Under Common Core, leaders face big challenge of designing change

April 16, 2013

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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.

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