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Taking the Long View: Common Core Implementation and the Continuing Quest for Equity

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July 16, 2015

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A key goal of both the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is to deliver an education that prepares all students for life after high school. This goal is inseparable from the concept of equity and the effort to close the achievement and opportunity gaps. The 10 Regional Equity Assistance Centers (EACs), including the Region X EAC housed at Education Northwest, are among those that have made this connection explicit, stating that the promise of the CCSS “can only be realized if the standards are implemented with a sharp and consistent focus on ensuring education equity” and that “rigor alone does nothing to address the underlying causes of our longstanding achievement gap.”

Several recent studies examine the effect of the achievement gap on students’ postsecondary lives. For example, a new study finds that 77 percent of adults from families in the top income quartile are eight times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than adults from the lowest income bracket, while another new study points to the connection between high school course taking and college readiness. In another example, my colleague, Michelle Hodara, finds that a high percentage of recent high school graduates who enroll in Oregon community colleges, which traditionally serve a higher proportion of students from historically disadvantaged groups, take at least one developmental education course, again raising questions about both rigor and possible inequities in how prepared students are for postsecondary success.

Because they are more coherent, focused, and rigorous than previous standards, CCSS and NGSS have a greater potential of addressing these problems. But, as always, implementation is the key. As districts, schools, and teachers grapple with the fundamental shifts called for in the new standards, professional development providers must find the most efficient and effective means for providing support. In my view, this requires taking the long view.

School systems are often forced to make difficult choices between programs that require long-term effort and those that satisfy immediate demands. In the case of standards implementation, carefully selected, sustained efforts are more likely to have the greatest impact. This means shifting from a short-term approach—putting out fires—to one that requires more patience but ultimately results in deeper and more sustained changes in practice.

My colleague Claire Gates and I recently engaged in a partnership with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) state education agency to provide professional development workshops for math teachers. This is part of an effort to create long-term and self-sustaining changes to math instruction by implementing the new standards gradually over a two-year period. Here are examples of lessons we learned.

Sustaining Long-Term Efforts

Through on-site professional development sessions and follow-up webinars on specific strategies, we found that teachers:

  • Are more receptive to workshops that are relevant to immediate policy changes
  • Want a close relationship with their professional development providers
  • May be reluctant to attend the workshops, but typically report them to be beneficial after they have attended
  • Prefer longer and more frequent professional development opportunities that are closely tied to their daily practice

Using Classroom Observations

Direct classroom observations, conducted at intervals over the course of the two-year project, proved to be invaluable for evaluating the long-term effects of the training on teacher practice. This long-term view was important, since we noted a gradual shift in teachers’ instructional practices aligned to our workshops, with positive changes more evident in the second year than in the first. Conducting classroom observations with teachers who did not attend the workshops also helped bring to light these gradual changes, as the contrast between the two groups made progress easier to see.

Communicating Clearly About Expectations

Communication is even more important in a long-term project than in a short one. For example, it’s important to be clear and honest with district and school leaders about short-term expectations. Working toward long-range, fundamental shifts in practice requires patience and trust. Encouraging district and school leaders to focus on the long-term has the added benefit of removing the pressure on teachers to show immediate results, which created more motivation to fully engage in the project. Such an approach is more likely to result in students experiencing the full benefits of the new standards.

Share your experiences and thoughts on creating long-term changes in school systems through implementing standards and modifying classroom instruction.