Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

The new vision represented by the Common Core State Standards is becoming clearer, and it is exciting and rich. But as school district leaders get clearer on the destination, the path can still be uncertain.  Like Dorothy, who knew she was headed toward Oz, local education leaders are beginning to ask, “Which way do we go?” It’s a good question, and state leaders need to remind themselves of some hard facts before they reel off an answer. Here are three:

  1. Giving people a clearer and clearer picture of Oz will not necessarily point the way to the Yellow Brick Road.
  2. There is more than one road, and the right road for one district will not be the right road for another.
  3. Just as Dorothy needed some traveling companions, districts will also.

Let me say a bit more about each of these.

First, a picture of Oz is not the same as a map of the road to get there. Right now, the focus of both state leaders and most support-provider organizations is on providing educators with a rich picture of how deep and broad is the change represented by Common Core. That’s the picture of Oz, and that’s important. But for a district leader with no professional development budget, no aligned materials or assessments, and a demoralized teaching force, understanding the complexity of what is involved in Common Core implementation is at best a first step. What district leaders need, and what state leaders need to provide, is help in finding a viable path forward.

There are many ways that state leaders could undercut districts’ efforts to find the road, but here is one concrete example: If state leaders send out a comprehensive planning template, or worse yet require a comprehensive plan, they send the message that districts are supposed to do the impossible. Districts will comply – by filling out the plan. But going through this charade undercuts what actually needs to happen, which is that districts will need to pick off a piece that is both doable and worth doing and then get started.

Second (and this follows from the first), there is more than one road. It has often been noted that nobody can manage complexity in multiple dimensions at once. This goes for school districts, too. Implementation of the Common Core is a complex, multifaceted change that ultimately involves curriculum and instruction and assessment and leadership and accountability and the list goes on.

But districts won’t be able to eat the entire elephant at one sitting. It may be reasonable for one district to enter the world of Common Core through work on math, while another might choose writing or the idea of “complex text,” and a third might opt to focus on instructional practices. The choice might reflect an effort to build on strengths, shore up weak elements, leverage the most recent initiative or textbook adoption, or respond to the need to capture the imagination of teachers. All of these can be worthy goals.  Of course, eventually everybody will need to do everything… but an effort to do everything at once will guarantee that nothing can be done deeply or well.

Finally, districts will need traveling companions. The headlines about the impact of budget cuts have focused on teacher layoffs, but district offices have also been gutted. Many of the positions that were eliminated were staff developers, curriculum specialists, instructional coaches, assessment experts, and others whose expertise will be needed to support work on the Common Core. The politics of districts are such that many of these positions cannot be refilled, so their work will need to be done by others. Some of these will be external partners. This means that state policy needs to support the creation of support systems for districts that are robust, flexible, and responsive. A one-size-fits-all solution will undercut the entire endeavor.

The road to the Common Core will be neither straight nor smooth, but if we do this right, if we really engage our teachers in thinking deeply about content and teaching again, the impact on students and learning will be profound. And if we can all remember to bring along a little brains, heart, and courage, that probably won’t hurt either.

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, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.


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