Even as the Common Core State Standards are being put into practice across most of the country, nearly half of teachers feel unprepared to teach them, especially to disadvantaged students, according to a new survey.
The study by the EPE Research Center, an arm of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, found deep wells of concern among teachers about their readiness to meet the challenges posed by the common core in English/language arts and mathematics.
“Teachers are under tremendous pressure,” said Lisa Dickinson, an assistant director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, which conducts several common-core training programs in school districts each month. “The new standards do require a major shift in instruction. And the needed supports really aren’t there.”
Teachers in adopting states were asked to rate their preparedness on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “very prepared” and 1 “not at all prepared.” When asked how prepared they were to teach the common core to their own students as a whole, 49 percent rated themselves a 1, 2, or 3.
More than two-thirds said they were not well enough prepared to teach the standards to English-language learners or students with disabilities. More than half said they were not yet ready to teach them to low-income students or those considered at risk of academic failure.
Another survey, released last week, however, found teachers feeling confident about their readiness to teach the new standards.
The Neediest Students
The EPE study, based on an online survey conducted in October, is not nationally representative of U.S. teachers. It is drawn from 600 K-12 educators who are registered users of edweek.org.
But the sample is quite diverse, drawing on K-12 teachers, school-based curriculum coordinators, instructional coaches, content specialists, and department leaders in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, and in schools of all sizes, serving students of varying income levels. As such, it is one notable gauge of how the precollegiate world is responding to the expectations of the common standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
And that gauge shows pronounced worry that teachers, students, districts, and states are far from ready to make the common core a success in the classroom, a little more than two years from when the first tests on the standards are scheduled to be given.
Students with special challenges, such as learning disabilities or limited English proficiency, appear to be particularly at risk of not being well served, since educators said they were the least prepared to teach those students. Even teachers who have had more rather than less professional development in the common standards reported that they were the least ready for those subgroups of students.
Three-quarters of those who have had more than five days of training said they felt prepared to teach their own students as a whole, compared with one-third of those who had had less than one day of professional development.
Six in 10 of those with more than five days of preparation felt ready to teach low-income students or those academically at risk, compared with about one-quarter of those who had had less than a day of professional development.
Students with disabilities and English-learners posed the greatest challenges: Only four in 10 of the teachers who have had more than five days of professional development in the common core felt prepared to teach the standards to such students. Fewer than 14 percent of those with less than a day of training said they felt ready.
While teachers’ sense of readiness to teach the common core tracks with how much professional development they’ve had, the survey shows nearly three in 10 have not had any such training at all. Of the 70 percent who have, 41 percent have had four days or more. Three in 10 have had only one day or less. Thirty-one percent reported having had two to three days of professional development.
Many in education contend that the common standards demand significant changes in pedagogy, and, in some cases, teachers’ content knowledge. In math, for instance, students are being asked to demonstrate their understanding not only of procedures, but also of their conceptual underpinnings. In English/language arts, they’re expected to marshal evidence from what they read to support arguments and build their muscle with informational texts.
The most frequently addressed subject of professional development was English/language arts, followed by math and a comparison of the common standards with states’ previous standards. Curriculum resources and collaboration with colleagues to teach the standards were also popular topics of professional development.
The least-frequent topic of professional development was how to teach the standards to subgroups of students. Only 18 percent of those who have had some training said it explored that area.
That’s a worrisome sign for some of the neediest students, said Sherida Britt, who oversees some of the professional-development activities conducted by the Alexandria, Va.-based group ASCD.
“We have to look at what teachers are saying and give them opportunities to engage in professional learning that addresses these issues and the needs of those particular students,” she said.
Although research has shown that job-embedded professional development is the most effective kind, only three in 10 educators who had received some training for the common core said that was the way it had been given.
“Due to resources, professional development is still the drive-by” variety in most districts, said the AFT’s Ms. Dickinson.
More typically, professional development was provided through seminars, lectures or conferences, or collaborative planning time with colleagues.
The most frequent providers of that training are staff members from the teachers’ schools or district central offices. One-third reported getting it from outside professionals; one-quarter received it from the state department of education; and 15 percent got it from a professional association.
What teachers really need, Ms. Dickinson said, is time to collaborate during the school day, when they can “really unpack the standards and look at lessons and understand what it looks like for student learning.
“Teachers need time to collaborate [not only] within their grade, but across grades,” she said, “so they can understand the progression of the standards, what’s come before, and where they’re going. This is very complex work, and the time is just not built in for them.”
Funding and capacity problems complicate the provision of good-quality professional development, said Ms. Britt. Without a “strong, clear vision and support” for ongoing, consultative professional development, teachers get quick-hit sessions that don’t really build their collective capacity to improve instruction, she said.
“That’s pretty much in line with what teachers have been getting in previous years,” said Ms. Britt. “But the common core compounds the problem because there’s a sense of urgency. [The common assessments] are coming [in 2014-15], so people are really scrambling.”
Schools, Districts, States
In addition to being asked about their own sense of preparedness for the common standards, educators answering the EPE Research Center survey were also asked to size up the readiness of their schools, districts, and states for the new standards. On the whole, they had more confidence in their own readiness than in that of the systems in which they function.
Fewer than one-third said their schools were well prepared or very well prepared for the standards, and more than two-thirds said their schools were not well prepared. Confidence dropped as the locus of authority moved even further from the classroom: Only 27 percent of the educators said their districts were up to the task, and only two in 10 said their states were.
Turning their eyes to their own students, teachers showed grave concerns about the children’s prospects for mastering the standards.
Asked to rate how well prepared their students are for that task on the 1-to-5 scale, with 5 being very prepared, only 23 percent of the educators gave the students 4’s or 5’s. Thirty-seven percent gave them 1’s and 2’s, and one-third gave them 3’s.
Teachers gave a mix of responses when asked about the standards’ quality and their potential to improve their practice. About 37 percent said the common standards are about as good as their own states’ previous standards, and 41 percent said the common standards were better. But even with that mixture of views, two-thirds said they thought the new standards would improve their teaching.
The EPE Research Center’s survey of educators’ views on the common core was funded by the Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Standards Worrying Teachers