The Common Core in California: An Interview With Mike Kirst
This is the first of my interviews on the Common Core. We begin with California. In California, it is the State Board of Education that is the policy-making body under the law. Mike Kirst is president of the Board and one of the country's leading education policy analysts. In 1975, during Governor Jerry Brown's first term, he appointed Kirst to the Board, and Kirst served as president from 1977 to 1981. In 2011, at the start of Governor Brown's second term, he again appointed Kirst to the Board.
Marc Tucker: Mike, how would you characterize the challenge in implementing the Common Core?
Mike Kirst: Over a long career as an education policy analyst, I've learned that the effectiveness of state education systems depends more than anything else on the coherence of the whole system, the way the parts and pieces fit together. When it became state policy to adopt the Common Core, I realized that we could not implement the Common Core—which calls for all students achieving at levels only a handful have achieved in the past—with a 20th century education system designed to reach a much more modest goal. I sat down and wrote a paper that included a graphic (see below) describing all the parts and pieces of the system that would have to be fundamentally changed to properly implement these standards, everything from the way we fund our schools to the way teachers are first educated and trained to the kinds of tests that the state would have to use and the fundamental changes that would be needed in our accountability system, and much, much more. Really implementing the Common Core would mean changing almost everything.
MT: What did you conclude about how well California teachers are prepared to implement the Common Core?
MK: The size of our system, with 6.2 million students, makes an implementation of this size and scope complex. We're making progress, districts are working hard, and we recognize it will take years to ensure all of our 280,000 teachers are well prepared. One of the most critical investments will continue to be providing support for teachers in classrooms. We couldn't succeed without changing pre-service teaching and professional development. We knew early on to involve higher education. That was very much front and center. I have a letter from all the higher education system heads committing their institutions to the fundamental changes that will be required to get there. We created a new group called the Instructional Quality Commission to develop new frameworks aligned to the Common Core. Bill Honig, California's former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, led the Commission at the start and he continues to be actively involved. We also have a separate board, The Commission on Teacher Credentialing, to regulate teacher standards and training. It is chaired by Linda Darling-Hammond.
MT: We find among the top performers that they view standards, curriculum, and assessments as one single system. The assessments in those countries test the degree to which the student has mastered the content in the syllabus. The United States is finally deciding that we need the kinds of standards these countries have, but where is California on curriculum and assessment?
MK: Getting the assessments right is crucial. California is a flagship member of Smarter Balanced. Smarter Balanced has a whole package that we regard as an instructional system. They have a digital library and short-cycle assessment and resources to reteach students material that they didn't get the first time around. We have brought Smarter Balanced into the University of California, Los Angeles so we have more staff dedicated to implementation and improving our instructional system now. We see Smarter Balanced as a new kind of hybrid, involving both instructional improvement and assessment, that we can use to drive instruction in California.
MT: You've said that it all gets down to the teacher, the student and the materials the teacher uses. What will the state's role be in curriculum in the age of the Common Core?
MK: California has curriculum frameworks, not syllabi. The frameworks specify what you need to teach and how you teach it. It is less specific than the guidance you will find in many countries with a more centralized system, and our frameworks are designed for each subject by grade level. Some of the guidance is for teachers, some for principals and some for districts.
MT: How is the textbook adoption process changing in light of the Common Core?
MK: We've provided much more flexibility in our system to increase innovation and save districts time and money. We don't adopt textbooks anymore; we endorse them. Local districts look to us for recommended textbooks and curriculum frameworks. They can adopt their own textbooks from our recommended list or they can go through their own adoption process. The materials must be aligned to the Common Core standards.
MT: How long will California teachers have to implement the Common Core before it counts for anything?
MK: We will give a baseline assessment in 2015, but we know that full implementation of Common Core in our classrooms is going to take time. We're committed to getting this done right rather than letting federal policy dictate how we improve learning and student outcomes in our state. We are still operating under the requirements of NCLB, and we're providing $50,000 for professional development on Common Core in addition to other support for each school newly identified for corrective action. Every time you ratchet up accountability, you have to ratchet up capacity.
MT: So where are you now?
MK: We have done everything in the policy wheel that we outlined originally. We have redone the school finance system. We have done all the obvious things around curriculum and teacher and principal policy. And so on. I would give us a really high grade on state policy making. But all of that and a dollar will get you not much more than a cheap cup of coffee because it is on the ground in the classrooms where it all happens. That is where we concentrate all our energy from now on.
MT: As you describe it, California's strategy for implementing the Common Core was very different from that of the U.S. Department of Education. Do you see it that way?
MK: Yes, I do. We believe that what is actually taught in classrooms is the key to success. We made a conscious decision to focus on what was best for our state rather than what was best for the federal government. We were prepared to take a lot of heat for that. We knew we would lose the teachers if we told them on the one hand that they needed to teach to the Common Core but then on the other, held them personally accountable, as the federal government prescribed, for their students' performance on the old standardized tests. It was a deliberate decision and it was the right decision. The California Teachers Association has been all out for the Common Core and supported it at every turn. It would have caused all kinds of dissonance if we had embraced the federal agenda and rushed the system. We wouldn't be where we are today if we hadn't kept our focus on system wide implementation as the first and most critical step.
MT: Looking ahead, what is your biggest challenge?
MK: Implementation. The thing that keeps me up at night is that in a state of our size and complexity we need a large infrastructure to equip our teachers to teach the Common Core. In 2013 the Governor and lawmakers invested $1.25 billion specifically for Common Core implementation. Recently a number of foundations have signaled their willingness to help support the implementation efforts we have underway. The bottom line is that we're making progress but we have a lot of work ahead.
Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.
Graphic by Michael Kirst.