Standards Opinion

Charting a Common-Sense Course for the Common Core

By Jane Leibbrand & Alice Seagren — May 06, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: The Commentary incorrectly stated that the New York legislature had approved a bill to delay the use of new common-core assessments for teacher and principal evaluations. The bill has only passed the New York legislature’s lower house, the Assembly.

The American education system is between a rock and a hard place, due to the intersection of two major reform strands—first, introduction of the rigorous Common Core State Standards, which bring new expectations for student (and teacher) performance. At the same time, new assessments will be administered to students, and administrators, in turn, will be required to hold teachers accountable based on the assessment results as never before.

The confluence of these two movements is creating trauma, drama, resignations, and meltdowns, as well as improvement in teaching and learning in some schools. Researchers traditionally tell practitioners to introduce one change at a time to best determine the effects of that change, but we are past the point of adhering to that wise advice.

Admittedly, our expectations of student proficiency have often been geared to a fairly low common denominator. The new common-core standards require high-level analysis, synthesis, and problem-solving, but those higher-level skills take time to develop, and they develop only with the help of good teachers.

Since the state assessments in use under the federal No Child Left Behind Act do not align with the new standards, two major assessment consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—were created to provide uniformity in assessing student performance across states. But some states have backed away from using these consortia. Kansas is just one of the states that have dropped out of a consortium and decided to develop their own assessments.


Accountability could become the tipping point for some states in deciding whether to continue embracing the new standards. Some find themselves in a tight spot. Those states receiving federal Race to the Top grants agreed to reform their teacher-evaluation systems to link teacher performance to student performance directly. Some states have now directed that a certain percentage of the teacher evaluation will be tied to student performance—usually between 35 percent and 40 percent.

Last year, an American Institutes for Research official told state school board leaders that 17 states had asked schools to implement new teacher evaluations at the same time they were implementing the common core. Only policymakers far removed from the classroom could conceivably recommend mixing and pouring these two gargantuan movements into a blender and expecting teachers to drink up with nary a complaint or protest.

Meanwhile, a Center for Education Policy study completed in spring 2013 found that only 10 states (out of the 40 that responded to a CEP survey) had provided more than 75 percent of their teachers with any professional development on the common core; 11 states could not estimate the number. In addition, 26 states said it was a “major challenge to provide state-sponsored professional development to all teachers in sufficient quality and quantity.” These findings signify that this past fall may have been the first time many teachers had any introduction to the standards. Yet 2014-15 is the year that assessments will be administered on a statewide basis. States could develop an allergic reaction—call it standards rejection.

Educators and policymakers expect student scores to be lower on the new assessments. That fact needs to be clearly stated to the public as the standards are implemented and assessed.

For example, Minnesota used a phase-in approach when launching new math standards in 2008. State officials expected that student performance on the new assessment would be lower at first than in years past, and they prepared parents and the public for that reality. The state also provided time to learn for students and teachers. Math academies were organized regionally so that all teachers could align curricula to the new standards; teachers also received support on best practices. The process was fair for students and educators. As teachers became better versed in the new standards, the number of students meeting the proficiency benchmark increased each year.

A five-year plan would seem reasonable for carrying out change on the order of new common standards and assessments."

Any large-scale change requires a phase-in period. For example, the accrediting body for the teaching profession designated a five-year implementation plan when it approved performance-oriented standards in 2000. Institutions needed time to harness the necessary human and physical resources to meet the standards. The current accrediting body is now instituting a multiyear phase-in period for new standards approved in 2013.

A five-year plan would seem reasonable for carrying out change on the order of new common standards and assessments. Some states may not have flexibility in their implementation timelines for accountability provisions because of issues with No Child Left Behind Act waivers. We hope that provisions can be worked out which acknowledge the tsunami of organizational change. It will take communication among all players to accomplish common-sense responses. A new study from Education First concludes that “educators are in a tough spot as their students approach tests that aren’t aligned to what they’re being taught,” and not enough instructional materials have yet been developed.

Let’s make common sense common across the states. Maryland’s legislature recently approved a bill that would allow two-year delays in using the new assessments for teacher and principal evaluations, a schedule that aligns with the general plan we propose below. New York’s lower legislative house, the Assembly, passed a similar bill. Our phase-in plan would start with the creation of state common-core implementation groups. In assembling such groups, we’d invite as members state and district teachers of the year (those recognized in the profession as outstanding exemplars) and add state and district personnel who were strong instructional leaders. The groups’ charge would be to deploy outstanding practitioners and teacher-educators to train and support teachers and principals statewide, so that all educators receive equal training. We recommend that such groups examine student results yearly and alter training plans as needed. For the first year of the phase-in, which is 2013-14 in many states, states and districts could label the year Novice I Implementation Year, or something similar. Doing so would signal to the public that there were new expectations for students, teachers, and leaders. Teacher use of new standards would be considered and new assessments field-tested. Additional measures of academic progress would be used to assure parents and the public that accountability for results was not being ignored.

In the second year, or what could be called Novice II Implementation Year, state, district, and school working groups would examine student progress and determine what additional curriculum changes and professional-development support were needed for successful teaching and learning. The new assessment would not be used for high-stakes decisions, but progress would be reported publicly with an explanatory narrative.

In year three, states would continue administering the assessments, and schools and teachers would continue to adapt their teaching appropriately. If gaps were found between the assessments and student performance, more intensive analysis of curriculum delivery and instructional support would be expected. Results would continue to be reported and explained, but would not be used for high-stakes decisionmaking. Schools would continue to use and report on other measures of academic achievement.

By year four, there should be significant alignment between what is being taught and student performance on the assessments. Work groups should continue to analyze student performance and target professional development. Some states might elect to use the assessment results as part of evaluation frameworks.

Year five would become the first year of full implementation of the standards. States could include student performance as a percentage of teacher evaluations or include student performance with other local assessments and academic measures to determine teacher effectiveness.

States are attempting to chart a course through the morass of two game-changing movements: standards that should alter teaching and learning for the better, and new accountability expectations. These new elements in the education system deserve a proper phase-in period, and teachers and administrative leaders deserve the opportunity to implement them with support and time to learn.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Charting a Common-Sense Course For the Common Core


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