School & District Management

Studies Offer Insights on Implementing Common Core

By Holly Kurtz — April 15, 2014 5 min read
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In 2013 alone, state legislators introduced nearly 300 bills related to the Common Core State Standards. This year, they are on track to do the same, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Yet in a series of meetings convened last year by the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, lawmakers, advocates, and educational leaders said they were starved for research that might help them make evidence-based decisions about the standards.

At the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association here this month, legislators and leaders got a bit of an appetizer: Although firm, final research results were rare, as is often the case at academic conferences, the common standards were the subject of more than 100 papers or sessions and the subtext of countless others.

According to the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which issued a follow-up paper this month to its meeting series last year, one of the things that policymakers are especially hungry for research on is “strategies for mounting outreach campaigns around the CCSS, especially in light of how politically charged the standards have become.”

Several studies presented at the conference provided information on the subject. One came from the multiuniversity Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which has been studying common-core implementation in the New York City public schools since 2010.

Consortium researchers shared results of a study that tested New York City educators on what they knew about the common core and asked how they found out about it. The study, based on a spring 2013 survey of 456 educators from a diverse set of eight elementary and middle schools with higher and lower levels of common-core implementation, found that educators knew more about the English/language arts standards than they did about the mathematics standards. Educators who received help on the common core from colleagues had higher levels of knowledge on that topic. Those who sought information from outside sources such as commoncore.org, a nonprofit website begun by some of the standards’ developers, knew significantly more about the English/language arts standards than colleagues who did not consult these sources. This was not the case for math.

Information Pipeline

The top sources of information tapped by teachers were their districts’ library of common-core resources, commoncore.org, other district teachers, and the teachers’ union—all of which points to the value of external resources in disseminating information to teachers.

The more-preliminary findings of another study are also relevant to outreach campaigns in that researchers explored which factors shaped teachers’ perceptions of the common core. The study, led by Jason Endacott, an assistant education professor at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, surveyed a representative sample of 951 teachers from 44 of the 45 common-core-adopting states and the District of Columbia. For a similar study, the Arkansas researchers surveyed 1,300 teachers in that state in January 2013 and interviewed 28. They found that teachers’ perceptions of the standards were much more positive when administrators had an “open” leadership style, meaning they were flexible and receptive to teacher input.

Effective leaders also were found to share information.

“Many teachers referenced the way that ‘CCSS expects’ the standards to be implemented, as though the standards themselves held sway over the process, though more often the complaints were aimed at state-, district-, and building-level administrators who sent mixed signals and left it to the teachers to decipher them,” Mr. Endacott said. Like some other researchers who presented at the conference, Mr. Endacott was critical of the standards and their implementation. In a presentation based on the Arkansas study, he described the creation and adoption of the common core as a “corporate-led process” that did not account for teachers’ needs or views. He said that some district and school leaders’ narrow interpretation and autocratic implementation styles had contributed to deprofessionalizing teaching by imposing scripted curriculum and limiting teachers’ ability to make their own decisions.

“In situations where implementation was handled more democratically, teachers reported far more autonomy, ability to differentiate instruction, and feelings of professionalism,” Mr. Endacott said.

In another presentation, researchers shared insights from Common Core Meets Education, a volume of nine articles pulled together by Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.

Navigating Score Drops

In his piece from the book, assistant education professor Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, suggests that states postpone using common-core assessment data to evaluate teachers until they have fully transitioned from old to new exams and ridden out the declines in student-proficiency rates that usually occur when states switch tests. (Kentucky’s proficiency rates, for instance, dropped 30 percent when it adopted common-core-aligned assessments.) If lawmakers do not wait, Mr. Polikoff said, teacher pushback against unfair evaluations could torpedo the evaluation changes and the new assessments.

At another session, Mr. Polikoff presented his well-publicized research on the failure of textbook publishers to align their materials to the standards. That work found that the majority of the content in supposedly common-core-aligned textbooks was identical to earlier, pre-core versions. Associate education professor Mindy Kornhaber and other researchers from Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, are surveying school districts about common-core implementation. They are also following up with proponents of the original push to implement the standards. These state and national “policy entrepreneurs,” first interviewed in 2011, are now being asked how their expectations played out in practice.

In research presented at the conference, the scholars aimed to identify who was benefiting financially—and how—from implementation, by identifying four main pathways for federal and philanthropic funding related to the standards. In three of the four pathways, the money was donated by philanthropies that ended up in the hands of nonprofit organizations that provided common-core-related resources or services either directly or indirectly to districts. The fourth path, exemplified by the federal Race to the Top program that offered incentives for states to adopt the standards, ended up in the hands of for-profit vendors whose services were purchased by districts.

“I’d like to draw a comparison between the common-core funding pathways and the 1849 gold rush,” researchers stated. “When the gold rush began, prospectors sought their fortune in the West. But the journey required equipment and supplies to even get started. Whether or not the prospectors found gold, purveyors of pickaxes, maps, assay equipment, and salt pork stood to profit by selling their wares. In this analogy, schools are the prospectors.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Researchers Shed Some Light on Common-Core Progress

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