Curriculum From Our Research Center

Teachers Say They Know More About the Common Core, But Challenges Linger

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — December 22, 2016 8 min read
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More than six years after states began adopting the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and math, most teachers say they are now familiar with the standards, and a growing number feel prepared to teach them to their students.

“But fewer than 1 in 5 “strongly agree” that classroom resources are well-aligned to the standards and professional development is high-quality, and many are turning to online sites like Teachers Pay Teachers to find materials for their classrooms.

That’s according to a new survey conducted in October by the Education Week Research Center. The center asked 532 teachers who are registered users of the Education Week website from elementary, middle, and high schools in the District of Columbia and 40 states that have adopted the common-core standards about their experiences with professional development, resources, and other aspects of the standards. This is the third survey about the common core that the center has conducted since 2012.

Over that time, teachers have increasingly reported that their curricular resources are in line with the standards and that they are more confident in teaching with them. In 2012, for instance, just 9 percent of teachers strongly agreed that their resources were aligned with the standards; in 2016, that share doubled to 18 percent. Thirty-nine percent of teachers said they felt “very prepared” to teach the standards to their whole class, up nearly 20 percentage points from 2012.

“On the one hand, you see an amazing amount of change from 2013 to 2016,” said Sandra Alberti, the director of the field impact team at Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit founded by some of the writers of the common core that focuses on professional learning for teachers. “But on the other hand,” she said, referring to the still-low numbers, “is it enough?”

But Alberti said some of the frustrations illuminated by the study results—for example, low levels of parent awareness about the standards or the roughly 80 percent of teachers who don’t “strongly agree” that their professional development is high-quality—are perpetual issues in public education. “The common core unveiled a lot of challenges we’ve always had.”

Are You Ready?

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education who has studied the standards and their implementation, said that the survey leaves unanswered questions of what’s actually happening in classrooms. “When teachers say they’re teaching common core, what does that mean?”

But, he said, teachers’ self-reports on their experiences with the standards offer some insights into trends and attitudes.

“I think we can learn that teachers are feeling somewhat more confident, but not all feel more confident. They feel more confident with the whole class than with certain groups; and it’s yet more evidence that they’re, if not turning away from texts, at least also relying on external sources which have questionable quality,” he said.

In this year’s survey, 39 percent of teachers reported feeling “very prepared” to teach the standards to their entire class. That’s up from 20 percent in 2012 and 16 percent in 2013.

But teachers are less confident in their ability to teach students who are learning English (17 percent report being “very prepared”), students who have disabilities (18 percent “very prepared”), academically at-risk students (26 percent “very prepared”), and low-income students (33 percent “very prepared”).

Teachers also voiced little confidence in their students’ readiness to master standards: Just 1 in 10 agreed that their students were very prepared to master the standards, and 8 percent said their students were very prepared to master common core-aligned assessments. Still, that’s an improvement since 2012, when just 5 percent said their students were very prepared to master the standards.

Polikoff said that teachers may simply have been responding reasonably to the word “master.”

“Even in states with very low standards, not every student was mastering them,” he said.

Dearth of Materials

The survey is yet another piece of evidence of an ongoing transformation in how teachers are finding their classroom materials.

Just 18 percent of teachers strongly agreed that their textbooks and main curricular materials are aligned to the common core. Again, that’s more than in previous survey years, but still represents just 1 in 5 teachers.

To fill the gap, about half of teachers said they turn to repositories of resources vetted by experts. But many reported that they themselves were taking on the task of determining whether materials were aligned: Fully one-third of teachers reported using rubrics to check on materials.

The most popular website teachers turned to for common core-aligned instructional resources was Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace for teacher-created materials. A quarter of teachers reported using Teachers Pay Teachers compared to just 9 percent who turned to state departments of education, the next-most-popular destination for classroom resources. That mirrors findings from a survey by RAND released earlier this year that found most teachers creating or selecting materials on their own.

Sandra Boyd, the chief operating officer of Achieve, a nonprofit that helped develop the standards, said that her organization is encouraging teachers to use rubrics. “It’s good that they’re thinking about alignment,” she said.

But it’s also a symptom of a world in which teachers are both designing and teaching curriculum. “Unfortunately, we’re putting a lot of pressure on teachers to spend hours creating and adapting materials and to be deliverers of that material,” Boyd said. “It’s a nearly impossible task, and it shows how far we have to go in making sure teachers really do have access to high-quality material.”

It’s unclear from the survey whether teachers are using online resources to supplement their existing resources or to bring in fun, one-off activities or lessons and how much they’re using them to replace other developed materials.

Boyd said teachers may also be becoming increasingly sophisticated in their awareness of the instructional resources marketplace. States such as Louisiana and independent organizations like EdReports.org have made an effort to review different resources and publicize how well they are aligned to the core.

Student Achievement Partners’ Alberti said that in some cases, districts may have adopted materials that weren’t fully aligned at the time of adoption and have not yet adopted newer, better-aligned materials. At the same time, students’ scores on common core-aligned tests are a component of teacher evaluation or rating systems in many states. “Teachers may have felt, ‘hey, my job’s on the line, I’m not going to wait for this to come to me,’” she said.

Judy Wurtzel, the director of education at the Tulsa, Okla.-based Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which has been focusing on professional learning for teachers and college- and career-ready standards, said that while teachers need to be able to customize and differentiate their lessons, this piecemeal approach to instructional materials comes with risks: “It’s important for there to be full-course materials available to teachers because it’s important to have coherence and systematic building of knowledge across a school year and grade to grade, and it’s really hard for individual teachers to build that.”

“But of course they’re online looking for other things,” she said. The situation might be different, she said, “if they had better-quality and better-aligned materials.”

Professional Development

Since 2012, the proportion of teachers who report having had more than five days of training overall in the common core has grown significantly. Teachers preferred collaborative planning time, coaching, or professional learning communities to more-structured, formal training or online training.

But along with that growth has come a finding that might be read as either a satisfaction or a weariness with the training: More teachers reported having “had some training and do not want more.”

That’s no surprise, said the Schusterman Foundation’s Wurtzel. Wurtzel said that early training sessions in common core were often explanatory or oriented around compliance.

“Once you’ve heard that a few times, you don’t need to hear it anymore,” she said. “It’s not that teachers don’t want professional learning. It’s that they want high-quality, job-embedded online opportunities connected to their work.”

Teachers also reported that they felt they had more familiarity with the standards than their administrators. Only 9 percent reported asking their administrators for help in determining whether curricular resources are aligned to the standards.

Alberti said that the standards’ rollout might explain that: When the core was introduced, she said, “no one came in as an expert. In some cases, teachers are just as likely to be expert as someone who’s been a math expert for 20 years.”

Practicing Politics

Nearly 40 percent of teachers reported avoiding using the phrase “common core” with students and the parents of the students they teach. About 15 percent reported that they even avoided using the phrase with administrators and teachers in their school.

And 48 percent of the teachers said that they had heard from parents about their general dislike or concern with application of common core. Others reported that parents were confused, or that they believed that the standards were too hard. Just 7 percent of the teachers received positive feedback from parents on the common core.

The USC’s Polikoff said teachers’ choice to avoid calling the standards by their name might be a “savvy move not to wade in those waters. They’re reacting to the reality of the political climate.”

Even groups that advocated for the standards said they understood why teachers might avoid the name.

“Many states have moved away from the brand. It doesn’t resonate,” said Achieve’s Boyd. (Thirty-one percent of the teachers in this survey reported that their state has adopted the common core but calls it something else.) From her organization’s point of view, though, “we’re more concerned about making sure you maintain high standards... and we care little about what you call them.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Common-Core Materials Hard To Find, Poll Says

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