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Gene Wilhoit on the Common Core, Part 1

GeneWilhoit.jpgGene Wilhoit served as chief state school officer in Arkansas and in Kentucky before the Council of Chief State School Officers asked him to assume the leadership of their association.  Two decades earlier, Wilhoit had served as an active member of the board of an organization, the New Standards Project, that I had put together to develop new, internationally benchmarked student performance standards for the American states, along with a set of assessments set to those standards.  After he took the helm as Executive Director of the CCSSO, Wilhoit led the successful joint effort of the country's chief state school officers and its governors to create the Common Core State Standards.  In this multi-part interview, I talk with Wilhoit about why he thought it so important to create the standards and what he thinks will be needed to fully implement them. 

Marc Tucker:  Gene, you played the key role in the development of the Common Core, a remarkable achievement. Twenty years ago, our New Standards Project set out to achieve much the same goal. We did not reach the goal line, though.  How would you account for your success?

Gene Wilhoit: You were ahead of your time. The country wasn't ready for this idea politically and the states did not have the capacity to implement it.  But the idea you put on the table twenty years ago grabbed my attention and has been an issue for me ever since.  I realized that, historically, the chief state school officers had abdicated their responsibility.  The states had never really declared what we most wanted our students to learn.

I never lost my zeal for the idea.  I watched the attempts of the federal government under the first President Bush and President Clinton to do something about it, but they fell short.  As time went by, the governors and the business community pressed ever more strongly for some sort of standards that would be common across the states.

When I took over as the head of the CCSSO, I decided to make the development of these standards the keystone of my administration.  The states had to do it. Many people were concerned that if we did not do it, the federal government would.  And we did not want that to happen.  So the states took the lead.  In fact, we told top federal government officials at the time that this was a state agenda, and we didn't want them involved in any way.

There is, of course, an irony in this.  Even though we were very diligent about not involving the federal government in the development of the standards, and even though we warned the federal government against doing anything that might imply federal government pressure to adopt them, the federal government still, in the Race to the Top program, created very strong incentives for the states to adopt the Common Core, and that has turned out to be enough to turn the Common Core into a political football.

MT: Nonetheless, when the dust clears, it is very likely that there will be a large number of states that continue to embrace the Common Core by that name or some other.  The question I have is not whether states will formally embrace the Common Core, but whether it will fail because it was never really implemented.  The premise of the Common Core is that it will greatly raise expectations for kids, especially for those kids for whom standards have been low; that it will serve as a framework that can be used to develop a powerful curriculum as well as a framework for excellent instruction in the hands of capable teachers.  Are the states and other folks involved doing what is necessary to bring that vision to life? 

GW: I'll begin on a positive note.  There is plenty of evidence that an overwhelming majority of teachers view these standards as superior to what they had before.  They want to use them in their classrooms.  That creates a foundation of goodwill where it most counts.  But if we don't support this enthusiasm, it will quickly turn to confusion, resentment and pushback.  I worry that we might fail to give professional educators what they need to implement the Common Core.  Their initial enthusiasm could easily disappear. 

I've noticed a couple of things that trouble me.  It is not an easy task to translate standards into a curriculum.  You can't teach standards.  They are the objectives.  They need to be fleshed out in learning progressions to allow us to create specific curricular designs.  But in this country, there is a belief that the curriculum belongs to every local community and every school.  We have a lack of capacity to develop strong curriculum at that level and a reluctance to allow others to take this on.  Will we be able to translate standards into a strong curriculum design, which will be a basis for instruction and assessment?  I see many people ignoring this issue and going straight to tasks and assessment.  This is very troubling to me. 

How do we resolve this?  In many states, curriculum decisions will be left to locals.  But we should be looking for highly capable people who could create first-rate model curricula, of the kind that the National Science Foundation supported with such success years ago.  We should be creating opportunities for teachers to work together in their schools in a more disciplined way to design and evaluate curriculum.  Networks of teachers should be set up to work on this, guided by professional organizations charged with providing the support that teachers will need to make sure that the curriculum they develop is developed to high quality standards.

Secondly, I worry about assessment.  This experiment by two consortia has produced, from what I can see, better assessments than what states have used before.  There is every reason to believe the first full-scale field administration of the tests will be successful.  At the same time I see a number of states pulling back because they want a cheap test, but you can't have high quality on the cheap.  Some states seem to think that they can produce high quality tests on their own, but I don't think any state has the capacity to do that.  And, with respect to the tests being produced by the two state consortia, I worry about the states' capacity to keep the two consortia going over the long haul.  We may need to explore new forms of public-private partnerships to sustain and continuously update these new tests.

Third, our professional development system isn't geared toward providing the kinds of support teachers need to implement the Common Core State Standards.

MT: The only thing you left out that is on my list is the quality of the teachers our teacher education programs are developing.

GW: Yes, I agree.  And I worry how long it is going to take to turn our teacher education programs around.  These institutions have very little capacity to do what has to be done to prepare first-rate teachers, and even less capacity to provide dynamic support to teachers once they enter the profession.  Right now, we are only playing around the edges of what needs to be done in teacher education.  We have not even begun to see the kinds of dramatic changes that other countries--the countries that are far ahead of us in student performance--have made in their teacher education institutions.

TO BE CONTINUED

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