Implementing the common core: back to the tortoise and the hare

I’d like to move past the subject of how quickly most state school boards adopted the common core, and tackle what is now probably a more important question: How quickly should we move forward to implement these standards?

As I started to research this topic I ran across an Education Week issue that addresses most of the issues I intended to raise. Since this article may not be available to non-subscribers, I’m going to include fairly large chunks of the article, which struck me as balanced and not  hostile to the common core standards, in my posts. I plan to stretch these comments out over more than one post, by the way, so that each post doesn’t get too long . . . and so that readers can comment on individual issues.

In some ways the title says it all: “Advocates Worry Implementation Could Derail Common Core.”

“The biggest potential pothole, by far, is failed implementation,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that has been tracking the standards and counts itself as an advocate. “It’s a huge, heavy lift if we are serious about teachers teaching it, kids learning it, curricula reflecting it, tests aligned with it, and kids passing those tests.”

Let’s break those “heavy lifts” into sets, beginning with “teachers teaching it.” The article continues,

Math teachers face having to teach skills to which they’re unaccustomed, since some concepts have been moved to lower grades in the new standards. They’re also being asked to focus longer and more deeply on fewer concepts and to emphasize conceptual understanding and practical applications of math. In many places, such as Howard County, Md., that has resulted in a flurry of activity as teachers brainstorm about how to design curriculum and pedagogy that embody the standards.

The English/language arts standards present challenges of their own. More than most states’ own standards, they insist on students building content knowledge and reading skill from independently tackling informational texts. They demand better analysis and argumentation skills, and they involve teachers from all subjects in teaching the literacy skills of their disciplines. Teachers in Kentucky, among other places, are experimenting with new templates that attempt to capture these key shifts.

It’s quite possible that these shifts will move us in the right direction. What I’d like to emphasize here, again, is the speed at which states are attempting to implement these changes. Utah’s goal is to have the core standards in place by 2014. Does that really offer teachers enough time to adapt their lesson plans and learn to use new materials? Especially when (subject for an upcoming post) that new textbooks may not yet be ready . . . and there may not be money in the budget for whole new sets of textbooks anyway.

Perhaps many teachers aren’t all that concerned about making this switch. In what I found perhaps the most disturbing section of this article, the author (experienced education journalist Catherine Gewertz) cites an email exchange for an education professor:

Most current teachers have read the standards for their grade level, think highly of them, and are willing to teach them, but few understand the profound changes in teaching that they will require, according to William H. Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor widely known for his studies of mathematics curricula. He is currently conducting research, through the university’s Center for the Study of Curriculum, on districts’ preparedness for the common standards.

“A majority of the teachers indicate that they think the new common-core standards are pretty much the same as what they have been doing,” Mr. Schmidt said in an email. “The difficulty I foresee is that, in spite of this openness toward their implementation, the data suggests that most teachers do not recognize how difficult that process will be.”

I’m guessing that many veteran teachers, who’ve seen any number of new programs come and go, figure they can ride out the common core storm, too. But let’s give core supporters the benefit of the doubt, and assume that these really are new, much tougher standards that are going to ask teachers to impart, and students to master, a new set of skills. Wouldn’t the claim that the common core will usher in a new education era gain credibility if we gave teachers more time to adapt?

What do you think?



  1. Aaron

    Implementation takes time, especially when it is affecting such a large component of education. My experience has been that a new set of standards takes 5 years for full implementation and improved results. Unfortunately, the standards are changed about every 4 years, so teachers never get the chance to perfect their work.

  2. Heath Madsen

    I am a high school geography and history teacher and am in complete agreement about the “no excuses.” I have seen students turn themselves around and make great strides in their education because of having high expectations and not budging from those expectations. Do the students try to toe the line? Yes. Do they see if I will budge? Yes. When I stand firm, it is amazing to see how many step up and perform. At times we don’t give the students enough credit and at other times we are just trying to find the easy way out and lower the bar rather than hold it high. If we lower the bar, we are placing crutches on our students that will weaken their ability to walk on their own.

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.