I’ve learned a lot over the last 18 months about what it takes to implement the Common Core State Standards in a state.
Press around Common Core generally highlights the aspirational components of the standards. The fact that these standards, in comparison to the standards that many states had in place before, will make our students more critical thinkers and prepare them to be competitive members of the global economy. While all of this is true, these news stories fail to highlight the fact that the Common Core also represents a huge cultural shift for states. In order for the standards to have the intended impacts on teaching and learning, states have to significantly rethink the way they do business. States not only need to ensure that educators understand the standards themselves and the instructional shifts that they require, but they will also have to remind people about why the work is important, rethink the way they provide teachers with professional learning opportunities, not wait for the perfect plan before beginning the tough work, and be flexible enough to change course as issues with implementation arise.
As the Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement for the Kentucky Department of Education, I have observed and been involved as the implementation process of the standards has unfolded in Kentucky. As the first state to adopt the standards and the first state to fully implement the standards statewide, Kentucky is in a unique position to offer much in the way of guidance to other states in the implementation process. I believe there are several things that are necessary to make implementation of Common Core standards a success. Each of these areas is equally important, and each area represents something that will require a level of commitment and courage your state may have never seen before.
Kentucky’s completion of implementation of the Common Core State Standards would never have been possible without the collaborative relationship that has been in place throughout the process between the Kentucky Department of Education, Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education, and our credentialing body, the Education Professional Standards Board. The singular focus and vision of the leaders of these three agencies, along with their desire to work together has been paramount to our success.
Create a robust and inclusive plan for implementation and FOLLOW YOUR PLAN
Obviously, adequate planning is essential for success. Involve EVERY stakeholder group in your education system, from local school boards all the way down to the classroom teacher, from the beginning and value their input. Please don’t leave anyone out because you fear they will derail the process. Remember, however, that any plan that doesn’t get implemented is just words on paper. We are notorious in education for revising a plan without implementing it because we want it to be perfect. Your implementation plan for Common Core State Standards will never be perfect, and you don’t have time to make it so.
An innovative approach to teacher professional learning
Kentucky created a system of leadership networks at every level of the education system (superintendents, instructional leaders, principals, and teachers) that has allowed for the best possible system of professional learning to occur. These regional networks have allowed the messages of the implementation of the standards to remain constant and have provided a tiered approach to support that had not been seen in Kentucky before. These networks also level the playing field so that teachers, administrators, and superintendents in both urban and rural schools have equal access to the system. These on-going networks have provided learning at each stage of the implementation process and will likely provide the structure for future, large scale professional learning initiatives that Kentucky will undertake. In addition, these networks have provided a level of support to teachers as they deal with the day-to-day struggles of implementing more rigorous standards that we have not seen before.
Modify the network approach in a just-in-time fashion
Successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards is not possible unless the state is willing to shift gears during the process when the process is not meeting the needs of the stakeholders. Early iterations of the networks lacked cohesiveness across the networks such that superintendents didn’t understand what teachers were receiving, principals didn’t know what superintendents were receiving, and so forth. These concerns were brought to the state leadership team and changes were made in a rather rapid fashion. Stakeholders must believe that the state is listening to them and providing all necessary supports for successful implementation.
There are other elements for success as states continue to implement Common Core, but I felt these are the ones that most folks in Kentucky would say have been the most crucial. We will continue to find pot holes and other barriers, but because we have focused on these elements, we feel our implementation system can address anything that arises.