Standards Opinion

Teaching the Common Core Requires Fine-Tuning School Policies

By John T. McCrann — March 23, 2015 5 min read
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Let me begin with three scenarios from my school that I think exemplify successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards:

• A principal walks into a math department meeting to find the whiteboard filled with ideas for courses and performance assessments, and scribbled with words like “problem-solving,” “precision,” and “reasoning.” Four teachers and two coaches excitedly pore over the standards, plan experiences, and discuss how individual students in the school could move from where they are now to become deeper thinkers and more effective problem-solvers.

• A student in a math class asks, “Why do I need to know this?” Half a dozen students raise their hands to provide answers: “We need to learn structures for arguments so that we can defend what we believe in.” “We need to be able to reason like this to solve all kinds of problems at home.” “Remember our unit’s essential questions.” The teacher does not say a word, and no one says “because we have to know it for the test” as a justification.

• Students gather in a room during the last week of the semester for a high-stakes assessment. Instead of filling in multiple-choice bubbles, they sit in small groups discussing a mathematical paper. The presenting student walks the group through her proof about a geometric phenomenon, including descriptions of the relevant vocabulary, a claim, mathematical evidence (equations, writing, and drawings), and considerations of counterclaims. The other people at the table—some are the student’s peers, while others are working mathematicians or adults from mathematical fields—join together after the presentation in a conversation to critique the student’s reasoning and work together toward a greater understanding of the proof.

The concept of “backwards planning,” in which effective planning begins with the end in mind, is familiar to most educators. For me, these scenes illustrate the kinds of “ends” that we should “backwards plan” toward in working with the common standards—moments when we experienced successful implementation by shifting our collective thinking about math toward a vision embodying the three main shifts inherent in the framework: depth over breadth; coherence; and rigor.


Unfortunately, such moments are rare in many schools. The reason is simple: Most of the federal, state, and local policies that have shaped schools over the past 10 years have served as barriers to these types of experiences, rather than supports. “High standards for all” is an admirable sentiment, but the same politicians who use that phrase in their stump speeches seem to gravitate to policies that hinge on using rigid, memorization-based assessments to judge student learning.

As a result, I’ve spent most of my teaching career feeling like a mathematical track coach: guiding my students over the hurdles placed in front of them by standardized tests and sacrificing mathematical understanding and depth in the mad dash toward the finish line.

The common standards offer the promise of something different—a chance for teachers and students to dig deeply into mathematical concepts and develop reasoning and problem-solving skills.


Education Week Commentary and Education Week Teacher asked five leading educators to assess the state of common-standards implementation from their perspectives, as those who are closest to it.

This special section is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.

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So what sort of policy framework would allow for effective implementation of the common standards in more schools? My current school—a small public high school in New York City that emphasizes teacher leadership—has been fortunate in that it has been given (and has taken) opportunities to diverge a bit from the norm. So let me point to a few of the initiatives that led to the types of scenes I highlighted above.

The biggest single factor was our school’s induction last summer into the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group created to test alternative assessment formats. The New York State Department of Education has waived the state’s conventional testing requirements for the 48 schools in the consortium. Instead, students at consortium schools can meet their graduation requirements by passing performance assessments.

This change allowed us to implement an assessment strategy that reflects our mission to cultivate learning in four areas we call Habits of Mind: Habit of Voice, Habit of Evidence, Habit of Connection, and Habit of Perspective. Freed of top-down, standardized assessment demands, we were able to develop tasks that target and foster those qualities.

In particular, we developed two high-stakes performance assessments (one for students to move from 10th to 11th grade, the second for graduation). For these assessments, students write papers in each of the four core disciplines and defend their papers in front of their teachers, peers, and outside evaluators.

We believe the new common standards require this kind of assessment. How can we assess depth of knowledge and coherent understanding of rigorous material with a traditional assessment tool?

To prepare students to perform at this level, teachers at our school are asked to stop being “track coaches” and find ways to develop understanding and sense-making. No longer forced to jump arbitrary hurdles, students more fully understand what is expected of them and are rising to high standards of thinking, writing, and speaking. Accountability has been transformed from something that was being done to our community into something that our community understands and enacts every day.

Of course, we would not have been able to accomplish these changes without the resources required to reimagine curriculum and assessment. We took advantage of a restructuring provision in our union’s agreement with the city that allowed us to reconfigure certain aspects of our school schedule and leadership structure. We do not work more hours or have more responsibilities than our colleagues at other schools. But we have been able to redistribute duties so that all nonteaching time in a teacher’s workday can be devoted to planning curriculum and assessment.

Additionally, we created compensated teacher-leadership roles to spread out the number of people responsible for oversight of instruction and to leverage the classroom-based expertise of our strongest staff members.

We have seen positive results from these reforms so far. Students are meeting the standards, showing a year’s worth of growth on regular schoolwide performance tasks across all subgroups. Ninety-five percent of students have passed the high-stakes performance assessment in their core subjects that we require of them to move from 10th to 11th grade. What’s more, students, parents, and teachers report high levels of approval on our school-community survey, and we have a staff-turnover rate of less than 4 percent.

These outcomes can be traced, for the most part, to a few key policy changes. Policymakers should have a vested interest in creating experiences like the ones I’ve described. They should learn from the examples of select schools that top-down policies can limit teachers’ ability to effectively implement a framework like the common core. While schools need some state oversight to ensure social justice and equity, students’ needs are best served by grassroots efforts in which school communities think together and implement ideas together.

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Why School Policies Need to Be Fine-Tuned


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