Many Districts Lagging on Implementing Common Core, Survey Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — October 08, 2014 6 min read
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With springtime testing for the common core only months away, nearly a third of district superintendents are still scrambling to put in place the curriculum and professional development necessary to teach the standards, according to survey results released Wednesday.

The Center on Education Policy, which has been tracking common-core implementation since the standards were released four years ago, concluded in its report that “the future of the common core remains uncertain at this important juncture” because many districts still are not fully prepared to impart the new academic expectations in English/language arts and mathematics.

“When you look at the data on implementation, you’ve got significant numbers [of districts] in the throes of doing it this year, and many, also, doing it beyond this school year,” Diane Stark Rentner, the CEP’s deputy director and the lead author of the report, said. “It seems to lead to the conclusion that more time is needed to get this down into the classroom level and have everyone more comfortable with the content and be ready to move forward and succeed.”

About 30 percent of superintendents surveyed said, for instance, that they won’t fully implement the Common Core State Standards in both math and English/language arts in all their schools until the 2015-16 school year or later, or that they weren’t sure when they’d be implemented. About one-third said they will reach that milestone this school year. The survey drew from a nationally representative sample of 211 districts.

Superintendents still have much work to do to prepare teachers to teach the standards and to make sure principals are ready to be instructional leaders for them, the study shows. A little more than one-third report that they’ll have teachers and principals fully ready by this year; a little less than a third say that work won’t be complete until 2015-16 or later. Districts say that they’re even farther behind on being technologically ready for common-core tests, and having good-quality, aligned instructional materials.

“We are in a better place than we were three years ago, and we’re almost there” in having the standards fully implemented in all schools, said Daniel D. Curry, the superintendent of the 16,000-student Calvert County schools in Maryland.

“The heavy lift has been developing our own units of study, involving teachers in the summer, after school and on weekends, keeping some core parts that have been there, but restructuring them, because there is no commercial product that really gets this done,” he said. “Our teachers are worn out.”

Rising Support for Standards

Even as the report cast doubt on the chances of successful common-core implementation nationwide, it showed that superintendents increasingly see the standards as worthy and important tools for improving student learning. That faith became a weapon in the fight over the standards, the report said.

Putting the Pieces in Place

While many districts have already hit key implementation milestones for the common core, nearly a quarter of district leaders said they don’t expect to achieve those targets until the 2015–16 school year.


“If district leaders see the potential of the standards, despite the challenges they may be facing regarding implementation, then they could be an important part of a strategy to maintain and/or restore support and reduce misinformation,” the study said.

Survey responses, gathered from February to June, showed that superintendents are much more enthusiastic than they were in 2011, when the CEP last surveyed them, about the common core’s potential to improve students’ skills and knowledge.

The superintendents also give the standards higher marks for rigor than they did in 2011. Ninety percent agreed, for instance, that the standards are more rigorous than their states’ previous academic standards. Three years ago, fewer than six in 10 responded that way.

“We think that’s probably because they’ve started working with the standards more,” Ms. Rentner said. “In 2011, the standards were brand new, and there was some confusion; we were hearing a lot back then that people thought they were similar to their state’s old standards. Now the superintendents have gotten into the standards more deeply, and they’re realizing that they are more rigorous, and also more promising in terms of their potential to improve students’ skills.”

For some leaders, the introduction of the common standards wasn’t so much a big shift as a welcome boost for work they were already doing.

“When the common core was adopted in Illinois in 2010, there was almost a sense of relief among the instructional leaders in our district, because they were more in line with what we already believed,” said Tracey Landry, the director of curriculum and instruction in the 3,000-student Grayslake Community High School District 127, north of Chicago. “We thought the previous Illinois standards were like a Texas river: a mile wide and an inch deep.”

The new standards dovetailed nicely with a major curriculum review, and an intense focus on staff training, that were already underway in the district, said Grayslake Superintendent Catherine M. Finger.

“It was good timing for us,” she said. “[The common core] added a framework to our conversation. We are having deeper conversations with our teachers.”

But the superintendents in the survey also reported an increasingly sobering view of the challenges ahead. More and more, they are seeing the depth of the instructional and curricular changes needed to fully realize the standards. More than 85 percent of the superintendents said the common-core standards require “fundamental changes” in instruction. Three years earlier, only half held that view.

Seeing the Heavier Lift

Getting ready for common-core tests tops district leaders’ lists of challenges as they put the standards into practice. Ninety-two percent characterized that as a major or minor challenge. More than 90 percent said the same about finding resources to support all the activities necessary for common-core implementation, and finding or creating good curriculum for the standards.

Superintendents reported experiencing more pushback to the common core—especially from outside their districts—than they had in 2011. The question was phrased a little differently in 2011, but in that study, only 5 percent of district leaders characterized resistance among parents and community members as a major challenge. In the 2014 study, 34 percent said resistance from “sources outside the K-12 system” represented a major challenge.

“Districts implementing the common core are facing increasing opposition to the standards while trying to reconcile misinformation and misunderstanding about their intended impact,” CEP researchers said in the study’s closing remarks.

Ms. Finger, in the Grayslake district, said that she hears from her colleagues that they are dealing with heavy doses of opposition or skepticism from parents and teachers with respect to the common core. The closest she’s come to pushback in her district, however, has been questions posed by some of her parents.

“Some of our parents have asked, ‘So should I be afraid? What’s up?’ And when we explain it, and share our take on it, then our parents are like, ‘Okay, that’s cool,’” she said.

Some of the findings in the new CEP survey mirror the results of a poll published in June by Gallup and Education Week. Only 44 percent of the superintendents in that survey said they believed their teachers were well-prepared to teach the common-core standards. They were more upbeat about their curriculum materials, however; 57 percent said they were confident that their materials were aligned to new standards.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Poll: Standards Implementation Lags in Districts


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