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Common Core: What Lies Between Standards and Tests?

What lies between the common-core standards and the year-end tests that are supposed to measure whether students have mastered them? A whole lot. There's curriculum, in all of its varied forms: frameworks, scope-and-sequence guides, model units, lesson plans, and more. Then there's instructional materials. Professional development. Formative and interim assessments to gauge learning periodically.

The turf between standards and summative tests is vast, but it sometimes seems that 90 percent of what gets discussed—and argued about—are those bookends. That's why I'm particularly interested when people focus some attention on the in-between pieces that make up a comprehensive undertaking.

In that vein, a new report from the Bridgespan Group examines three slices of the world of putting the common core into practice: one from the view of a state, another from a district's perspective, and a third capturing the experiences of a technical-assistance provider.

The short study, co-authored by Amy Coe Rodde and Lija McHugh, is composed of three short case studies. One looks at Kentucky, the first state to adopt the common core, and one of the most aggressive and thorough-going in putting it into practice. It's an interesting story to read, since the state uses a constellation of local professional-development networks to spread knowledge of and experience with the standards, something I'm guessing relatively few states have done.

(You can read more about the work in Kentucky in a story I wrote last year after spending some time watching two districts there put the English/language arts standards into practice.)

Another of the case studies traces the work of the Hillsborough County, Fla., school district, another leader in common-core implementation. The third follows the Center for Inspired Teaching, a nonprofit that's working with the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., schools as they try to infuse classrooms with common-core teaching.

The three stories in the report share a few themes, and they have to do with accomplishing change by collaborating with and supporting teachers, rather than dictating to them.

There is also a theme that goes to the heart of what bugs a lot of people about common core: the extent to which common standards allow—or narrow—variation of instructional approach. This report suggests that there is a lot of room for teachers to come up with their own ideas of what good common-core instruction looks like. Skeptics, of course, will disagree, arguing that common assessments narrow what's possible. And I'm sure that debate isn't anywhere close to dying off yet. But in the meantime, the experiences and perspectives of folks trying to figure it out—with actual day-to-day work, rather than just rhetorical argument—could be worth a read.

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