2 years, 5 months & 4 days in the life of … Common Core

For some strange reason it had to be.
He guided me to Tennessee.
—Arrested Development

When looking for a model of smart Common Core implementation, it’s easy to get depressed. Most state plans are confusing, their guidance buried deep in government websites (usually in hard to read documents full of jargon), their tactics difficult to follow, and their policies disconnected, compliance-oriented, and unlikely to set educators up for success.

I know what you are thinking: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

But there is some hope amidst the noise. And fittingly enough for these voluntary common standards, that hope is in the Volunteer State. Tennessee has been quietly developing what might be the most thoughtful, cohesive, and outcomes-driven state CCSS implementation plan in the nation.

There are three areas, in particular, where Tennessee seems to be outshining the rest of the states: leading with outcomes; clarity of communication and smart prioritization; and growing leaders, as opposed to micromanaging teachers. 

Leading with outcomes

Far too often, Common Core implementation efforts are an amalgam of compliance-oriented activities and programs masquerading as thoughtful and effective implementation plans.

Tennessee’s approach seems refreshingly different. The state has set specific goals for each of its first four years of CCSS implementation. In 2012-13, for instance, they expect a 4 point scale score growth for all students on the NAEP 4th grade math, and a 5 point scale score growth for students on the NAEP 8th grade math test. Next year, they hope to see average growth of at least 3-5 percent increase in the percent of students scoring at proficient and advanced. And by 2014-15—the first year of full implementation of the PARCC assessment—they are hoping to rank 12th overall of all PARCC states (they are currently 18th).

By tying the implementation plan to student achievement goals, rather than to “full implementation” of the standards, state leaders are putting the focus where it needs to be: on helping students meet expectations, not on helping teachers implement new tools. What’s more, by focusing on outcomes rather than inputs, state leaders have allowed themselves the flexibility to adapt their implementation plan as they learn from mistakes and success stories over the next several years.

Clarity of communication and smart prioritization

For anyone who’s spent any time trying to navigate the often confusing websites of a typical state department of education, surfing to the Volunteer State’s Common Core site is a welcome change. TNCore.org is clear and user-friendly; it’s focused on summarizing the most important elements of the Common Core and on presenting a straightforward overview of the Tennessee’s implementation plan.

But perhaps more importantly, rather than making the mistake of equating strong implementation with the development of materials and tools from the statehouse, Tennessee leaders are clearly seeking to capitalize on the “commonness” of the Common Core. ELA teachers are, for instance, directed to text complexity guidance released by Student Achievement Partners and by the Council of Chief State Schools Officers. Parents are directed to information created by the Council of Great City Schools that communicates what they can expect their children to be learning in classrooms guided by the CCSS. And teachers and leaders are directed to external blogs that share resources and guidance about how to implement the ELA and math standards in the classroom.

By focusing on sharing rather than creating, state leaders seem able to marshal their resources towards developing and adapting materials that can’t be—or haven’t been—created elsewhere. State leaders have, for instance, clearly communicated state implementation priorities and plans in a useful PowerPoint slide deck, including the state’s plans for thoughtfully phasing out the expectations into ELA and math classrooms from 2011 to15. And they are making smart changes to the statewide assessment, the TCAP, that match the curricular changes they are asking teachers to implement. They are, for instance, phasing out content that isn’t included in the Common Core and that won’t be assessed by the forthcoming CCSS-aligned assessments, and they are introducing questions that match the Common Core in terms of both content and rigor. Even more importantly, these assessment changes will not impact teacher evaluations for at least two years, showing that the state also understands that the first priority of assessments is to provide educators with data they need to drive teaching and learning.

Growing leaders rather than micromanaging teachers

Finally, Tennessee leaders seem to understand that for standards to truly “change everything,” they need to be the foundation of a systemic statewide reform plan that opens the door for innovation while holding educators accountable for results.

Take, for example, Tennessee’s teacher evaluation plan. While the Volunteer State is far ahead of others in terms of using student achievement data to inform teacher evaluation, it also has a plan to phase in CCSS-aligned assessment questions, including more difficult constructed response items. It will not use results from these items to inform teacher evaluations for two years. This gives teachers some space to begin implementing the new standards and to use the data gleaned from these assessments to inform instruction before they are held accountable to the new expectations.

The state has also adapted a tool created by Student Achievement Partners that will help ELA teachers judge how well aligned various curriculum and instructional materials are to the new standards. And they’ve developed what appear to be optional, targeted professional development modules that seem aimed not just at disseminating information or sharing state-mandated tools, but also at developing educators who can meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Of course, this is a risky strategy. It is, on some level, easier for state educrats to focus on driving change by controlling as much of classroom-level implementation as they can—developing model curricula and mandating professional development. While tightly controlled implementation might help avoid catastrophic failure, it’s unlikely to lead to excellence. And if Tennessee’s public plans and guidance are any indication, they seem to have erred on the side of sharing knowledge, tools, and best practices by allowing educators the freedom they need to take ownership over CCSS implementation.

It's too early to tell if the Volunteer State’s bet on a “tight-loose” approach to Common Core will drive effective implementation in the classroom. But it seems clear that Tennessee has emerged as an important model that deserves more attention than it has gotten so far.

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