Education Funding

States’ Rollout of Common Core Goes Under the Microscope

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 15, 2014 6 min read
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Organizations tracking implementation of the Common Core State Standards praise state education agencies for collaborating well with local officials and across state borders, and for developing a strong base of materials to help with the transition to the standards.

But states still face hurdles, analysts find, including finding adequate funding to make the common core a reality at the classroom level and assuring that the rollout goes smoothly amid other significant policy shifts.

“Trying to take the common core and implement it with the other issues of accountability and teacher evaluations is a challenge,” said Ashley Jochim, a research analyst at the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education, who has studied how states are transitioning to the standards.

States’ progress in meeting those challenges is getting a fresh round of attention from nonpartisan groups and government officials alike:

• The U.S. Department of Education last month released a report on states’ implementation of the common core as part of their progress in the federal Race to the Top grant program.

• The National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers—the two groups that oversaw the standards’ development—along with other organizations are looking at implementation through a six-state collaborative program announced last year. The goal of the collaborative is to help states identify trouble spots and focus resources on fixing them.

• The Southern Regional Education Board, a nonpartisan policy and research group consisting of state members, has issued a series of topical reports based on state surveys that touch on a broad basket of issues, from professional development to accountability, although it did not issue state-by-state roundups.

Adding to the scrutiny is the attention and pressure surrounding this spring’s field-testing of assessments aligned with the common core, anxiety about the 2014-15 school year when the tests will count, and continued political opposition to the tests and the common core itself.

No Standard Metrics

During a March panel discussion in Washington about the standards, Mike Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that provides resources for and information about the common core, said that judging implementation could be difficult.

“We don’t have any kind of good metrics” for measuring its success, he said.

A few groups are trying to at least provide more information, though not on a uniform set of criteria or time frame.

The U.S. Education Department reports highlight individual states’ progress through September 2013 without including a general summary of states’ activities.

Those reports praise New York state and Maryland for making curricula and other resources available to teachers on a large scale and collaborating with other officials throughout their K-12 systems. Also in this vein, Georgia was credited for supporting its transition to the standards “by providing educators with a variety of resources, professional development, and individual support to help implement the [common core].”

Tennessee also received kudos from the Education Department for providing extensive common-core-aligned resources and training, as well as for communicating with educators through biweekly newsletters about new common-core resources and an umbrella website for the standards, tncore.org.

Yet in several of these states, the federal reports say, it’s been difficult to ensure that the classroom and professional resources were being put to good use by teachers in their classrooms.

Maryland “did not have the means to assess” whether its curricular resources were being used successfully, the department said, while many New York teachers were still uncertain as to which materials were appropriate for their subjects and grade levels.

And in Florida, the adequacy of classroom resources has been the bigger concern: “Florida educators implementing the [common core] have fewer state-level resources than [the Florida education department] anticipated,” the federal report for that state concludes.

The SREB reports, meanwhile, found that state education agencies were responding well to unprecedented demand for help from the field.

“They are collaborating with regional entities and districts. In some cases they are also working systematically with schools and teachers,” according to the report.

Among many states’ successful work in creating common-core materials and other resources, EngageNY is one of the most widely shared and has turned out “amazingly well,” according to Kim Anderson, the project director for SREB’s reports on common-core implementation.

“It does come through loud and clear just how much work states are doing,” Ms. Anderson said.

On this and other topics, however, the group found that energetic efforts at the state level did not always counteract “variation in local implementation of the standards.” Many teachers, for example, “are still not prepared to implement them successfully” and need more support and resources, according to the group’s report.

“It’s a big shift in pedagogy. It’s a big shift in content. It’s going to take time to make it work,” said Alan Burke, the deputy superintendent at the Washington state education department.

Quality Control

Last October, Mr. Burke’s state was one of six to begin participating in the Improving Student Learning at Scale Collaborative, along with Arizona, California, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Supported by the NGA and the CCSSO, as well as other organizations, the collaborative is designed to help states identify trouble spots in their transition to the standards while improving connections between various players within the K-12 sphere, as well as between public-school leaders and higher education. (Washington state is using the collaborative specifically to involve higher education more closely with common-core implementation.)

None of the states in this collaborative received federal Race to the Top grants in the first or second round. Mr. Burke and Richard Laine, the director of the education division at the NGA, indicated that more money to scale up professional-development efforts at the state level would be helpful, especially for states that didn’t receive those Race to the Top grants.

Mr. Laine said states are making progress in ensuring that curricular materials are truly aligned with the common core. But states are still working on how to make sure teachers aren’t overburdened when it comes to ensuring alignment.

“Just putting a lot of lesson plans out there without some sort of quality control is almost as bad as having no lesson plans out there,” Mr. Laine said. He said states in the collaborative were struggling with scaling up their professional-development initiatives.

The NGA-CCSSO collaborative also found that states were continuing to work on having the capacity to oversee this work, instead of relying too much on districts and subsequently finding the quality to be inconsistent.

“Good starts have been made; great efforts have begun,” said Ms. Anderson. “No teacher said that the work is done.”

Communication Concerns

In addition to more technical policy and capacity issues, states are also still working on how best to communicate what the standards mean for educators, such as how they should expect the standards to change professional evaluations and accountability.

States’ ability to respond to various concerns from both schools and the broader community might have an impact, for example, on how the general public reacts to the anticipated drop in assessment scores at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

The SREB report notes that teachers who feel they haven’t been adequately informed about the shifts required by the standards can feel frustrated in terms of how well they’re actually implementing them. Meanwhile, state officials see that policy changes can be hindered by ineffective messaging.

“All of the states are trying to figure out, how do you build this coalition?” Mr. Laine said. “This shift is important for students, to the state economy. They all know the projected drop in reported scores that will come a little over a year from now,” Mr. Laine said, referring to tests slated to be given in the 2014-15 school year.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Observers Put Common-Core Rollout Under Microscope

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