermines implementation" of the new standards.

The way to support teachers in the transition to the common core, Huffman said, isn't to declare a moratorium on consequences attached to the new tests. It's to provide good training and feedback for teachers. 

Meeting with two Education Week reporters after the public discussion, Lowery and Atkinson reflected on how they'd do things differently if they could start the common-core initiative over. They agreed that they'd jump out earlier with strong, positive messages and explanations, especially to parents. They also said they'd do a better job of customizing their messages to different populations.

Lowery said she'd dump the train-the-trainer model and use technology to take common-core training directly to all her teachers. She would ask her districts to make transition plans much earlier, and she would start much earlier to partner with districts to support them as they put the common core into practice. Atkinson said she'd make sure that her state reached out earlier and more aggressively with training: fully half of her teachers have left or are teaching different subjects or grade levels than they were when they common core was adopted in 2010.

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