Three ways states can support instruction and common core implementation

No matter where you live, chances are it’s a Common Core state. In
total, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common
Core and are developing plans to implement those standards over the next
several years. While much of the work around implementation is taking
place behind the closed doors of state education departments, the state
Race to the Top applications and the more recent ESEA waivers provide a
window into where states are prioritizing their time and focusing their
resources. Not surprisingly, all states have some kind of plan to align
curriculum, assessment, and professional development around these new
standards. But it’s far from certain whether most states will get it
right.

Below are three ways states can ensure that these newly adopted standards translate to clear student achievement outcomes:

1. Clearly define the student
learning outcomes to which all students will be held accountable once
the CCSS-aligned assessments come down the pike.

Perhaps the most important thing that a state department of education can do for classroom teachers is to clearly
define the student learning outcomes to which students will be held.
The Common Core Standards for ELA and math get us partway there, but
they, like all standards, don’t go far enough. For instance, the
following are three standards from sixth, seventh, and eighth grade,
respectively.

RL.6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RL.7.1. Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of
what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RL.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an
analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn
from the text.

How will students demonstrate mastery of these standards? What kind
of analysis will students be expected to do in sixth grade and how will
that differ from the analysis they are asked to do in eighth? These are
important questions that will help teachers shape instruction and that
states can and should help teachers answer as they work to align their
curricular and instructional resources to the Common Core. Of course,
the assessment consortia are doing some of this work, but their
assessments won’t come online for several years. And states, schools and
districts are already starting to rewrite curriculum and formative
assessments. If they wait too long, they will have already invested
heavily on the curriculum side without ensuring that those curriculum
efforts are aligned to learning outcomes and assessments.

Unfortunately, of the 11 recently submitted ESEA waivers, it appears
that only two states—New Jersey and Kentucky—have plans to deliberately
link curriculum and professional development efforts with efforts to
define student learning outcomes. New Jersey plans to create model units
that are linked to clearly defined learning outcomes, end-of-unit
assessments, and formative assessment tools. While states don’t need to
go as far as creating a complete model curriculum for each core content
area at each grade level, the Garden State’s focus on directly linking
their curriculum development efforts with a clear plan for defining
student learning outcomes makes it a real leader in this area that other
states should be looking to for inspiration.

Kentucky is taking a slightly different, though similarly
assessment-focused path. The Bluegrass State plans to use the ACT’s
assessment program and its related PLAN, EXPLORE, and ACT assessments to
assess student mastery of college- and career-readiness standards.
(This is interesting because Kentucky is still a participating state of
both assessment consortia, but seems to be developing plans to go it
alone on the assessment side, at least in the interim.)

Of course, other states have indicated that they will make
adjustments to their assessment programs. Some are planning to shift
assessment blueprints beginning as early as this year to better reflect
CCSS priorities. Others are planning to pilot “PARCC-like” assessment
items. While these are all worthy activities, they feel more like
afterthoughts than deliberate attempts to align curriculum and
instruction to clear student learning outcomes.

2. Align professional development priorities with gaps in teacher knowledge and skills

Professional development is not a blunt
instrument, but rather a precision tool that should be used to meet
teachers where they are and to address specific gaps in knowledge and
skills. State departments of education should develop plans to work with
school and district leaders to figure out the kinds of targeted
professional development that teachers need to drive rigorous,
standards-aligned instruction.

Unfortunately, state implementation plans seem more focused on
information dissemination—particularly on helping teachers understand
the specific differences between the CCSS and their state standards—than
on diagnosing where standards implementation has gone wrong in the
past, what changes need to be made to right those wrongs, and how they
can best support teachers moving forward. For example, Tennessee is
working with Achieve to compare the CCSS to its existing state standards
and will focus professional development activities on educating
teachers on the differences between existing state standards and the
CCSS. The state plans to “focus PD on the areas that will lead to the
greatest shifts in instruction, particularly the 3-6 ‘biggest shifts’
identified through the Crosswalk process.” Several states have similar
professional development plans.

While educating teachers on the differences between previous state
standards and the CCSS is important, it seems based on the assumption
that we only need to tweak around the margins—that implementation of the
previous standards was strong, and so professional development should
focus on differences. In reality, however, many states had rigorous
standards in place prior to the CCSS and those standards did not lead to
dramatic increases in student achievement. States should, therefore,
focus not only on identifying differences between the standards, but
also on identifying teacher knowledge and skills gaps more broadly and
to targeting district- and school-level professional development on
addressing those gaps. (Noting, of course, that the gaps will likely
differ from district to district and school to school.)

3. Set a clear bar for the level of rigor required to align planning, instruction, and assessment to the CCSS

State Departments of Education are well
positioned to give teachers the clear guidance they need to make CCSS
work for their students. They should seize CCSS implementation as an
opportunity to develop exemplars and models of the kind of rigorous,
well-planned units, lessons, and formative and summative assessments
that teachers should be creating to drive instruction. Some states have
engaged in activities like this in the past. In the Massachusetts
curriculum frameworks, for instance, the state provided sample
“integrated learning scenarios,” which were essentially exceptionally
well-planned, standards-aligned lessons that clearly demonstrated the
level of planning and rigor that was required by the standards. Rather
than focusing on developing fully-developed model curricula, states
should work to created targeted exemplar units, lessons, and formative
and summative assessments. Then, they should work to ensure that teacher
and school leader professional development is focused on helping
teachers meet these targets.

In its ESEA waiver, New Jersey has articulated plans to do just that.
In addition to creating model units, the state plans to focus
professional development on helping teachers design and use formative
instruction, on helping principals support effective data-driven
instruction, and specifically on helping teachers really understand the
level of instructional and assessment rigor that is required to assess
the student learning requirements. Other states should take note and
follow New Jersey’s lead in this area.

In the end, if the Common Core is going to student achievement,
states need to change the way they think about standards implementation.
It’s not a question of whether states are focused on CCSS
implementation. Rather, it’s a question of whether they are going to
seize this opportunity to focus Departmental efforts on the few key
levers they can pull to drive meaningful change.

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