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COMMON CORE IN THE DISTRICTS: New Fordham Report Examines Implementation of Common Core State Standards in Four “Early Implementer” School Systems

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"We’re still in spring training, a time when focusing on the fundamentals, teamwork, and steady improvement is more important than the score. But districts ought not dawdle; they are just a year away from the big game.”

Pointing to recent surveys of state education officials and teachers, including one of its own, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute says that implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—adopted by forty-six states and the District of Columbia—has been “bumpy.” However, lacking in these surveys, the report argues, is an in-depth examination of “real educators in real districts” on how implementation is progressing in individual school districts.

To fill this void, the report, Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers, takes an up-close look at district-, school-, and classroom-level implementation in four early-implementer school systems—Kenton County (KY), Nashville (TN), Illinois’s School District 54, and Washoe County (NV). Based on the lessons from these early implementers, the report argues that school districts must take “forceful action” on a “number of fronts” to effectively transition to the CCSS.

“These four districts differ in many important ways, but what they share are thoughtful and encouraging approaches to Common Core implementation, bridging the sizable distance from state policy to actual classroom practice,” the report notes. “In each, smart accountability practices and targeted professional development have increased teacher ownership of standards implementation and helped educators to align their instruction and curricular materials with the Common Core.”

The report identifies three “widespread deficiencies” that are hindering CCSS implementation nationwide: (1) ill-aligned curricular materials; (2) state and district assessments that do not adequately measure the standards; and (3) ineffective professional development for teachers and other key players. It adds that pressure from both political parties is making states question whether to move forward with CCSS implementation and remain in the multi-state consortia that are developing assessments aligned with the standards.

The report identifies five key areas to smooth implementation of any standards-based reform:

  1. Communication: Teachers and principals are the primary faces and voices of the CCSS in their communities.
  2. Leadership: Implementation gains traction when district and school leaders lock onto the CCSS as the linchpin of instruction, professional learning, and accountability in their buildings.
  3. Curricular materials: In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality CCSS materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own.
  4. Professional development: The scramble to deliver quality CCSS-aligned professional development to all who need it is both as crucial and (so far) as patchy as the quest for suitable instructional materials.
  5. Assessment and accountability: The lack of aligned assessments will make effective implementation of the CCSS difficult for another year.

Acknowledging that each of the four districts still has “miles to travel before all of their pupils come close to mastering the new standards,” the report says it is “encouraged” by the districts, which are “looking hard at their existing practices, policies, and structures to ensure that they’re delivering the right content and measuring the right targets to support the Common Core authentically.”

Based on observations from the four districts, Common Core in the Districts offers four recommendations for the field:

  1. Districts should avoid the political tug-of-war over the CCSS, and focus on the hard work of helping parents understand the substance of the standards and what schools are doing to help students meet them.
  2. Bold action requires effective, knowledgeable leadership and focus at multiple levels.
  3. Districts need to provide teachers with well-aligned curricular materials; this requires a lot of time, effort, and new material.
  4. The content of districts’ professional development must focus on teacher understanding and application of the standards. Professional development structures must also support this focus.

“Right now, districts are in the near-impossible situation of operationalizing new standards before high-quality curriculum and tests aligned to them are finished,” write Fordham’s Executive Vice President Michael J. Petrilli and Vice President for Research Amber M. Northern in the report’s foreword. “Until we have those in place, implementation will remain confused and patchy. Yet time is passing and the new tests and truly aligned textbooks are coming. Think of it this way: we’re still in spring training, a time when focusing on the fundamentals, teamwork, and steady improvement is more important than the score. But districts ought not dawdle; they are just a year away from the big game.”

The full report is available at www.edexcellence.net/publications/common-core-in-the-districts.

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