Report urges more active state role in Common Core

July 9, 2014

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The move to local control under the state’s new funding and accountability system has given school districts much leeway in adopting the Common Core State Standards, the challenging math and English language arts standards that California and 41 other states and Washington, D.C., have adopted. And that flexibility, concludes a new report by researchers from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, has the potential to create disparities in implementation the state should reduce.

“In California’s newly decentralized policy system the main responsibility for addressing many of these issues falls to local educators, but our research makes it clear that the capacity to address them successfully is sorely lacking in many parts of the state,” the report states. Local control, it says, cannot take the place of a stronger state role.

The 16-page report, “Implementing Common Core State Standards in California: A Report from the Field,” was based on discussions with educators in three dozen districts and county offices of education, four charter school organizations and two education organizations. Its principal author is Milbrey McLaughlin, the founding director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities and an education policy professor at Stanford.

With the administration of the first official tests in the new standards less than a year away, the authors found that most districts lacked a comprehensive, coherent plan for the Common Core and that most didn’t have a unifying curriculum tying grades together. There have been promising regional collaborations among districts, but most of the work has been lesson planning by teachers at the school level. While teachers felt energized by the ability to shape what they’ll teach, they universally complained about the lack of time to prepare for the new standards, an overwhelming array of materials and textbooks to choose from and inconsistent quality of professional development, especially for English learners. The new standards are, as one teacher told researchers, “liberating in so many ways but also overwhelming and frightening.”

“If I stacked up the 25 largest districts, about half of them are  capable of and conditioned to thinking ahead in putting together plans and mobilizing people. Others are not unwilling to do that – they are not capable of doing it for a variety of reasons,” said David Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education. 

Principals and administrators, who are supposed to lead school and district efforts, feel equally anxious. “Many have no experience with the more ambitious teaching and learning goals” associated with the new standards, and effective professional development for them is critical, the report says.

The integration of technology into Common Core instruction remains a big concern, the report says, even though there were surprisingly few problems statewide in administering the pilot standardized test last spring. The success of the test “laid some fears to rest, providing evidence that students are able to handle a computer-based assessment,” the report says. “Worries about technology shortfalls nevertheless remain. Many of this year’s technology fixes were pieced together, and do not represent long-term solutions.”

Many teachers lack the technical know-how to take advantage of the optional online interim or practice tests that will be available this fall to measure students’ preparation for the new standards, the report says.

Implementation gap

Some districts are far along in rolling out the standards, while others are still in the early stages. To prevent an implementation gap from widening and potentially eroding support for Common Core, the state must give “serious, sustained attention to local implementation needs,” the report states.

The report was released late last month through Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center with ties to Stanford, in conjunction with a conference in Sacramento that PACE sponsored on Common Core implementation. Speakers there corroborated much of what the researchers found.

Districts are struggling to return to pre-recession levels of staffing and funding and already are facing initiative overload with the demands of a new state funding and accountability system, said David Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education. He has seen a “vast variation in the capacity of districts, be they large or small,” in implementing Common Core, he said.

David Gordon speaks at the PACE conference

“If I stacked up the 25 largest districts, about half of them are  capable of and conditioned to thinking ahead in putting together plans and mobilizing people,” he said. “Others are not unwilling to do that – they are not capable of doing it for a variety of reasons. They are getting through the night, this week and next week and they are really scrambling.” Those with “great continuity and consistency of leadership,” led by superintendents who stay longer than a few years, tend to do better, he said.

Shannan Brown, a California Teacher of the Year and president of the San Juan Teachers Association, complained about a one-size-fits-all approach to teacher training in Common Core. “There is a need to personalize for teachers,” she said, adding that the needs of veteran teachers are different from those of teachers who came of age under scripted curriculums that followed the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The new standards, which stress analytical thinking and writing skills, will take time to implement, and there should be recognition of that, she said.

The implementation of Common Core is one of eight priorities that districts must address in Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, the new three-year master plans for academic and school improvement. Districts were required to approve the plans by July 1. But districts have not included much detail about Common Core implementation in the LCAPs, Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis for the advocacy group Education Trust-West, said at the conference.

That must change, said Arun Ramanathan, the former executive director of Ed Trust-West, who is now CEO of the consulting firm Pivot Learning Partners. “Next year, Common Core implementation should be the most important of the eight [LCAP] priorities – and given priority,” he said.

Source: California Department of Education

This timeline outlines steps that the State Board and Department of Education must take under the state’s Common Core implementation plan.

 What is state’s role?

Contrary to what the report implied, in fact there is a plan, which the State Board of Education has approved, laying out the state’s involvement in Common Core implementation. A slide of the timeline for the plan loomed behind the speakers on one of the panels. The plan lists actions that the state board must take, such as writing and adopting Common Core-aligned standards for English language learners, and steps required of the Department of Education, including managing districts’ readiness for the practice and official Common Core tests.

The key element is the creation of the curriculum frameworks for Common Core. Prepared by panels of teachers and academicians, the curriculum frameworks provide extensive grade-by-grade guides to the standards, including examples of how to apply them in the classroom. The state board approved the math version last year and adopted the 1,200-page English language arts version at its meeting on Wednesday.

But the state Department of Education has no active role in helping the state’s 1,000-plus districts and charter schools roll out the Common Core and has no plan to do so. Over the past two years, the Legislature has budgeted $1.65 billion for districts (about $250 per student) to purchase textbooks, add technology and train teachers as they choose. But not one dollar went to the state Department of Education to identify statewide implementation challenges and address problems that districts lack the capacity to solve.

The report identified five issues that are critical to successfully rolling out the Common Core that state and county offices of education could address:

The report concludes, “Finding effective ways to support and assist schools and school districts in meeting implementation challenges that exceed local capabilities is urgently important if the new standards are to deliver on their promise of improved teaching and learning in California.”

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