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Commentary: Creating conditions for Common Core

Teacher Mark Sass says teachers can implement Common Core Standards successfully if they and district administrators create the right conditions.

Teachers will need to behave like students if the Common Core Standards are going to have any impact on student achievement.

Teachers will be able to seamlessly incorporate the common core standards into their everyday practice if districts give teachers: 1) differentiated time, 2) plenty of feedback, 3) and the opportunity to struggle with the new standards.

These three requirements are the same teachers use with their students. And just like students, or other professionals confronted with technical changes in their fields, teachers need to be afforded time and resources to build new capacities.

Differentiation, feedback and struggling are the hallmarks of learning. This is true for all beginning and experienced learners, including teachers. And yet time and time again educational institutions fail to provide these learning opportunities for teachers. For example, there’s the teacher sitting in a seminar on the importance of differentiation while the presenter assumes all teachers are at the same place when it comes to their understanding of differentiation.

Traditionally, professional development has been treated as a one-day lecture with no check for understanding, opportunities for practice, or feedback. Teachers call this approach to professional development a “drive by.” What we need is more of what Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, calls “purposeful practice.”

For implementation of the Common Core this means we cannot just drop the new standards at the door steps of a teacher’s classroom and assume it’s all good to go. Gene Wilhoit, one of the strongest advocates of Common Core and the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups that spearheaded the development of the Common Core said: “The vast majority of teachers don’t have the skill set” needed to teach to the new expectations. They need support to improve both their pedagogical skills and their content knowledge.” How do we go about supporting teachers as they implement the new standards?

It comes down to time. Time for teachers to collaboratively make the standards coherent – to decipher the myriad levels of standards. (I’ve written before about the Byzantine nature of the new standards.) This is what we ask of students when they are confronted with new information, or new vocabulary—put the information into their own language, make it their own. For teachers, this will require districts to provide ample learning time. (A recent study showed that, on average, teachers spend 3 percent of their time collaborating – nowhere near enough time!)

Let me be clear that teachers will never be done “working” with the new standards. Teachers will need to continuously practice and monitor their work with the new standards. They cannot assume that this will be the last time society’s expectations for students will change. What educators need to do is build in a systematic approach to their work that seeks and seamlessly incorporates change, including new standards.

The next step is to write assessments that will evaluate students’ understanding of the new standards. This cannot be done in isolation. Nor will the assessments be perfect immediately. The point is to give assessments and then collaboratively benchmark the student work. Benchmarking, where teachers identify student work that correlates to proficiency, gives teachers the opportunity hone their understanding of what the standards are asking of students. The lack of consistency in identifying proficiency can bring the entire Common Core approach to a grinding halt.

Implementation of the Core will not be perfect at the start. The learning will occur in day-to-day practice, just as it does for students in my classroom. We also need to, in the words of Michael Fullan, honor the implementation dip.

Fullan, who has written numerous books on transformation in education, challenges the myth of change: “Those who introduce the change (usually far removed from the implementation scene) assume that there will be immediate gains. It can’t be thus—by definition.” Fullan goes on to warn that “the costs to the implementer are immediate and concrete, while the benefits are distant and theoretical.” In other words, we need to give teachers time to make the new standards work.

But what can and should we expect of teachers in the implementation process?

The same that we expect of our students—a commitment to consistency and fidelity to the application of new knowledge. A willingness to take risks and learn from mistakes. And an understanding that teachers as leaders need to help colleagues get through the hard work.

Implementation of the Common Core gives educators the opportunity to model what we expect of our students. If done well I believe the Common Core can have a positive impact on student achievement.

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