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4 Lessons Learned From Common Core Implementation

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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So it's been a few years since the Common Core, and wow, has it been a wild ride! Some states have dropped the CCSS altogether and replaced them with similar standards. Some still have the CCSS, but have opted out of the tests related to them. Parents are also choosing to have their students opt out from these high-stakes tests. Some teachers are reporting the rigorous learning happening in their classrooms, while others are concerned about the appropriate level of the rigor. Textbook companies have been called out on their true lack of aligned materials, and great teachers have been creating their own lessons and units to meet their students' needs.

Throughout all this, schools and districts have spent a lot of time on implementing the standards. I've had the privilege of visiting many schools that are implementing the CCSS and have learned a lot from these visits. Here are some of my major takeaways for making sure that implementation works.

A View From the Front Lines

Ongoing and Job-Embedded Professional Development

I've asked teachers about the professional development they have received for CCSS. Those who are struggling received a "spray and pray" two-day institute (or similar) on the standards. We know this doesn't work, and yet we still do it -- and it has got to stop. Teachers deserve more. They deserve to be supported in an ongoing manner. Why are teachers bitter about these one or two professional development days? Because they know that they won't likely receive much support afterward. Who wouldn't be bitter? Those teachers who feel successful speak of instructional coaches that supported them, planning time to work on lessons and units with other teachers, reflection protocols, and common meeting times to look at student. This should be commonplace!

Clear Connection to Instruction

Standards themselves are abstract and not clearly connected to the how of teaching. Teachers who struggled were able to comprehend the standards themselves, but weren't given tools to refine their teaching in order to meet the standards. On the other hand, those teachers who were successful received instructional tools like text-dependent questioning or close-reading strategies. Maybe their school implemented CCSS through an engaging model of learning like project-based learning or understanding by design. Here instruction was the focus, and teachers knew how to align to the Common Core through practical strategies and curriculum design.

Focus on Assessment, Not Testing

Although the high-stakes tests were in place, I found that many schools didn't focus so much on these tests. Yes, they embedded test-like performance assessments and similar practices into their curriculum, but they focused more on great assessment practices. They assessed how their students were learning and used that information to inform their instruction. They helped their students set goals, and they set clear outcomes for learning. They created their own more engaging assessments of learning. They focused on what assessment should be, not how to react when it gets out of hand.

Leverage Teacher Leaders

Capacity building, focusing on teacher leadership, and telling great teacher success stories can build a culture of success. I visited some schools where, in addition to providing professional development to all teachers, they asked for volunteers and selected teachers to serve as leaders. These teachers in turn would lead professional learning, invite other teachers to visit their classrooms, and build exemplar lessons and units to support their colleagues. Here, the implementation was sustainable. Now there was a group of highly-skilled teachers who would remain to carry on the work, and their skills were honored and leveraged.

The Right Way

Frankly, using the implementation of the CCSS as a case study, I think the ideas above should be considered no matter what initiative or focus is being introduced within a school or district. All teachers should know how professional development relates directly to their practice. All teachers should be given practical tools for implementation. All teachers should receive ongoing, embedded professional development. They should be leveraged for their expertise and leadership. And finally, we should focus on assessment and move away from our focus on standardized testing.

I urge all leaders in the education field to live up to these practices as they lead their teachers, schools, districts, and states in implementing new teaching practices and methods.

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Andrew Miller's picture
Andrew Miller
Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School

Cindy, I totally agree on communication and messaging! Thanks for adding that piece, especially that is has to happen often and ongoing!

Andrew Miller's picture
Andrew Miller
Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School

Gaetan, I've seen that mistake too, where we say PLC but it really isn't! If done well, it really speaks to the job-embedded and ongoing piece of PD.

Concerned Teacher's picture

My concerns as an elementary teacher: I have taught gifted and talented programs in addition to 18 years teaching gen ed grades 3-6. While I come from a background that has long appreciated the higher level learning that is tapped through common core, I feel like pushing it too early leaves a lack of knowledge and reflection. I used Bloom's strategies to encourage analysis, evaluation, and synthesis while teaching Gate programs over the years and have always loved the connections made, but I realize these students already have a rich foundation of facts, reflection and simple knowledge that was not necessarily shared with all gen ed students. These higher levels skills are invaluable for all at some point, but the process is developmental and I fear too many are missing foundational pieces if pushed too early. To me, learning, somewhat like digestion, is a natural process and in many ways forcing it too quickly is counterproductive. Eventually, cc can help students process knowledge and to understand systems, but we are taking away acclimation and personal connections if we force it on all students at too early an age. While the pendulum swings to the other side of the spectrum, I worry we underestimate the power of facts, common sense and enjoyment when we move past this lowest tier of Bloom's knowledge triangle too quickly and on to processing. It seems we might produce many eloquent speakers without an appreciation for rich factual information. Education is still individual and while implementing mandated cc, it is important to remember not all are ready to juggle ideas at such early ages but rather to simply be immersed and encouraged to love learning.

Jodell Allinger, Ed.D.'s picture

Andrew, I appreciate and value your insights about implementing the Common Core State Standards. I wholeheartedly agree with the four takeaways from the front-line view. However, I can't help but wonder what responses you might have received if you had asked the district personnel responsible for providing PD about their perceptions of the effectiveness of their professional development efforts. My guess is that you would have heard a great deal of frustration and challenges from those responsible and participating in the roll out of the new standards. This was my experience as a TOSA and instructional coach. It brings to mind a question that had been rolling around my mind as to how districts might provide more effective systemic professional development, yet tailored to the specific needs of teachers, the front-line implementers.
Then enter Dr. Dean Fixen, Senior Scientist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a summer presentation titled, "From 'Tinkering to Utopia' to Purposeful Change in Education," and my first introduction to Implementation Science and The National Implementation Research Network (NIRN). NIRN defines implementation as, "a specified set of activities designed to put into practice an activity or program of known dimensions." My hope for effective implementation of CCSS (or other initiatives) returned as I explored and identified the "specific set of activities" and steps that our district had inadvertently overlooked or missed in our best efforts. I hope to share the Implementation Science research and process with my district administrators and other PD facilitators for our next go round with the CCSS implementation to better support my colleagues on the front line. For more information about Implementation Science see the NIRN website at

Elizabeth Plunkett's picture

This post was very helpful for me to read. I was asked to use CC standards but received zero PD on how that was to look. I was given a large notebook of the standards and was told to have at it. As a special education teacher it was very difficult for me to use grade level standards to create learning goals for my students. But it did teach me to take the standards and work backward to identify the foundation skills my students would need in order to work toward grade level skills.

R Turpin's picture

Thank you for the information in the article on 4 Lessons Learned in CC Implementation. Some districts provide very little PD while other districts provide the PD, building meetings every two weeks, weekly meetings with teachers who teach the same grade and subject, plan time and collaboration time with many other teachers in the district. Communication by everyone helps build better lessons and units for learning as teachers design with the end goals for learning in mind.

Melissa Thornton's picture

It seems to me that the success of the implementation of Common Core Standards depends very heavily upon the amount of professional development and ongoing support schools have offered teachers. Have many of you found that to be the case?

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