Coleman is coming: Look busy!

A famous workplace adage goes: “The boss is coming, look busy!” It is a recognition that far too often people are judged not just by what they produce, but by how hard they work to produce it.

Nearly every state is working hard to look busy, lest they be accused of not taking the Common Core seriously.

Many education reforms are designed to shift away from this thinking, placing the emphasis on outcomes instead of inputs, encouraging the use of objective data to drive judgments about performance, to shift the conversation to one grounded in genuine productivity and effectiveness. The crucial insight of these efforts is that management styles that prioritize “busy-ness” over effectiveness encourages people to make grand, often complicated plans that may not be well suited to drive the kind of change we need.

Yet, isn’t this exactly what we’re seeing in our rush to implement the Common Core?

Since its inception—and with the exception of the development of the actual K-12 expectations—the Common Core has encouraged haste. Four states (Kentucky, Hawaii, Maryland, and West Virginia) adopted the standards before they were even final.

Twenty states adopted them within one month of their release. All but six states had, in their Round 1 Race to the Top applications, developed plans to transition to the Common Core five months before the final CCSS were released. And districts have begun to align curriculum and instruction to the standards with very little guidance about how the expectations will be assessed, even though knowing how mastery of the knowledge and skills will be judged is essential to long-term planning.

In other words: Nearly every state is working hard to look busy, lest they be accused of not taking the Common Core seriously.

Of course, looking busy isn’t the same thing as being effective. In fact, it can often be the opposite. And, when it comes to CCSS implementation, doing nothing may well be better than doing something that undermines the intent of the standards themselves.

In our zeal to change everything, will we end up accomplishing nothing?

That’s why I read Checker’s latest Gadfly editorial, “How the Common Core changes everything,” with some trepidation. It’s not that he’s wrong on the details. Yes, schools whose curriculum and instruction are not well aligned to the content and rigor of the new expectations have much work ahead of them. Yes, teachers with knowledge and skills gaps will need effective, targeted professional development to improve their craft. Yes, our professional expectations for teachers and school leaders will need to change. But as the saying goes, “You can’t boil the ocean.” In our zeal to change everything, will we end up accomplishing nothing?

It certainly seems like our drive to get implementation underway immediately may be encouraging decisions that will take us off track.

For example, a quick search of district CCSS implementation reveals somewhat distressing trends. While many—perhaps even most—districts are on board and working earnestly to get implementation underway, the haste to align resources, materials and practices to the standards is leading some to make questionable, perhaps even damaging decisions about curriculum and instruction. After all, it took the lead authors of the CCSS math standards two years to release thoughtfully crafted criteria that could be used to judge whether “updated” curriculum materials and resources are meaningfully aligned to the new standards. But some districts had announced grand curriculum shifts much sooner, and with neither the Publishers Criteria nor adequate information from either assessment consortium to guide their decisions.

I find it hard to believe that those decisions, however well intentioned, are all going to help point educators in the right direction. And how will educators feel when, eventually, they are held accountable via assessments that are only loosely aligned to the materials that have been chosen for them to drive instruction? Particularly when publishers have assured them that they materials they’ve selected are aligned to the Common Core?

Of course, this is just one and perhaps the most immediately obviously example of where our haste to implement the standards quickly is making waste that we’ll regret down the road. I’m certain it wouldn’t be hard to find more. States are, for example, wading into the murky waters of “model curriculum development” and Common Core professional development, even when their own understanding of the instructional shifts needed to help students meet the new expectations is emerging. And even when state bureaucracies are probably poorly suited to providing instructional leadership to all of the teachers and schools in their purview. Meanwhile, other areas—where states are well positioned to affect change—have been largely untouched.

The reality is that, if state implementation of the Common Core is going to succeed where so many other standards implementation efforts have failed, it’s going to require less busywork and more genuine, systemic change. And to make that happen, states and districts should take a page from the CCSS creation playbook by taking their time, prioritizing what is essential, and focusing their work on the areas where they can have the biggest impact.

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