In 2009, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Chief Council of State School Officers (CCSSO) launched the Common Core State Standards initiative, a state-led effort to construct national academic standards that would prepare students for success in higher education and future careers. In the subsequent years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the effort. And in 2014-2015, two assessment consortiums will begin administering tests, replacing the old state exams, to gauge whether teachers and students are meeting the goals laid out by Common Core.
That means states have two school years left to prepare their educators and learners for whichever assessment they have chosen. While some states are still figuring out how they will overhaul lesson plans, redefine learning objectives and otherwise alter their educational experiences to correspond with Common Core, others are leading the way in early implementation of the standards. They plan to be ready when the new sets of tests are rolled out.
The standards were developed to unite the otherwise disparate academic standards that previously existed across states and to ensure American students were ready to compete in a global economy. They require a complete re-education of teachers, who must produce new lesson plans to correlate with the new learning objectives set out by Common Core.
Although developed independently by the states, Common Core has received tacit support from the federal government: the Obama administration required states to commit to “college-and-career-ready standards” to receive Race To The Top funding. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a favorable statement when the standards were initially released for public comment in 2009. “There is no work more important than preparing our students to compete and succeed in a global economy, and it is to the credit of these states that this work is getting done,” Duncan said.
With the impending 2014 deadline for full assessments, CCSSO and the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), which has also been instrumental in preparing states for the transition, held a series of regional conferences last year to allow neighboring states to share ideas and resources for implementation. In the south, for example, South Carolina distributed the brochure that it has been using to educate the public about Common Core. States also took an interest in Georgia’s partnership with its public broadcasting stations to disseminate information about the standards, as states have often found simply informing all stakeholders, including students and families, is one of the most challenging aspects of implementation “We want to make sure we’re not reinventing the wheel 50 times,” Patty Yoo, project director for Common Core at NASBE, told Governing.
Two states in particular, Kentucky and West Virginia, have set an early standard for Common Core implementation. The former undertook a voluntary initiative that saw 100 percent of its school districts commit to the standards at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year. The latter introduced the standards to its kindergarten classrooms this school year, the beginning of a planned rollout that will culminate with all grades being entrenched in Common Core by 2014-2015.
Kentucky was uniquely positioned to begin implementation early, Karen Kidwell, director of program standards at the Kentucky Department of Education, told Governing. In 2009, the state legislature passed a bill that outlined an education reform agenda, including an overhaul of the state’s academic standards. That work easily segued into Common Core implementation after the state joined the initiative.
In 2010, the state started the process of preparing its 174 school districts for the new set of standards by holding workshops to train teachers on how to understand the standards and then translate them into tangible learning targets for students. Leadership teams, comprised of teachers and administrators, were established within each school and school district.
This year, Kentucky has moved beyond laying the foundation and into full-fledged implementation. The leadership teams met for two full days in the summer and continue to meet six times each month to outline and review strategies for applying the standards into everyday instruction. Learning exercises and lesson plans based on Common Core were developed and shared across classrooms and schools. The state has also uploaded an online video introducing Common Core, produced by the School Improvement Network, which provides teachers with a broad overview of the standards.
Next year, Kidwell said, the focus will be on sustainability, ensuring that the use of the standards can continue for the indefinite future. As part of the 2009 legislation, new testing was also introduced, giving the state’s students a few extra years of practice before the official Common Core assessments are instituted. “It was kind of a perfect storm,” Kidwell said, referring to the passage of a reform agenda prior to the adoption of Common Core. “The impetus for all of this change was the legislation. That raised the level of urgency.”
While Kentucky has taken a full-scale approach, West Virginia is planning to phase in the standards. This year’s kindergarten curriculum is based on Common Core; next year, kindergarten and first-grade curriculum will match the standards before full implementation in third through 12th grades in 2013-2014. But much like its neighbor, West Virginia’s plan starts with the education of its teaching workforce, Carla Williamson, executive director of the office of instruction at the West Virginia Department of Education, told Governing.
Last summer, the state held professional development workshops for teachers in first, fourth, fifth and ninth grades. Next summer, teachers in second, third, sixth, eight and tenth grades will undergo similar training. Common Core presents a challenge for teachers, Williamson said, because it focuses on “fewer concepts in much greater depth. Teachers need a toolbox with more strategies.” To compensate, West Virginia is shifting its instruction to project-based learning to implement the standards. So, for example, while in the past, students might have learned algebra and then geometry, teachers are experimenting with teaching the subjects simultaneously with lessons based on real-world examples because that approach “makes sense to students,” Williamson said.
Early introduction of the standards allows teachers and administrators to learn from each other, Williamson said, without the pressure that will come with the introduction of the new assessments in 2014-2015, allowing for a more seamless transition.
And effective implementation is critical, because if done correctly, Williamson believes Common Core has the potential to be “the single most transformational event in public education in this country,” she said. “Our country has never taken anything on of this magnitude.”