Common Core academic standards: Moving beyond adoption in the Buckeye State

Eric Ulas

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to adopt the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and math, an action we’ve lauded as a smart move for Ohio’s youngsters.

The Common Core standards have spurred controversy in other states, so it’s encouraging to see Ohio recognizing the importance of rigorous common standards and swiftly approving the Common Core – especially as state education leaders previously feared that Ohio wouldn’t have adequate time to adopt new standards. 

One consequence of moving quickly toward adoption has been surprisingly little public discussion of what state-level implementation of these standards will entail. Yet this topic should concern everyone in the Buckeye State who wants to see the new standards actually drive improvements in student performance.

To date, most of the discussion around implementation of the Common Core has consisted of simple platitudes such as “we will, of course, need to adequately support teachers by providing rigorous new curricula and targeted professional development and training.” That’s simplistic and glib, for it masks innumerable specifics that will make the difference between these standards being a primary driver of student achievement or little more than laudable goals.

The next steps in implementing the Common Core are creating model curricula and instructional guides based on the standards, and a system of assessments tightly aligned to them. These are no small tasks to be looked past, but ones that will likely be best achieved by groups of states working together, not by each state individually. As that work progresses, and hopefully Ohio can be a leader in this effort, there is much that an early adopter state like ours can be doing to be in the best position possible to roll out the new standards.

After all, as we’ve learned from those states that already have rigorous standards accompanied by persistently poor student achievement, adopting great standards is no quick fix for student achievement woes. California is the best example of this fact – excellent standards, but weak achievement. Setting great standards is hard work, but implementing them well is even harder.

Fortunately, we have models of excellence from which to learn. And we’ve learned that translating rigorous standards into stronger student achievement normally demands that at least four key elements be in place from the start. Ohio has some of these in place, but has work to do in others:

  1. Data-driven instruction. Standards drive student achievement only if they are used every day to drive planning and instruction. In practice, that means teachers must use the standards as the foundation on which to build their short- and long-term instructional plans. They must frequently pause to assess student progress toward mastery of each standard and use the data from those assessments to drive whole-class and small-group instruction, and to identify individual students who need targeted intervention in particular areas.

    While Ohio gets high marks for its education data systems from the Data Quality Campaign, the state still has much room for improvement when it comes to making the system fully operational, particularly in planning short-term instructional goals.

  2. Ownership of results. Instructors who successfully drive student achievement in their classrooms are those who “own” their students’ outcomes. They actually believe not only that it is their responsibility to ensure students master essential content, but also that it is within their power to guide students toward significant achievement gains. (This also happens to be one of ten key traits we found in the high-performing urban schools we examined in our Needles in a Haystack report.) It is crucial for teachers to recognize that they—and not other external or family forces—are the main drivers of those results.
  3. Accountability. Belief and ownership aren’t the whole story. Teachers and schools who successful use rigorous standards to drive achievement are also held to account for what their students learn. If you look, for example, to successful charter school networks, student achievement (measured in multiple ways) is always a factor—generally the most important factor—in judging a school’s effectiveness. Such accountability is essential. It helps keep the conversation focused in these schools and classrooms where it should be: on student learning.

    Accountability at the individual level remains a challenge for the Buckeye State. While Ohio’s data system has some ability to match student performance data with individual teachers, collective bargaining agreements and other barriers make it difficult to use student data to evaluate teacher performance.

  4. Flexibility. The most powerful way to ensure that ownership of student achievement results is held at the school level—rather than the district or state level—is to pair accountability with flexibility. At the school level, this means giving school leaders authority over their budgets and staffing decisions. We all know that great leaders can be creative in allocating scarce resources—dollars, time, personnel, etc. They should be given the chance to do this. At the classroom level, this means holding teachers accountable for student outcomes. 

Ohio should continue the momentum of adopting the Common Core and aggressively examine an implementation process and remove any hurdles that stand in the way of making the Common Core standards successful here.

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