The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are causing many schools to massively restructure curriculum. Every school that has adopted the CCSS is feeling the stress of change. As I work with teachers and administrators, I am often asked for advice about how to support this shift. My next few blog entries will be advice to various education stake-holders as they support children’s learning during this time of transition.
Today’s blog is directed to school leaders—principals, assistant principals, curriculum directors, and resource teachers—who want to be helpful during this time of transition. However, I hope anyone interested in the way we teach our children will find value in the post.
1. Find TIME for teachers’ professional development. What teachers need right now is time to think, plan, and collaborate. Professional development should not be the next big idea, new method, or new program right now. Don’t fall for quick-fix/quick-adoption snake oil programs. They won’t work. What teachers really need is just time to think, reflect on what works, figure out what’s needed, and plan for new curricula.
Most teachers don’t need to completely change their instruction. Instead, they need to think about how the CCSS relates to what they already do well and what methods and resources they need to meet these new standards. They need time to read the CCSS document, review the guides provided by your district and/or state, and gather resources. They need time to talk with each other, ask questions, and get help.
2. Get the right PD facilitator. This is someone who can assist teachers in reflective practice and planning. This person can help teachers create a “back-ward map” between the CCSS to instructional units that make sense. You may have someone in your district who can facilitate this kind of thinking and interaction. If not, then you might have a nearby university. Reach out and ask if they have a faculty member who specializes in teacher development. Alternatively, someone trained by the National School Reform Faculty organization (http://www.nsrfharmony.org/) can also help teachers reflect and plan.
3. Develop teacher leaders. Look to your own school’s teachers for leadership in this transition. You’ll find your job is much easier when there are more leaders forging the way to CCSS implementation, not fewer. Teachers will lead when you give them room to lead.
Find exceptional teachers (every school has them!) and ask them to guide groups to develop a transition plan. The groups can tell administration what they plan to do as they move toward new standards, which content areas and topics they want to address first, their timeline for “getting there,” and resources that they’ll need. Give these teacher leaders time and incentives. Reward them for their extra effort.
Your job here is to lead from behind—offering support, but not dictating. Listen. Listen more.
4. Know what’s coming down the road. Look at the new assessments as they’re being developed (see http://www.parcconline.org/samples/item-task-prototypes and http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/TaskItemSpecifications/ItemSpecifications/GeneralItemSpecifications.pdf ). The PARCC and SMARTER Balanced assessments seem to be drawing upon cognitive research on learning. So there will be more items that require kids to tell about their thinking, explain their reasoning, and analyze problems in addition to solving them. Compared to previous state-level assessments, these new assessments will feel more open-ended (which is good!), but more unwieldy (which is bad!). (I think it’s a move in the right direction for assessment, but I crave the day when we can rely more on embedded, (in)formative, authentic assessments! My $.02)
Find item examples and give them to your teacher leaders. They’ll be able to tell how the tasks reflected in the items are consistent with the more authentic tasks they use in everyday instruction and assessment. They will want to make this connection but they won’t want to focus too much on “the test”—and they’re smart for thinking that way. Now is not the time to emphasize test prep—the CCSS are about deep learning. Use what the teachers tell you as you communicate with families and your district about how your school is preparing kids to be successful on the mandated assessments.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. We’ve all heard that the scores will likely drop for most states once the PARCC and SMARTER Balanced assessments are in place. This is just one message that needs to come early and often. That message will prepare families and community members to expect that successful adoption of the CCSS, like most challenging and worthwhile efforts, will be a long-term endeavor.
Other topics you should discuss are: (a) what the CCSS are (a good site w/ video: http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol8/805-video.aspx ); (b) why you think the CCSS are worthwhile and what the limits are; (c) how are you supporting teachers and students during CCSS adoption; (d) how can families help their children learn (focus on specific ideas like how kids can explain their thinking more and how to increase in non-fiction text reading at home); (e) how you are getting resources to your school to assist with implementation (and perhaps what the community can do to help).
Now is NOT the time to be silent. Now is a time to lead! Communication is interactive. Invite input. Invite participation.
6. Provide resources! Ask teachers what they need. Do they need non-fiction texts? Community experts for specific topics? Ways to teach academic language and vocabulary? Technology tools? Sometimes time is the most needed resource.
Resources may require some fund-raising. Seek district funds and federal funds (ESEA Title II funds are a good resource here). Ask your PTA and/or business community for help with specific requests. If those funds aren’t available, consider getting grants. Consider Donor’s Choose and using social media to ask for donations.
7. Know the limits of CCSS. When the states gathered together to create the CCSS, they garnered support by saying that a uniform set of national standards would be based on international benchmarks, thus making the US more globally competitive. They said that the CCSS would help create more stability for families who move from one state to another. They said that the CCSS would allow for deeper learning. They said that uniform standards would eliminate “gaps” in opportunities to learn that inequitable state standards had created. While these justifications for the CCSS were helpful, they’re not proven.
The CCSS offers a new list of what needs to be taught and learned, but Standards alone do not ensure learning. So be sure to offer guidance about how the Standards can be leveraged to help learning, but don’t over-promise and under-deliver.
Some of the critics of the CCSS have pointed out limitations of the Standards (these are the ones closest to my heart…there are more):
a. Developmental progression of the standards is a “best-guess” alignment but not research-based. You’ve been working with kids long enough to know that they do not progress at lock-step rates. Learning doesn’t happen in the same way that the CCSS lay out. Learning happens in fits and starts. Remind your teachers that they teach STUDENTS, not STANDARDS. Standards are simply goals. Students should always come first! Allow for variation and individualized instruction as much as possible.
b. Increasing text complexity does not ensure reading development. While the CCSS suggest that text complexity should increase at each grade level, no research proves that readers do better when they follow a step-ladder of texts from less to more complex. Kids may or may not be ready for certain texts. Having kids stumble through texts that are entirely too hard is not helpful and can be hurtful. They may need more support for some texts and less for others. Teachers need to be able to use text complexity as just one factor in matching texts to students (other factors might include students’ interests, genres of study, and instructional goals).
In addition, some researchers question the Lexile analyzer used by the CCSS to indicate text complexity. They suggest that the Lexile system leaves out important text elements like text length, text structures (like headings, sections, etc.), and genre. Elements such as these can indeed make texts more and less difficult for readers. So allow for flexible interpretation of Lexiles.
c. No nation has ever improved learning and erased achievement “gaps” by creating national standards. The CCSS are not a panacea. They’re a framework. The “gaps” we see among rich and poor, ethnic groups, and language groups are influenced by so much more than Standards. The CCSS require enabling conditions to be successful in improving educational opportunities. Please consider your role in addressing our nation’s education “gap” as one that is more comprehensive than simply implementing new Standards.
8. Ask for help. This is a big deal. Don’t mess it up. The CCSS will change US education. Your job is to ensure that the change is for the better. Seek help from district colleagues, partner with universities, seek mentoring groups and professional organizationsto support your own professional learning.