Under Common Core, leaders face big challenge of designing change

Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

Over the past decade, many California teachers, especially in low-performing schools, were expected to teach a scripted curriculum. The advocates of this approach hoped to ensure that all students were exposed to high quality – or at least good enough – teaching. California’s choice of this strategy has left us with a generation of teachers who either never learned the skills involved in designing instruction or had little chance to practice them.

This is a huge problem as we move into the world of the Common Core, which comes with no scripted curriculum and no political will to impose one even if it existed. We need to start helping teachers learn and practice the skills of instructional design. Many districts have begun this work, and even those that have not started are coming to understand that this is what is needed.

What is less well understood is that under No Child Left Behind, leaders, too, followed their version of a scripted curriculum. Superintendents, school board members, principals and district leaders with responsibility for curriculum and instruction, especially if they were working on schools or districts identified as Program Improvement, were not empowered to design their own improvement effort any more than teachers were empowered to design their own lessons. State and federal improvement targets established goals and timelines, and State Board-adopted frameworks like the Nine Essential Program Components laid out the change strategy. Districts were expected to adopt a standards-aligned set of instructional materials, train teachers and principals on these materials, adopt pacing guides to “get everybody on the same page,” do walk-throughs to check for high-fidelity implementation of identified instructional strategies, adopt or create benchmark assessments, organize teachers into professional learning communities to study the assessment data …  Sound familiar?

The problem is that while this strategy wasn’t wholly wrong, it wasn’t entirely right either. And it certainly wasn’t a perfect fit in every situation. Canadian author Michael Fullan’s 2011 article about the “wrong drivers” is a good summary of the weaknesses of this approach, which caused us to both overestimate the power of accountability and underinvest in collaboration.

What are some elements that could be part of a curriculum-focused change effort but that were left out of the official California approach? How about lesson design or lesson study, looking at student work, or how about classroom visitation processes that inquire into things that teachers are worrying about and working on rather than what administrators have decided teachers need to do to improve? Richard Elmore calls these “problems of practice” and they are the focus of a process that he calls “Instructional Rounds.” There are more, but you get the idea.

Now, some leaders are waiting to see whether policymakers are going to provide them with a new leadership script. That seems unlikely. Others are starting to realize that today’s leaders, just like teachers, need to learn new skills. I call this new dimension of leadership Change Design. This is different than change management:  change management happens after you launch a change effort. Change design is what happens – or should happen – before you launch.

Here are some of the issues that leaders will need to grapple with as they take on the challenge of designing their own change effort: What is the right balance between “top down” and “bottom up” strategies? Who should decide, for example, on the instructional focus, the particular strategies teachers should use, what materials to buy, what training to offer and for whom, how collaboration time should be spent, how best to allocate scarce resources, what assessments to give and when, what services the central offices should provide and what sites should do for themselves?

And leaders need to plan for the fact that change never goes as planned. How will decisions about needed adjustments be made and by whom? Districts that are serious about fostering innovation will be under particular pressure to identify early warning signs of impending problems since not every “great” idea will actually pan out. Finally, on a deeper level, leaders in the change design business need an intentional strategy to rebuild trust with a teaching corps that is demoralized by a combination of years of budget cuts and state and federal policies that many experienced as deeply disrespectful.

All of this is doable, and some of us have spent our careers trying to learn how to do it. The past decade has demonstrated that there is no one path to improvement and that state- and/or federally designed improvement efforts will miss the mark in too many places. We need to get on with this task: leveraging and building on what we already know about change design, systematically investing in new approaches, and investing in our leaders’ skills in this high-priority area.

Building the skills of our leaders is just as important as building teachers’ skills in designing instruction. Let’s make sure we remember to do both.


Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement.

Filed under: Administrators, Commentary, Common Core, Hot Topics, Teaching


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3 Responses to “Under Common Core, leaders face big challenge of designing change”

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  1. Ann on Jun 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm06/8/2013 1:51 pm

    • 000

    Having just seen this I realize few will read my post but it seems silly to me that some continue to believe there is a valid comparison to be made between Finland and the U.S. particularly California.Forgive the cut and paste:

    The population of Finland is currently about 5,400,000. Finland has an average population density of 16 inhabitants per square kilometre.[6] This is the third-lowest population density of any European country, behind those of Norway and Iceland. Finland’s population has always been concentrated in the southern parts of the country, a phenomenon that became even more pronounced during 20th-century urbanisation. The largest cities in Finland are those of the Greater Helsinki metropolitan area—Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa. Other cities with population over 100.000 are Tampere, Turku, Oulu, Jyväskylä and Lahti.

    The share of foreign citizens in Finland is 3.4%, among the lowest in the European Union.[101] Most of them are from Russia, Estonia and Sweden.[101] The children of foreigners are not automatically given Finnish citizenship. If they are born in Finland and cannot get citizenship of any other country, they become citizens.[102]

    The native language of 90% of the population is Finnish.The best-known foreign languages are English (63%), German (18%), and French (3%). English is studied by most pupils as a compulsory subject from the third or fifth grade (at 9 or 11 years of age respectively) in the comprehensive school (in some schools other languages can be chosen instead).

    Pre-school education is rare compared to other EU countries and formal education is usually started at the age of 7. Primary school takes normally six years and lower secondary school three years. Most schools are managed by municipal officials.

    So is it clear to anyone the system they use is not applicable to the U.S and the demographics we are dealing with?


    • navigio on Jun 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm06/8/2013 2:16 pm

      • 000

      Finland also has a requirement that any public signs must be written in the language of a minority if they exceed a certain percentage. This is why all signs in finland are in both finnish and swedish.

      English is the business language in Finland, so virtually everyone in the business sector speaks it.

      I agree with Ann that the countries are not comparable. I’ve been arguing for a long time that the US is not comparable to most European countries because our priorities are money and competition against your neighbor whereas in most european countries, the priority is quality of life and supporting and interacting with your community. I find it ironic that some even argue that we dont have enough competition in our society, so I dont expect the US to change in this regard anytime soon.. if ever.

  2. Richard Moore on Apr 17, 2013 at 11:30 am04/17/2013 11:30 am

    • 000

    Gerald Bracey in 2008:

    THERE IS one good result from PISA. Finland, a country whose education system stands our No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on its head, is ranked first. Students in Finland don’t start school until they’re seven. They incur very little homework. They sit for virtually no standardized tests. Students work on their own without hovering adults from an early age. NCLB is the ultimate one-size-fits-all education reform (where “reform” just means “reshape,” not necessarily improve). In Finland, there are national standards, but teachers create lessons to fit their students — teachers pick books and customize lessons — whereas NCLB is hated at the school level because most teachers don’t want to teach the way NCLB forces them to (not to mention that for teachers NCLB is all stick and no carrot).

    There are some other things about Finland that contribute directly or indirectly to academic achievement (we know this because reporters and observers descended in droves after the PISA results were published. Finland number one in education? Who would have guessed?). Finland’s universal health care prevents students from missing long periods of school time. Finns read newspapers and take books out of libraries at a higher rate, per capita, than any other nation. It’s hard to become a teacher in Finland and the training is thorough. Teachers are not paid especially well, but the profession is respected, in part because of its selectivity: 90 percent of applicants to colleges of education are rejected. In addition, teacher training in Finland looks more like U. S. doctor training in teaching hospitals — there is a lot of hands-on experience in schools.


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