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Implementing the common core: 4 lessons learned for school and district leaders

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This blog post is a collaboration between Sharon Contreras, superintendent of the Syracuse City School District in New York and Michael Moody, CEO of Insight Education Group. Here, Moody offers four lessons for implementing the common core and Contreras shares the school district perspective.

Superintendents and school leaders across the country are in various stages of implementing the Common Core State Standards, and many districts have been implementing the common core in advance of PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, which are now just around the corner. It’s OK, no panic necessary!

With back to school in mind, here are four lessons learned — some the hard way — with implementing the common core so you can avoid the pitfalls in your own districts this year.

Lesson 1: Don’t make implementation about “the new test.” 

The new standardized tests are an important consideration in common core implementation, but making the test the focal point of implementation distracts from the purpose of the common core.

The new standards aspire to prepare students for college and careers, and the test is only a way to measure our success. Successful districts focus on the genuine purpose of the core, communicating this purpose effectively with teachers, parents and other stakeholders.

Superintendent Contreras: While I generally agree with this statement, I think we’ve made real missteps in the field in informing parents about the CCSS and about how students’ mastery of the standards will be assessed.

In Syracuse, teachers generally understand that the common core is not about testing. However, nationally we’ve undermined our efforts with parents because we did not adequately explain the standards or address implementation with our families.

As a result, many parents interpret the CCSS as simply being about testing rather than being about learning. So we need to better communicate the value of the CCSS and help parents understand how these standards and the corresponding instructional shifts will ultimately prepare students for college and careers.

Lesson 2: Don’t waste time with “cross-walks.” 

While it is important to communicate the difference between current and new standards and assessments, I would not recommend doing so by providing teachers with documents that compare the former state standards to the new standards.

Instead, provide time for teachers to dig into the standards alone and together, with the first goal of fully understanding what students need from instruction in order to learn each new standard.

Superintendent Contreras: I totally agree. It is our responsibility as leaders to create opportunities for teachers to collaborate in order to move forward with the new standards. Failure to provide time for teachers and building leaders to engage in professional conversations about teaching and learning, to fully understand the CCSS, will result in slowed implementation or even failure.

Lesson 3: Connect key priorities with core implementation. In other words, do not make CCSS a lone silo in your central office.

Districts that show the most momentum in implementation have figured out how to make their key instructional priorities work together. For example, leaders who align their teacher evaluation systems or instructional framework to the CCSS find it much easier to reinforce CCSS expectations.

Superintendent Contreras: In Syracuse, we’ve worked to ensure that our teacher effectiveness work is aligned to the CCSS, which tightly connects the work of instructional improvement and rigorous student learning rather than creating two disparate areas of concentration.

However, it is important to note that when implementation of the CCSS is closely tied to teacher evaluation, there can be confusion about high-stakes and expectations.

On one hand, there has to be coherence. Teachers need to understand how the CCSS and teacher evaluation are related and how focused systems accelerate improvement. However, some teachers have negative feelings about the CCSS based on their negative association with new teacher evaluation systems.

Parents are also sometimes unclear. I’ve received emails and calls from parents stating that they’re frustrated with CCSS, but after talking to them I realize that they’re actually talking about the student-testing element within the teacher evaluation system.

We have to be intentional if we’re going to avoid confusion. We have to be explicit about the inter-relatedness of the CCSS and teacher evaluation systems. Most of all, we have to explain the ultimate purpose of the CCSS: to prepare students for success after high school without the need for costly and time-consuming remediation. We have to explain the purpose of teacher evaluations systems:  to improve teacher practice.

Lesson 4: Leverage partners strategically. 

In response to tight timelines and workloads, districts that have gained the most traction are those that have limited the number of providers related to implementation and strategically coordinated the work.

So the more seamlessly you can connect the core across district offices and work, the more educators and students will hear about those connections, and the more effectively core goals for students will be reinforced.

Superintendent Contreras: Even when a district requires multiple technical assistance partners, the number of partners must be limited and these partners have to work together to ensure coherence and coordination of the work.

In Syracuse, we hold partner collaboration calls and work within a district-determined framework to keep our work focused on short- and long-term goals. Inviting partners to collaborate together with district leadership supports consistent and coherent messaging throughout implementation and serves as a multiplier effect toward district effectiveness.

Michael Moody is CEO of Insight Education Group, which partners with states, districts and schools across the country to support teacher effectiveness and the common core initiatives. Michael has served as a classroom teacher, school and district administrator.

Sharon Contreras is superintendent of the Syracuse City School District in New York. Prior to her current position, she served as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent. Insight Education Group provided consultation services in the Syracuse City School District.