Common Core: An Educator’s Perspective
If the state of North Carolina decides to pull the plug on the Common Core State Standards, it will be a slap in the face to the teachers and administrators who have spent countless hours (most on their own time without reimbursement) preparing to implement the Common Core State Standards to maximize learning for 1.5 million students.
On June 2, 2010, the North Carolina State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which were implemented during the 2012–13 school year. The CCSS represent K–12 learning expectations in English language arts and mathematics. They reflect the knowledge and skills students need to be college and career ready by the end of high school. Over the past few months, elected officials across the United States are beginning to question the CCSS. On June 4, 2013, North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest posted a YouTube video outlining his concerns.
While standing in the car rider line at an elementary school, I was approached by a classroom teacher. She asked, "Are we going to align our curriculum, instruction, and assessments to the Common Core State Standards next year?" I replied, "yes." Then I said, "The Common Core is not going away." The teacher replied, "The Lieutenant Governor is discussing eliminating the Common Core." I replied, "Which Lieutenant Governor?" The teacher said, "The North Carolina Lieutenant Governor, Dan Forest."
Prior to becoming an elementary principal, I was the director of secondary instruction for Orange County Schools in North Carolina. Our school district held a Common Core Summer Institute for teachers and administrators during the summer of 2011 and summer of 2012. At the summer institutes, teacher teams planned a one-year professional development plan for their schools. Hosting the summer institutes cost the school district thousands of dollars. The North Carolina General Assembly did not provide funding for implementing the Common Core State Standards. Throughout the past two school years, I have attended professional development led by teacher leaders. The average professional development requires teacher leaders (appointed or self-nominated) to spend approximately 10–20 hours planning quality professional development and developing resources that support the implementation of the new standards.
In addition to working with classroom teachers to build awareness around the new standards, I have observed teacher leaders writing curriculum aligned to the new standards. Curriculum development has taken place through building-level meetings, district meetings, and regional meetings. On several occasions, five school districts in the Triangle met to support each other through the pre-implementation and implementation process. Triangle High Five is a regional partnership between Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Durham Public Schools, Johnston County Schools, Orange County Schools, and Wake County Public School System. Teachers and administrators from these school districts shared curriculum maps, worked with high school math teachers to align curriculum to the Common Core State Standards, offered professional development, and worked with the North Carolina School of Math and Science to offer free professional development for mathematics teachers. In 2011 and 2012, SAS hosted a summer mathematics summit to support math teachers in implementing the Common Core State Standards for mathematics. SAS has invested in the five school districts for several years. Recently, SAS provided thousands of dollars to support the transition from the North Carolina Essential Standards to the Common Core standards. It is expensive to provide professional development to more than 400 educators from five school districts.
In 2010, the North Carolina State Board of Education did not ask North Carolina educators if we should adopt the CCSS. Once the State Board of Education adopted the standards, superintendents and district leaders were told to implement the standards. Was the implementation process rushed? Yes. In 2010 and 2011, educators were anxious about the changes. To date, it is still difficult to find resources aligned to the CCSS. I know 20-year veterans who stay up until midnight or later on school nights searching for resources. Part of the reason resources are scarce is because the SBAC and PARCC assessments have not been finalized. Most vendors are still offering a blended version of old state standards and the new Common Core standards. This is especially true in mathematics.
When educators are told that a school board policy, state board policy, or general statute requires them to change, they begin collaborating and discussing how to make the change(s) student-friendly. In Orange County Schools, we were able to pay teacher leaders a small stipend for leading curriculum development efforts. The district used Race to the Top funds to pay teacher leaders who led curriculum development, facilitated professional development, posted curriculum maps online, and attended state conferences.
The Lieutenant Governor was recently elected, but North Carolina teachers have been preparing for the implementation of the new standards since 2010. Standards-based teaching has been common practice since the 1990s. Some states provided voluntary standards for educators prior to 1990. Today's students are competing with students around the globe for college admission and career opportunities. It no longer makes sense to have a Minnesota 3rd grade math standard and a Mississippi 3rd grade math standard. Students deserve to have the same standard across the United States. A common standard does not mean a "watered-down" standard. Standards are not a curriculum.
This past year, I observed teachers differentiating instruction. Some students were two grades below grade level. They did not have the same assignment as the students who were at grade level or above. When teachers have a standard, they know the goal. Teachers provide students with multiple lessons, tasks, and opportunities to demonstrate what every student should know and be able to do. Implementing the Common Core State Standards does not mean that every student will receive a perfect score at the end of the day. Teachers across North Carolina have embraced the standards and are operating with their grade-level team, school team, district team, and regional teams to align curriculum with the CCSS. Standards are the "what" and curriculum is the "how." The "how" may look different in each classroom, but the standards are the same.
Seven Reasons Why States Should Embrace The Common Core State Standards
College and Career Readiness
Over the past year, I have seen teachers in North Carolina make the shift from college or career readiness to college AND career readiness. The U.S. public school system was designed to sort and select students. Some students were considered "college material" and the majority of students were workforce material. I believe that teachers in North Carolina raised the bar and raised their expectations for all students. ACT defines college and career readiness as "the acquisition of the knowledge and skills a student needs to enroll and succeed in creditbearing, first-year courses at a postsecondary institution (such as a two- or four-year college, trade school, or technical school) without the need for remediation." Based on my years of experience in the field of education, this is a major shift from the old mind-set. This major change in philosophy and teaching is another indicator or the importance of the Common Core State Standards. The standards have forced a new conversation about the goals of education.
Common Standards Enable Teachers to Collaborate Across the United States
Standards-based education requires teachers to align their curriculum, instruction, and assessments with the standards. For more than a decade, teachers have disagreed with the standards. In North Carolina, teachers are required by general statute to teach the standards. A professional educator can respectfully disagree, but the law requires educators to teach the standards. Since the CCSS had some different approaches and aligned and moved standards to new grade levels, it forced teachers to collaborate and design new units of study.
In Orange County Schools, I have observed professional conversations around the standards. I have seen teachers sharing resources across schools. I have seen teachers reaching out to educators in other states to discuss the standards. Regional and state meetings have been more exciting than ever because everyone is learning the new standards. If one school district has a strong unit or curriculum resource, then they will share it with our school district. I have participated in dozens of Twitter chats with educators who are implementing the CCSS. ASCD has hosted a regular webinar series that offers educators the opportunity to learn and reflect on the standards. Before the Common Core standards, educators discussed their project or their program. The new standards have raised the bar in professional conversations. Educators have shifted from discussing the activity to sharing how the activity aligned to the standard.
Teacher Leaders Have Developed Curriculum Aligned to the Common Core State Standards
In North Carolina, teachers were required to implement the Common Core State Standards in 2012–13. Teachers met on a regular basis to write, align, and implement units aligned to the new standards. Once curriculum was developed, they also created common formative assessments aligned to the standards. Alan Glatthorn wrote, "One of the tasks of curriculum leadership is to use the right methods to bring the written, the taught, the supported, and the tested curricula into closer alignment, so that the learned curriculum is maximized." This statement summarizes the work that takes place in classrooms, on early release days, on the weekend, and during the summer months.
Teachers know how to align the curriculum, instruction, and assessments to standards. It takes time. If the state of North Carolina decides to pull the plug on the Common Core State Standards, it will be a slap in the face to the teachers and administrators who have spent countless hours (most on their own time without reimbursement) preparing to implement the Common Core State Standards to maximize learning for 1.5 million students.
Professional Development Has Been Aligned to the Common Core State Standards
Some school districts have spent thousands of dollars hiring consultants to provide professional development. Regional education organizations have paid $50,000–$100,000 to host professional development with national consultants. Educators have participated in book studies, discussion forums, district professional development, NCDPI webinars and state conferences, and more. In 2012–13, Orange County Schools and several other North Carolina school districts devoted the time to curriculum development or ongoing professional development aligned to the new standards. The price tag would be in the hundreds of millions if you totaled the number of hours the staff members were paid for professional development. It should be noted that they did not receive a bonus check. The money was part of their contract.
Taxpayers have invested in professional development aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Did North Carolina provide much assistance to educators prior to the 2012–13 school year? No. School districts were required to use their own funds, contract with their own teachers, and develop their own resources. This was expensive. You could say that implementing the Common Core State Standards was done on the backs of the professional educators in North Carolina. I have not met many educators who disagree with the Common Core State Standards. This is another reason why I feel that politicians should let educators implement the standards. If elected officials want to provide the appropriate funding for implementing the Common Core State Standards, then that would be a step in the right direction.
Curriculum Alignment Is Easier with the New Standards
It is difficult to describe curriculum alignment to noneducators. "When school staff have a more informed conception of curriculum, a teacher's daily decisions about how to deliver instruction not only affect student achievement in that classroom but also future student achievement, for it is assumed that students will be entering the next classroom prepared to handle a more sophisticated or more expansive level of work" (Zmuda, Kuklis, & Kline, 2004).
Aligning the curriculum is an ongoing process which requires time, reflection, honesty, conflict, and a professional commitment to share what works in each classroom with specific students. The new standards provide a clear road map for educators. They do not outline every detail of what a teacher needs to do each day. Standards are a guide, not a script. If educators are beginning to align their curriculum, then policymakers should find ways to support their efforts. Curriculum alignment drives the work of a school district. When I see teachers analyzing student work and comparing it to a standard, I see excellent teaching.
I entered the teaching profession in the early days of the standards movement. I have never seen teachers sharing their craft knowledge and having ongoing conversations about the standards like I saw in 2012–13. Standards provide a common point of conversation, not a floor or a ceiling. The way the Common Core State Standards are written, a teacher can accelerate gifted students. This is missing from the national debate. Before we vote to eliminate the standards, let's visit schools and ask teachers to come to the State Board of Education. Let's find out what is working and how the standards are supporting teaching and learning. Let's avoid the political rhetoric and ask the teacher leaders who bore the burden of implementing the standards because the State Board of Education voted to adopt the standards.
The Change Process Requires Time
Schools will continue to implement the Common Core State Standards in the summer and fall of 2013. Leading implementation requires a principal leader who is willing to create short-term wins for the staff, provide time for the staff to reflect on the standards and to encourage risk-taking. Implementation of the new standards requires principal leaders to honor the change process and to respect the emotions that staff will have during this change in teaching and learning. If states eliminate the Common Core State Standards, then which standards will replace them? If we fall back to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, then we are adopting an inferior set of standards. They were the best that the state could develop. That was then and this is now.
The Common Core State Standards were not embraced immediately. However, after one year of developing lesson plans, units of study, and assessments, educators have given their seal of approval. The change process was emotional and it caused all teachers to reflect on teaching and learning. To paraphrase Robert Marazano, if state officials continue to change the standards, it will be impossible for educators to develop a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Eliminating the Common Core State Standards from public schools may win a political battle at the state or federal level. However, it is not in the best interests of teachers and students. Ask teachers in North Carolina if they think the standards should change. The standards should not be a stepping stone for someone's political career.
These Standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step. It is time for states to work together to build on lessons learned from two decades of standards based reforms. It is time to recognize that standards are not just promises to our children, but promises we intend to keep.
—Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, Introduction
Student Achievement Matters
The reason that educators get out of bed and go to work each day is because student achievement matters. The new standards support the goal of college and career readiness. Teachers recognize that the new standards require more rigor than previous state standards. One of the most compelling arguments for the Common Core State Standards was standardization. When a 12-year-old girl moves from Hope, Arkansas, to Lexington, North Carolina, she should be on the same page with her classmates. Students are moving across the United States on a regular basis. Prior to the Common Core State Standards, families worried that they were moving to a state with higher or lower standards. Standardization does not mean that every student learns the same thing in the same way. Technology integration, project-based learning, and other best practices allow teachers to meet the needs of each student, while aligning assignments to the standards. When students master a standard, the Common Core State Standards allow teachers to move to the next grade level. When students transfer to a new school, they need to know that the things they learned will provide them a foundation for learning at the new school. Changing standards after year one of implementation does not respect the main goal of education: student achievement.
The Common Core State Standards are the right direction for U.S. public schools. It amazes me that one or more politicians can advocate for changing standards. I do not try to change medical practice, standards for the Interstate Highway System, building codes, or taxes. The reason that I do not attempt to get involved with these things is because I am a professional educator. A simple Google search can provide a glimpse at the groups who are rallying to eliminate the Common Core State Standards. I would appreciate it if politicians would consult with professional educators and ask them if the Common Core State Standards support teaching and learning. The standards have transformed teaching and learning. Teachers and administrators have embraced the standards and have spent the summer months aligning their curriculum and units to the standards. Hundreds of teachers in any given state will meet on Saturday morning for an online Twitter chat, meet at a restaurant to share learning goals, or attend a summer institute. Teachers may not like change, but they support change when it is in the best interests of students. The Common Core State Standards seem to be one thing that is right in education.
Steven Weber is a former classroom teacher, assistant principal, and department of education consultant in Arkansas and North Carolina, and is currently the principal of Hillsborough (N.C.) Elementary School. He is a former board member of North Carolina ASCD and a featured guest on the Whole Child Podcast. Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.