Infrastructure is not sexy. It sounds like pipes, highways, and wiring. In education, it is both people and organizations, and it takes both kinds of infrastructure to deliver – but also to improve – education.

The problem is that budget cuts seek to preserve the service delivery infrastructure at the expense of the improvement infrastructure. We cut professional developers and coaches and keep classroom teachers.

This isn’t necessarily wrong: Teaching children is our first priority. But as California enters the “awareness” stage of work on Common Core State Standards, one of the things we are becoming aware of is that we have decimated the improvement infrastructure that we will desperately need if California is to do anything useful about the Common Core.

"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) - Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills, that is the best match for their specific needs. Each door leads to the same destination: a new vision and implementation of 21st Century Teaching and Learning in every classroom.

"Three Doors to the Common Core" approach allows districts to choose a door (focus) – Curriculum or Instruction or 21st Century Skills – that is the best match for their specific needs. (Click to enlarge)

What do I mean by improvement infrastructure? Inside schools and districts, it is structures like regularly scheduled collaboration time. It is also processes, which may range from lesson study to a protocol for visiting classrooms.

It is also roles: professional developers, teacher coaches, teacher leaders, even assistant superintendents of curriculum and instruction.

It is tools: formative assessments, a data system that provides teachers with timely and actionable data reports, a communication system that makes it easy for teachers to reach out to parents and that includes space for online collaboration.

Finally, it is agreements: How often will the professional learning communities meet? How long will it take the data guy to run those reports? This kind of improvement infrastructure has been downsized almost everywhere. In many districts key parts of it are gone without a trace. And policymakers who talk easily about implementation of the Common Core should not underestimate the difficulty of generating either the political will or the resources at the local level that it will take to rebuild this infrastructure.

Of course, while the in-district improvement infrastructure is essential, external sources of professional development, tools, coaching, and consulting also matter, and these, too, have been decimated. Part of that is scarce resources, but for the most part the infrastructure that supported schools to work on improving teaching and learning was dismantled intentionally: the old subject matter projects were dismantled and a diverse ecology of nonprofit organizations, consultants, and university-based programs were replaced by a one-size-fits-all set of training programs that were intended to align professional development with state-adopted curriculum and tests.

That was a grand experiment, and while elements of it were wildly unpopular with teachers, it was not a failure. Scores rose, achievement gaps narrowed, and many underperforming systems were improved. Cultures also changed, with many more teachers embracing collaboration as a strategy and common practice as a worthy goal. The use of data and formative assessments to guide instruction became the norm rather than the exception.

Yet the failings of this approach are too obvious for it to be attractive to recreate it:  Not only teachers, but also parents rebelled against a one-size-fits-all curriculum, and many of these parents voted with their feet and opted for charters. There is more to say, but this is enough: In 2012, public education cannot afford a policy approach in which standards require standardization.

So what does this mean about improvement infrastructure for Common Core? We need one, and actually, the solution is simple enough:  If Governor Brown is serious, as it seems he is, about valuing local control and local decision-making, then the goal of state policy should be to foster a vibrant and locally-responsive set of service providers that can provide ongoing professional development, coaching, and support to schools and districts.

What it takes to do this is both simple and difficult; it takes two scarce ingredients: money and trust. California can implement the Common Core if policy provides districts with funding that is earmarked for improvement support and if Sacramento turns its back on the culture of distrust that says locals cannot be trusted to make good decisions about how to spend the money. Actually, the stakes in this decision are high: We cannot make an education system that supports kids to be thinkers and creators unless we’re willing to create a system in which adults, too, can be trusted to think for themselves.

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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