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Five Essential Schoolwide Conditions for Common-Core Achievement

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By Mel Riddile, Associate Director of High School Services at the National Association of Secondary Principals (NASSP)

 Principal leadership matters--perhaps now more than ever before. As much as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are changing instructional practice in the classroom, we must acknowledge that student learning under CCSS requires a schoolwide transformation that transcends individual classrooms and requires the dedicated, continual attention of the principal. Consider how these five essential schoolwide conditions for CCSS will fundamentally shift the way principals go about leading schools.

1. A culture of college and career readiness. Culture reflects the mindsets and  expectations of everyone in the school and ultimately drives behavior. A CCSS culture reflects the universal expectation that all students will be prepared for life beyond high school, and it encourages students' capacity to imagine their long-term possibilities. In much the same way that a discipline policy becomes ineffective if only half the teachers enforce it, a culture of high expectations must pervade every meeting, every assignment, every interaction with a student

2. Schoolwide literacy. Make no mistake: The success of the new standards will depend heavily on the ability of school leaders to implement schoolwide, cross-content literacy initiatives. In the overblown tension between literary and informational texts, we must realize that fully 19 percent of all words in the standards are some form of the word text. (Most previous state standards were under 1 percent.) The standards call for closer reading of more challenging texts and sophisticated response to them in all content areas. So every teacher--not just English teachers--will have to teach literacy, and principals will have to build their capacity to do so.

3. Student engagement, collaboration, and inquiry. Students cannot improve their reading, writing or discussion skills by listening to a teacher talk, so principals must lead a schoolwide flip in the typical ratio of teacher talk and student work. Reflecting the NASSP Breaking Ranks framework for school improvement, the CCSS call for students interacting with the teacher, with other students, and with ideas. Students will be expected to collaborate and engage in meaningful, productive classroom discussions centered on high-level content. And rather than repeat answers, students will be evaluated on how well they pursue answers to real-world questions. Just as professionals rarely rely on a single discipline to solve complex problems, so will students have to draw on knowledge and understanding of various content areas. It falls to the principal to create conditions for such work across content areas.

4. Instructional time. While they have input into the curriculum, school leaders directly control three variables in teaching and learning: time, setting, and methods. Of the three, increasing quality instructional time may offer the most immediate gains in student achievement. Teachers will likely need more instructional time in order to teach more rigorous, higher-level content in more depth and to integrate literacy skills into their lessons. Even as policymakers are considering ways to extend school days, school years, out-of-school learning, and multi-tiered interventions financially possible, school leaders must find creative ways to optimize the bell-to-bell time they already have.

5. Professional learning. In the short and long run, improving the quality of teaching methods will be the foundation for increased student performance. Yet teachers often lack capacity in the areas that are deemed most critical to the CCSS: higher-order questioning skills and skills in student engagement and empowerment. School leaders face a challenge of increasing the capacity of most of their instructional staff within a relatively brief period of time, and they must do so in the context of the school as a learning organization. Teacher isolation can no longer be acceptable. And effective principals will remove the obstacles for teachers to observe one another, learn from one another, and engage in high-level instructional conversations both locally and virtually.

A recent action brief by Achieve, Implementing the Common Core State Standards: The Role of Secondary Principals, provides an excellent series of starting points for school leaders. Yet underlying the practical steps is a belief in the power of collaboration and collective action. No one person alone can possibly affect the kind of school transformation necessary to successfully implement the CCSS. As the lead learner, the principal must work to build a collaborative learning community. Only then will we release the potential of CCSS to guide a transformation of learning and unleash the potential of all students, regardless of zip code or circumstances.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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