Third grade teacher Mark McKinley leans in to help student Madeline Lasher finish the pentagonal prism she's working on for a Common Core-style math lesson at Black Butte Elementary School in Shingletown, in Shasta County. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Anne Udall, executive vice president of program strategy for the national nonprofit New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, which helps train beginning educators, talked to me recently about how Common Core implementation is going around the country. The center has compiled a checklist to help support districts as they prepare to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Both ESSA and the Common Core, she said, focus on educators.

Q. How has the Common Core changed education in the U.S.?

A. The Common Core has really raised the bar for students in this country and in doing so has raised the bar for teachers…What I think ESSA is allowing states to do is to figure out an accountability system that is more supportive of teachers.

The other thing ESSA is allowing and really speaking to is this idea that students can be measured on a variety of measurements – not just achievement, which is an important piece. But, we also know that social and emotional learning is an important piece, for students to learn.

Q. What are some of the challenges educators face in teaching the new standards?

A. What we’re finding is that the biggest challenge now is that the Common Core says kids need to spend about 80 percent of their time on grade level material or above. And we’re finding in a lot of classrooms, kids are not at grade level.

To help students get to grade level, teachers must provide what educators call scaffolding that allows students to build on what they already know, but includes supports that help them overcome challenges.

Q. How does ESSA guide standards from state to state?

A. ESSA threaded the needle to make sure we stay committed to standards and gave states more flexibility to figure out how to make sure those standards meet what the states need. California, I think, is a great model of sticking to high standards.

Q. What is the reaction of teachers to these high standards?

A. Teachers really want higher standards for their kids, they really want to be held accountable, and it’s very challenging for teachers to teach toward higher standards because it really does demand a different approach to teaching.

Q. What types of different approaches are needed in English language arts?

A. You’re asking students to do analysis and interpretation as opposed to a more narrow literal interpretation of texts, which are often more technical and based on real-life problems.

Q. How about in math?

A. In math, there’s this huge focus on asking kids to understand the concepts behind the formula as opposed to just remembering it and applying it. This can be especially challenging for elementary teachers, who often start off as generalists. There is a degree of content knowledge or expertise that comes with teaching to the standards that is expected. Teachers at the elementary level are being asked to really understand math conceptually for themselves before they can teach kids.

Q. Why is there a new trend toward collaboration between teachers in lesson planning?

A. I think ESSA and the Common Core are really pushing toward much more collaboration…ESSA is saying professional development needs to be job-embedded and relevant.

Q. How does the Growth Mindset – which stresses every student’s ability to succeed – fit into Common Core instruction?

A. One of the things we are advocating very, very strongly is the belief that Common Core has to be married to what we call the growth mindset. An optimal learning environment has to include a focus on social and emotional learning, and a growth mindset including resilience, as well as high standards. One of the things we’re finding is that people are not marrying those two as much as they need to.

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