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…