By Tim Walker
An enormous effort to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is underway in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. Districts are training staff, field-testing assessments, and evaluating technology requirements. Teachers are rewriting curriculum and instruction to prepare students for more rigorous coursework. Some states are further ahead than others. And as the 2014 – 2015 implementation deadline draws near, it’s likely that the road has been—and will continue to be—a bit rocky. But schools are forging ahead with the initiative—even as it faces opponents who are determined to mislabel the effort as everything from “Obamacore” to a “national curriculum.” The Common Core is a set of voluntary K–12 standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. The White House did not create the initiative, nor is it leading it. The standards were developed by governors and state school officials, with input from a wide range of educators, content experts, national organizations (including NEA), and community groups.
The challenges surrounding implementation, however, are formidable. Teachers are concerned about adapting their classrooms to the rigorous new standards and receiving the proper training. Many are also wondering about the role of new assessments. But they also recognize the enormous opportunity that lies ahead.
“Educators desperately want to reclaim the joy in teaching—which means creative lesson plans, meaningful exploration of topics, and inspiring the joy of real learning in our students,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Common Core could help achieve that if the implementation is done correctly.”
To reach that goal, all stakeholders must work together and take a leadership role in educating each other and the general public about the Common Core. It’s a complex subject. The following facts are intended to clarify key points, allay concerns about what the Common Core isn’t, and—most importantly—highlight how the standards can be the game-changer students need.
Are many teachers anxious about the Common Core? Absolutely. Are some die-hard critics? No doubt. But there is no massive groundswell of opposition to the Common Core among NEA members. An NEA poll conducted in July by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that 75 percent of its members—teachers and education support professionals —supported the standards outright or supported “with reservations.” Whether it’s tighter content focus or opportunities for deeper critical thinking, the majority of teachers see the new standards as something to get excited about. Another poll released by the American Federation of Teachers revealed similar levels of enthusiasm, again indicating some educator anxiety, but confirming that AFT member support of the Common Core is strong.
The standards don’t dictate how teachers should teach. Quite the opposite. Teachers who support the Common Core—like Colorado educator Jessica Keigan—understand that teachers and their schools will determine how to help students meet the standards. “I understand the anxiety that many teachers may have,” Keigan says. “What I remind myself of is that teachers are making the standards work in the classroom. We’re taking the lead.” For Sue Yokum of Pennsylvania, the creativity the standards allow will make her final year of teaching a memorable one. “The Common Core gives me guidance, but it does not tell me what materials to use. That’s up to me,” explains Yokum. “It allows me to do something different this year and next year so that when I go out at 40 years, it’ll be the best year I ever taught.”
Students from economically disadvantaged communities are often consigned to larger classes where they face an undemanding curriculum and outdated resources. As a result, too many students graduate without the basic knowledge and skills they need to successfully complete college or enter the workforce. Properly implemented, CCSS will ensure that all students— no matter where they live—will graduate prepared for college, careers, and citizenship. “The standards make things equal for all children in the U.S.,” says Colorado teacher Cheryl Mosier. “We’re not going to have pockets of high-performing students in one area compared to another area. Everybody will have a very high bar to meet, but it’s a bar that can be met—with supports [in place] for all teachers.”
In addition, alternative assessments are being designed to measure the growth of every student population. The World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, for example, is a collaborative that advances the needs of English language learners. They have ensured that the new standards support and do not replace existing English language proficiency standards. Implementation of the standards should also address the needs of students with disabilities. The current plans for implementation should not in any way diminish access to the range of supports that students might need in order to learn.
Critics charge that the standards crowd out high-quality fiction, poetry, theater, and other imaginative texts in favor of nonfiction, “informational texts” believed to be an essential canon in the “college ready” arsenal. The standards explicitly say, however, that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught. While the standards do require increasing amounts of nonfiction, this provision refers to reading across all subjects, not just English.
For Arkansas English/language arts teacher Kathy Powers, it’s not about fiction vs. non-fiction reading. It’s about integrating them with other disciplines, like English and social studies, or literacy, math, and science. “The CCSS will change my classroom teaching practice because I’ll infuse more of my instruction of non-fiction texts with fiction so the students get more of a content knowledge background,” Powers explains. “I work with our social studies teachers to bring in more of their content and vice versa.” The CCSS are designed to support cross-curricular learning and social studies, history, science, and PE teachers can and should be part of the effort. Many teachers already plan across subject matter, but the standards present a great opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in different classrooms. This will be a welcome change for many teachers—especially those who are new to the profession—who long to break out of classroom silos.
The next generation of assessments will provide better and more usable feedback for teachers, students, and parents. Most states that have adopted the CCSS belong to one of two assessment consortia, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) or the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). No one expects the transition to be easy, says Jim Meadows of the Washington Education Association. “It’ll take some time for the system to realign to support student learning tied to the Common Core. The standards are more rigorous but they’re also more focused. So the assessments are going to be different and there are going to be growing pains. When the initial assessment results come out, they may be lower,” explains Meadows.
Teachers overwhelmingly support an implementation schedule that will enable them to get up to speed before these new assessments are used to evaluate performance. NEA has long called for an end to high-stakes testing consequences, particularly during the Common Core transition period. In 2013, NEA, AFT, and 12 national education groups called for a moratorium of at least one year on high-stakes decisions based on new assessments aligned to the new standards. Over the next year, NEA and its affiliates will make it a top priority to work with policymakers across the country to improve the assessment process.
Critical investments must be made to ensure educators have the time and resources to collaborate and make adjustments to classroom instruction. This includes more effective and sustained professional development—not just one-stop shop workshops and training videos, but the time and structure to collaborate with colleagues. Additional resources must be allocated to bring schools’ technology up to speed. Sound and effective policies will reinforce the standards, and teachers, education support professionals, and parents must work together to ensure the best possible implementation occurs so students can reap the benefits of that collaboration.
As states begin implementation, teachers are advocating for the things that lead to success: resources, professional development, and time for collaboration. Teacher leaders are essential to the successful implementation of the Common Core. For this reason, President Van Roekel appointed 56 educators to an NEA Common Core Working Group last fall. The move is part of a nationwide effort to prepare educators to implement the standards. The group will ensure that teacher voice is prominent throughout Common Core implementation; facilitate communication about the standards; and assist in the development of engaging and relevant resources.
“This is an opportunity for teachers to discuss what isn’t working,” explains Kathy Powers. “We can use our voices collectively to critique areas of the Common Core that may need a little polishing.”
Parents have always played a huge role in helping students learn, and the success or failure of Common Core implementation depends largely on collaboration between educators and parents. But results of a recent Gallup poll indicate only half of public school parents had even heard of the standards. Parents and community leaders should increase their knowledge of the standards and work together to ensure fair and successful implementation. Educators should reach out to parents and pressure lawmakers to provide the resources and to make implementation easier for teachers and students.
A wealth of online tools and resources are available to broaden educators’ knowledge about Common Core content and the new assessments and provide sample lessons and links to individual state resources. NEA has released a Common Core toolkit designed to help educators prepare for implementation. The toolkit provides general background about the CCSS, separates truth from fiction about the standards, and offers hands-on practical assistance to help educators prepare for implementation. Users can download editable materials and presentations in small chunks that may be used in a variety of settings. Video resources suitable for use by individuals and teams are also available.