Finding the Gold Standard of Common Standards Implementation

By Ross Brenneman — July 18, 2014 3 min read
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In North Carolina’s Iredell-Statesville school district, mentioning the Common Core State Standards elicits a response best described as “nonchalant.”

I visited Iredell-Statesville in May as part of Education Week Teacher‘s recent special report dedicated to personalized learning, “Getting Personal: Teachers, Technology, and Tailored Instruction.” (Read it all, tell your friends.) Iredell-Statesville won $20 million from the Race to the Top-District competitive-grant program in December 2012, and by all accounts within the school system, implementation of the personalized-learning plan that won it that funding seems to be going smoothly, including the 1-to-1 program that gave every middle and high school student a MacBook Air.

But the district has also had a smooth implementation of the Common Core State Standards, too, according to many educators there.

“It’s really not that new, and I don’t understand what the fuss is about, honest to goodness,” said David Ivey, principal of North Iredell Middle School, one of many administrators in Iredell-Statesville to come from a career in teaching.

If that experience has been shared in the rest of North Carolina, you might not know it. On Wednesday, Gov. Patrick McCrory announced he would be signing a bill to trigger a “review” of the common-core standards to see if the state should be reconsidering its adoption.

That’s a less aggressive approach than that taken by Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, which have all dropped the common-core standards.

In Iredell-Statesville, the view ranges from indifferent to enthusiastic, but with little negativity.

“I think we’ve had the support that we need for it,” said Leigh Brown, a language arts teacher at East Middle School. “That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy.”

Kaitlyn Alford, a language arts teacher at North Iredell Middle, admitted being intimidated by the English/language arts standards, before finding opportunity in them.

“When you first look at that, it’s very frustrating, but then it’s very liberating,” she said. “It allows me to open up a lot more lessons I can do so that I’m not boxed in.”

“We did so much preparation before it happened,” said Erin Walle, a teacher-turned-blended learning coordinator at North Iredell Middle. “And the same thing’s happening with this whole blended-learning initiative. We did so much preparation before we said, ‘Here’s a MacBook.’ I don’t think our teachers around here are having a fit about common core as much as teachers around the country, the state, the other counties around here.”

The common standards have made a believer out of North Iredell Middle instructional facilitator Barbara Hill, who got herself choked up talking about the changes she’s seen since she started teaching 28 years ago. She says that, unlike some of her colleagues, she understands the hype and the instructional changes the standards require.

“I taught math, and I taught students how to solve problems, but I didn’t teach them how to be a problem solver,” Hill said. “Am I gonna teach my students just the Pythagorean theorem, or am I gonna tell them, when they need to build a handicapped ramp at home, and they have an aging parent, how they’re going to figure out the slope of that handicapped ramp? That’s what the common core is all about.”

A good deal of credit for the district’s approach to policy implementation goes to a simple chart produced in 2007 that features five central questions:

The chart is already an institution, hanging on just about every wall in every room of every district building.

Superintendent Brady Johnson believes in the model, not just for the actual picture, but for what it represents.

“That don’t cost a dime right there,” he said. “That is just strategically aligning your work and organizing schools as a team, and learning how to use assessments to write prescriptions for kids, and lots and lots and lots of collaboration.”

Top image: A rock outside North Iredell Middle School, in Olin, N.C. Credit: Ross Brenneman

Bottom image: A triangle with a mission. Credit: Iredell-Statesville school district

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.