My Reflections on Implementation of the Common Core

In our system, we are moving to full implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts beginning in the 2013-2014 school year.  We have spent the past couple of years in various phases of building awareness and starting this transition, and next year is the year we are asking everyone to make this shift.  We have done a lot of work to build up to this point, and I think the most common feeling in our District is one of “nervous excitement”.  That is a good place to be and it is the result of a lot of hard work by many dynamic people in our organization.  As we have reached this point, here are some of my reflections on what I currently think will be necessary for this transition to be successful.

“Full implementation” takes time and does not happen in just one year.    What full implementation really means this year is that we all agree to make the switch from one set of standards to another and we agree that we will begin to grapple with them on a daily basis.  In our system we have developed a framework for new units of study aligned to the CCSS, so full implementation means we are all going to use these units as the foundation for our work. I also believe it entails asking and answering the question:  “What will be different in our schools and classrooms next year as a result of our Common Core alignment and implementation?”  We have to have clearly articulated goals about the implementation and we have to have ways we are measuring ourselves to know that we are getting better and closer to reaching these goals.  At the end of the year, we have to evaluate where we are and define our next steps.

Be really deliberate about making connections to work you are already doing.  We have had a strong literacy initiative in place in our schools.  We have schools and classrooms who have been making shifts that align with Common Core expectations, so this transition is not about something brand new…  it is about enhancing and refining work we have already started, but making the connections is critical.  As an example, we have several schools who have been deepening their understanding of how to teach reading comprehension – particularly comprehension of informational text – there are several pieces of the work that are in direct alignment with Common Core expectations.  A good question to ask ourselves is “How is reading comprehension of informational text defined in the Common Core Standards?”  Let’s get clarity on how it’s defined and then ask ourselves, “What pieces of this are we good at and what do we need to strengthen?”  The answers to these questions should directly impact the development of our goals for the year.

It is important to understand how the CCSS are different from what we do now.  While there may be many pieces of the work we are already doing that align, there are several critical components of Common Core that are different and have significant implications for teaching and learning.  We have to be honest about what these are.  If we think Common Core is now an invitation to dust off the old dinosaur unit from ten years ago, we are not understanding the shifts Common Core demands of us.  If we redo our class schedule to include two hours of “Common Core” time, put up a new Common Core Standards poster and continue to teach reading, writing, speaking, listening and language the way we have always taught it,  we have not done what the Common Core requires of us.  Be very wary of publishers who are recycling old materials with new Common Core labels!!

Understand the big picture and see the good in the Common Core.  Sometimes it is hard to get on board with a national or state initiative or mandate. While most agree that the Common Core is not perfect, it is now what we are being asked to work with in our schools and classrooms.  I love the question Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Chris Lehman ask in the first chapter of their book Pathways to the Common Core “Will you choose to view the Common Core Standards as curmudgeons or as if they are gold?”  If we understand and talk about that at the heart of Common Core is helping our students thrive as strategic, thoughtful, thinking-intensive readers, writers, speakers and listeners, we may be able to build more commitment to the shifts.

It is critical to understand the role the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards play in the Common Core.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  In order to understand the CCSS and how they work, we have to understand how the anchor standards have informed the CCSS grade-level standards.  Every grade level has part of the responsibility for helping students achieve the CCR Anchor Standards, and all of their grade-level standards align with the anchor standards.  Every teacher has a responsibility for their piece of the puzzle in getting kids College and Career ready.  There is an elegant design to the CCSS and the Anchor Standards are at its core.

Don’t underestimate Reading Standards 1 and 10.  We can teach students to find central ideas and themes.  We can analyze text structures and determine the author’s point of view, but we are teaching standards such as these in the absence of Reading standards 1 and 10, we are not aligned to Common Core expectations.  While students are finding central ideas and themes, analyzing text structures and determining author’s point of view, they must be doing close readings of text and citing specific evidence from the text to support their claims (Reading Standard 1) and they must be reading and comprehending text at the appropriate level of complexity independently and proficiently (Reading Standard 10).

Choose a place to start and get really good at it.  While all of the Common Core Standards for ELA will be in play for us next year, there are many things we still need to learn deeply in order for us to be truly aligned to the Common Core expectations; Schools need to choose one or two of these things, learn deeply and ensure they become a part of our practice in every classroom.  You might start with understanding close reading and text complexity and what that looks like at each grade-level in your school or you might start with understanding Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework and using it to evaluate the level of complexity the standards demand and use the framework to design student tasks that are aligned at the level of complexity required in the standard.  There are several entry points for us to begin this work.

Foster an environment of collaboration and learning.  We are asking all of the educators in our system to make changes and do things differently.  In order to be successful, we have to create time for learning and collaboration.  Learning more about what we don’t understand reduces anxiety.  Having colleagues and partners to work through challenges and celebrate successes reduces anxiety.  Learning and collaboration also make us better.  We have to encourage risk-taking and trying things differently, and we have to understand that when we try new things, we aren’t always good at it the first time we do it.  Trial and error is part of the learning process, so don’t beat people up over it!

Be learners of what it means to lead complex change.  Change is a process, not a one time event.  As leaders of change, we have to anticipate and understand how change impacts people, and we have to be strategic in our planning for change.  We have to be clear about the expectations we have around change, and we have to be  thoughtful about the systems of support we will provide for people as we ask them to do some of their work differently.

I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections about successful implementation of CCSS in your district, school or classroom…

The Assessment Conundrum

There are a few words in education that can charge emotions, spark visceral reactions, and cause heated debates… Assessment is one of them.  I have been thinking about assessment a lot, especially since our #satchat/#satchatwc conversation last month where several educators came together one Saturday morning to discuss it.  What was clear in the Saturday morning dialogue was the following was missing for us as a group of educators:

  • A common definition and understanding of assessment
  • A  common sense of purpose for assessment

There are two recent experiences I have had that have pushed my learning and helped me refine my thoughts about assessment.  The first was an introduction to this assessment cone by Margaret Heritage:

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What this visual so nicely represents is that there are many types of assessments students might take.  They take annual State assessments and most likely quarterly district assessments.  Potentially students take weekly assessments designed by teachers or teacher teams. Individual teachers weave in their own assessments throughout the day and students participate in minute by minute assessments as teachers collect data while they observe and gather evidence of student thinking and learning throughout the day.  What I love about this cone is that it shows the types of assessment in relation to the impact it has on student learning.  Teachers take in data about student learning all the time – “minute by minute” -and if they are using this data to make decisions about how to support individual learning, then THIS is the most powerful assessment practice.  All of the others serve a  purpose, but the further away you get from the student, the less impact the assessments have on student learning.

The second experience I had was just yesterday when I had the pleasure of spending the day with literacy rockstar Stephanie Harvey (@stephharvey49).  Our team has been learning a lot from her as we continue to move forward with our literacy initiative and our implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts. During our time together the topic of assessment came up.  Stephanie shared with us that the reason some of us might struggle with assessment is that we often confuse assessment and evaluation.  Stephanie has many talents, and one of them is her ability to take complex concepts (like assessment) and make them elegantly simple, so she said this…

“Assessment tells us what kids can do.  Evaluation is putting a value on it.”

We assess students all the time…  we listen to them read, we drop in on their conversations to hear what they have to say, we read the annotations they make on a text,  we pay attention to the tracks they leave of their thinking and their responses to thought-provoking questions.  We confer with students; we read what they write.  We pay attention and gather data all the time in our classrooms.  She also explained that as we are gathering this data, it informs three things:

  • Our assessments inform our students’ progress,
  • Our assessments inform our future instruction,
  • And most importantly… our assessments inform our past instruction

I think as an education community we have increasingly honed our skills at using data for the first two purposes… I am not convinced, though, that we have used data as thoughtfully as we could to reflect on the third.  Stephanie helped all of us in the room better understand that when we are assessing kids, we are really assessing our instruction – the work the students produce reflects what we have taught more than anything else.  If the work does not meet our expectations, it is not the child’s problem to solve, but ours as their teachers.

She also shared that assessment becomes evaluation when we place a grade on it.  So… Do we grade or do we assess? In traditional education we often grade, we don’t often assess.   Stephanie challenged us all to think about the amount of time spent grading and the amount of time spent assessing in our schools and classrooms. We need to assess constantly and grade occassionally.  She further emphasized this:

“We should ONLY grade kids when we have taught something well and given plenty of time to practice!”

There is no reason to grade without this!  If we do, we are only grading what they already knew.   We have to have  “taught like a PIRATE” or “taught like our hair was on fire” and provided ample time for kids to practice and receive specific feedback – Until we have done this, we should not be placing a value on their work.

Assessment is a practice we should embrace in our schools and our classrooms… it is essential to improving student learning and it is essential to improving our instructional practices.  Part of embracing it requires understanding what it is, what it isn’t and what role it plays in our schools and classrooms.  As instructional leaders we have to commit to building a collective understanding of assessment and sound assessment practices, and we need to figure out ways to respectfully challenge practices that may be hindering student learning rather than helping it flourish.

Lead Like a PIRATE

One of my favorite parts of the week is co-moderating the West Coast #satchat (#satchatwc).  The topics, the collaboration, and insights from other educators from around the world always inspire me.  Today’s topic was of particular interest to me because it is one I think about quite a bit – hiring highly effective educational leaders. We talked about the characteristics we look for, the different parts of the interview/hiring processes we find to be most effective and insightful, the types of questions we think are important to ask in an interview etc.  What we know is that hiring an educational leader, particularly a school principal, is one of the most important decisions we make, because the bottom line is that leadership matters… a lot!

TLAP BOOK COVERI’ve read countless books and articles on educational leadership;  I have read and embraced a variety of leadership theories and models; I coach, mentor and support educational leaders who serve in a variety roles; and I have held several leadership positions in my career.  But what I kept coming back to in my head this morning is the book my husband Dave Burgess (@burgessdave) recently published Teach Like a PIRATE, and I wondered… shouldn’t we also lead like Pirates?  If you are not familiar with Dave’s book, he uses the Pirate acronym to describe 6 traits essential to highly effective teaching, and I am convinced that they are also essential traits of highly effective leaders:

Passion – Highly effective leaders are passionate.  They know who they are, they know what they love, they know what they stand for, and they bring this with them to work in one way or another everyday.  The passion is contagious, and highly effective leaders have a knack for helping those around them ignite their own passions and capitalize on them.  I love walking into schools where passion is evident.  There is a hard to describe energy that radiates within the walls and around the campus, and it takes a passionate leader to create this.

Immersion – Highly effective leaders are immersed in their work.  They roll up their sleeves and they dig in.  They are people who work alongside their staff and their community. They have a constant “pulse” of the school because they are always paying attention.  They invest time in both the big and small moments of leadership.  You are likely to find them immersed in classroom observations and engaged with teachers and teams focused on student learning, but you will also notice them taking time to jumprope with a group of students on the playground, spending a few moments at a table in the cafeteria, reading a favorite book to a room full of kindergarteners, or chatting with a parent volunteer in the hallway.  No matter where you find them, you notice that they are fully present and they are invested.

Rapport – Highly effective leaders develop rapport and relationships.  They do this with staff, with parents, with students, with community members, with their colleagues, and with their supervisors.  They invest the time in getting to know people.  They learn about their strengths and where they want to grow.  They learn about their passions, their best hopes, their worst fears.  And they invest this time with everyone – even those who previous leaders had written off.  They embrace opportunities to hear multiple perspectives, and they value the contribution that each person makes to the organization, and they tell them so.

Ask and Analyze – Highly effective leaders ask many thoughtful questions and they are skillful at analyzing all of the data that comes at them.  When there are obstacles and challenges they don’t “chalk them up” to anything…  they ask probing questions and dig deep to get to the root of the issue, and they actively seek out solutions.  They reach out to others, seek advice, and they are hungry for answers.  They equally spend time focused on what is going well.  They are able to label the actions that took place to make something successful because they know success does not happen by accident.  It happens as a result of strategic and intentional decisions.  Highly effective leaders are connected, reflective, and they are learners.

Transformation – Highly effective leaders want to make a significant difference, a significant contribution and transform the lives of their students.  They have a clear vision about where they want to go and why it is an important journey for people to take with them.   They have high expectations and create a healthy sense of urgency around the most important work, and they are skillful in managing and leading change.  They know that great schools can change communities and change the lives of generations. They believe in the moral purpose of providing students with an amazing set of educational experiences, they are clear in defining what these are, and they take deliberate steps to get them in place.

Enthusiasm – Highly effective leaders infuse enthusiasm into their work.  They “bring it” everyday, and they are committed to being “on” – even on the days they might have to fake it.  They are the champions and cheerleaders of their schools and champions and cheerleaders of those who work and learn there.  They celebrate successes both big and small.  You know enthusiastic leaders when you see them.  They are the ones who can bring you up when you are down; they help you re-ignite your fire when it is starting to burn out; they point out how you have contributed and made a difference; they smile; they laugh; they engage; they commit.

While I know the above list may not be an exhaustive one… it sure is a great place to start when looking for a new leader in your system or looking for ways to support the ones you have.  It is also a great way to reflect on your own practices as a leader… Do you lead like a PIRATE?