Highlights of Chicago Common Core Meeting – July

Challenges of Implementation: Implications for the Common Core 

Chicago, Illinois: July 12-14, 2013

(Click to enlarge)

The Roundtable’s Summer 2013 meeting began by exploring how change occurs in any large organization. It moved on to the implications of change in schools and how leaders could implement new models while encouraging new behaviors. Then it settled quickly on what all of this means for one of the most massive changes in American education in a generation: implementation of the Common Core standards and the assessments associated with them.  Then it was the Roundtable members’ turn, as they discussed among themselves their own past implementation challenges and triumphs and talked about what they are doing in their districts to prepare for the Common Core. Finally, Paul Ash (Lexington, Massachusetts) reported on his new book, School Systems that Learn, and described a concept of school reform quite different from most of today’s discussion.

Sandy Hook Elementary

The emotional heart of the meeting occurred during the opening dinner, when co-chair Gloria Davis (Decatur, Illinois) presented Janet Robinson (Stratford, Connecticut) with a plaque acknowledging the heroic role Robinson played while superintendent in Newtown, Connecticut, in helping heal that community following last December’s catastrophe in which a gunman murdered 20 small children and six staff members at the district’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. In a somber and poignant moment that brought many in the room close to tears, Davis evoked the shock of the day and the shared pain of the profession, while expressing her colleagues’ admiration for the manner in which Robinson had conducted herself during this ordeal. In response, Robinson modestly asserted that she did only what anyone in her position would have done, that she valued the support of her colleagues in the Roundtable during the crisis, and that educators everywhere are still waiting for an adequate policy response to address gun violence of this nature.

Thinking about Change

It’s not easy but it’s relatively straightforward at the national level to mandate that something be done: a Common Core should be implemented; all students should be assessed; consequences should accompany poor performance. But on the ground, the challenges of designing, implementing, and assessing progress are formidable. There’s the challenge of understanding the nature of the required change. There’s the need to understand what it means in a large institutional setting such as yours. And as a school leader, you have to take your staff and teachers where you find them and help them make the leap of faith required to move forward. Implementation is often thought of as the Achilles Heel of change, with a well-known paradigm holding that there’s the designed change (e.g., a new curriculum), the implemented change (what the teacher teaches) and the achieved change (what the student learns).

Gene E. Hall of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is an expert on the implementation of change and the pitfalls associated with it. He provided Roundtable participants with a very accessible primer on the factors involved.

“We have just one word for change,” he observed, “but it’s much more complicated than that. The Japanese have several terms. They describe change that is predictable. Change that is unpredictable. And change that should be predictable if only we were clever enough!”

Change is a process, not an event, noted Hall, and there are several principles associated with it (see sidebar above). It begins with innovation, the change you are trying to implement, and moves to implementation through interventions, such as workshops, training and the like. “Don’t ignore the intervention of the ‘one-legged interview,’” advised Hall. These are quick conversations (held almost literally on one leg) as you move from one thing to another. “When your principal runs into a teacher in the hallway, do they talk about the new innovation or gab about the football game? These are important interventions. The more people talk about their concerns in an informal way, the more their anxieties are reduced. Without talk, small concerns become huge mountains.”

The Leap of Faith

Hall describes the gap separating where we are in education today and the wonderful future awaiting us in the Promised Land of school reform as a yawning chasm. Under most policy prescriptions, a leap of faith is required to get from what are described as today’s ugly realities to tomorrow’s beautiful possibilities (see figure). What explains the resistance to most school reforms is the practical reality that most people aren’t willing to take the risk of making that leap of faith.

Organizations don’t change until people change, emphasized Hall. Therefore, implementation has to be approached in such a way as to provide people with bridges to get from where they are today to where we want them to be tomorrow. And the bridges have to designed to meet individuals at the level where they are most concerned –- uniformed about the pending change, informed but anxious, concerned about self or concerned about the task. (A more complete description of the levels of concern can be found in Roundtable/Corwin Press publication, The Superintendents Fieldbook, 2nd Ed.)

Implication for School Principals

Even in a relatively small district enrolling a couple of hundred students in two or three schools, a superintendent has to rely on school principals to implement district policy. Here superintendents need to understand whom they are dealing with. In World War II, noted Hall, the German General Staff assigned army officers into four categories: clever and hard working, clever and lazy, stupid and lazy, and stupid and hard working. On balance, we’d prefer the hardest workers to be clever, not stupid.

Hall described three principal change facilitator styles and thought they might usefully be applied to school principals:

  • Initiators. These principals have clear and strong visions for their schools. They: know where they want the school to be in 2-3 years, are well informed about the school, listen and then decide, set high expectations, and make decisions around student achievement and success (not what makes you or the staff happy). Initiators make things happen; they get people across the bridge of the leap of faith and keep them moving. Think of them as chess players, with different moves for different pieces.
  • Managers. Are organized and efficient. For the manager it is important to: define policies, procedures and budgets, control resources, protect staff from outside demands, cushion change at the beginning, try to do most of the work themselves, and try to attend every meeting to demonstrate they’re on top of things. Managers help make change happen; they get people across the bridge but then stand in place. Think of them as skilled at checkers.
  • Responders. Are oriented to the here and now. They have few ideas about future direction and are concerned with other people’s perceptions. They struggle with decisions, delay them, and tend to let others take the lead. They are most influenced by the last person they spoke with and tend to downplay the significance of new innovations (oh, we’ve seen this before) and attach a high degree of significance to being liked. Responders let it happen, but do little to move things along. Think of them as people who flip coins.

Hall concluded that while superintendents might want to encourage staff to complete personality inventories of one kind or another, he would not suggest engaging them in discussions of initiators, managers, and responders. “Discussions like that make people uncomfortable,” he said, “but in my mind, I don’t think there is any room for responders in leadership positions.”

The Common Core

As a boy in Ireland, said Roundtable director James Harvey, he listened as priests at Mass mumbled in Latin with their backs to the congregation. Today’s educational high priests, he suggested, are psychometricians mumbling with their backs to the educational community about Item Response Theory, plausible values, Rasch models, hierarchical linear modeling, and bootstrapping. Here, as he introduced a panel on Common Core assessment, was an opportunity for leaders from the assessment community to explain to superintendents what to expect in the new Common Core.

Supporters of the Common Core State Standards view them as providing a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn so that teachers and parents can know what they need to do to help students. The standards are intended to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, supporters say, communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. Two major groups are developing assessments tied to the Common Core: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessement of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Each tends to be assisted by technical assessment experts from national contractors such as Educational Testing Service, Pearson, and ACT. Other potential vendors hover in the background. During the Roundtable’s study mission to Europe in 2012, OECD spokesmen indicated that OECD is interested in exploring the possibility of adapting its PISA examinations for use as Common Core assessment tools. And, as this report on the July meeting was developed in late August, reports emerged indicating that ACT and the College Board each expected to enter the Common Core assessment business.

Here are the highlights of the panel:

  • Sue Gendron from SBAC. SBAC is a consortium of 26 states hoping to develop assessments for a changing world that support teachers and connect learners to life after school. It intends to develop formative resources, interim assessments, and summative assessments that help all students leave high school ready for college and careers. A complex matrix of summative assessments promise to provide information accountability purposes for NCLB and school and school district accountability (G.  3-8 and 11) and for higher education institutions (G. 11). State and district options can also provide for end-of-course and graduation requirements (G. 9, 10, and 12) and teacher/principal accountability (G. 3-8 and 11).  The assessments were field tested March-June, 2014, sampling about 25% of the students in the consortium. Implementation is expected in 2015. Presentation available at:
  • Jeff Nellhaus from PARCC. PARCC had a similar story to report. It is made up of 21 states and the District of Columbia and designed to measure the full range of Common Core standards. It will provide summative assessments (made up of performance based components, PBA, and an end of year component, EOY, and optional diagnostic and mid-year assessments. The PBA (administered 75% of the way through the school year) and the EOY (administered after 90% of the school year) will be combined to generate a student’s overall score. Tests are being examined in the field in 2014, with implementation scheduled for 2015, reported Nellhaus, who also thought it important to distinguish between the administration of the assessment, definitely scheduled, and the use of the assessment for accountability purposes. Presentation available at:
  • Steve Ferrara from Pearson. There are many demands for Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) in the new assessments, acknowledged Ferrara, who heads up a next generation learning and assessment team at Pearson. HOTS are both general in all areas of learning, but specific to content areas as well (i.e., mathematical, literary and scientific reasoning are distinct from each other.) Current state assessments are at relatively low levels in terms of HOTS, he reported, and SBAC and PARCC are likely to be much more demanding. Pearson supports both formative and performance assessment and looks to a future in which assessment moves away from bubble tests toward a continuum ranging from short constructed responses, to essays, to performance tasks, to projects, to portfolios, to online games and simulated environments. Presentation:
  • Bernard Josefsberg, superintendent, Easton-Redding district, Connecticut was noticeably unimpressed with all of this. Fifteen years ago, he reported, Connecticut educational leaders understood that student learning improved when teacher evaluation was grounded in educators working collaboratively together. Today it is all about numbers and, although his district does well on the numbers, Josefsberg is convinced the numbers barely scratch the surface of the intricate processes involved with learning. Returning to a sophisticated, high performing district in Connecticut after a ten-year absence recently, he was alarmed to find literacy and writing instruction “crimped to conform to standardized test schemas… In too many cases, teachers functioned as technicians, implementing purchased instructional scripts.” He concluded: “I actually worry about the pervasive misuse of test results and … in the same vein I worry about how bad numbers (trivial and meaningless numbers) often substitute for the good thinking we owe our children.” Presentation at:

Roundtable Districts’ Experience with Change

Against the backdrop of that firehose of information directed at the attendees, the Roundtable broke down into small group discussions, led by Gary Plano, Mercer Island, Washington, to discuss not so much the Common Core (that would come later) but participants’ experiences with other changes, large and small, in their districts.

Challenges were easy to identify. Among them efforts to eliminate courtesy busing for students living close to school as well as preferential treatment in benefits for the most highly paid. Failing to take into account church opposition to a year-round school initiative. Failures of referenda and student report cards developed by the management team instead of school staff. And the need to let union leaders save face around negotiations on the Common Core while getting more productive people to the table.

Positive outcomes were also easy to cite. Among the highlights: The need to reconfigure two neighboring elementary schools was solved by turning one into a K-2 school, leaving the other to cover Grades 3-5. Putting laptops into the hands of teachers (from board members) in advance of a new technology initiative solved a lot of headaches. Senior citizens opposed to a levy in one district were turned around by crediting seniors at the county assessor’s office with minimum wage payments for the time they volunteered in schools. Advancing the Danielson model of professional development by handpicking teacher opinion leaders to move the agenda along.

One district triumph turned into a personal crisis: An inherited legacy of different contracts with 36 different individual bus operators was expensive and hard to change, as the driver-operators fought any standardization. The district seemed to be 34th out of hundreds of districts in the state in per pupil expenses, but if transportation costs were eliminated, the district was at the bottom of the state barrel. Routes began at the driver’s house; some drivers were making $85,000 annually; and although the district was supposed to put any contract over $30,000 out for bid,  the bus contracts had not been bid in decades. This superintendent went ahead and issued a contract to a single provider that saved the district $800,000 amidst a national recession and cutbacks in schools across the country. Board elections, fought in part over this issue, meant the superintendent was forced to move to a new district.

Several lessons emerged from all this.  Bring stakeholders into the discussion on take off; don’t wait for the landing. Communication is essential. You need to explain the “why” — and continually circle back and remind people of “why.” Take time — all the successes included a process. Timing is everything, sometimes it’s as important to be lucky as it is to be right. Finally, you need the right people on your team; in the terms of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, you have to get the “right people on the bus” before you start out on a change journey. All of these are important lessons as districts move forward with implementing the Common Core and associated assessments.

Roundtable Districts’ Experience with the Common Core

Then it was time to take up the Common Core, with a discussion led by steering committee member Nelda Cambron-McCabe of the different experiences of four districts in Illinois (Gloria Davis, Decatur Public Schools), Washington (Carl Bruner, Mount Vernon Schools), Pennsylvania (Marianne Bartley, Lebanon Schools) and Iowa (Tim Grieves (Northwest Iowa Education Agency).

What emerged from this discussion was a very mixed picture about district (and state) readiness to implement the Common Core. The picture ranged from one district (and state) that has been trying to get ready for this change since 2010, to another state tied up in political knots about which assessment to use. In between were districts struggling with limited state leadership and, in one case, a state consumed with budget politics that has taken most of the air out of the room in the school discussion. Iowa is sui generis, in many ways — the state and its major research university have a significant financial and intellectual stake in both the existing Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the ACT college readiness examination, while ACT, itself, is likely to enter the Common Core assessment business on its own behalf. Politics also entered the picture, with two superintendents reporting on backlashes against the Common Core in their districts.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Most members agreed with Gloria Davis when she said: “Telling teachers the standards have been adopted and expecting tremendous results is not going to work.” She described intensive work beginning in 2010 and planned through 2015 to implement the Common Core. Presentation at:
  • Carl Bruner, reporting on a district with 6,300 students, 366 teachers, 11 campuses, and a count of FRDL students of 72%, and substantial migrant population at times, mentioned the political challenge of getting the Evergreen State to live up to its constitutional obligation to make education “the paramount duty” of the state. Mount Vernon has been concentrating training of principals and teachers and curriculum alignment. Presentation at:
  • Marianne Bartley pointed to massive budget cuts in Pennsylvania as dominating school discourse in the state. Common Core implementation challenges involve time and resources, competing priorities (e.g., evaluation systems), and technology requirements. Things were moving along fairly smoothly until June of this year, when fears about state’s rights and local control emerged. The legislature pulled back from the Common Core and the state is now re-framing its standards as the Pennsylvania Core Standards, which are likely to fit with the Common Core.
  • Tim Grieves, director of Iowa’s Northwest Area Education Agency, which serves 35 public school districts, had a tangled tale to tell. The state has had its own Iowa Core since 2005. It is the home of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as well as ACT. Although the state department of education decided to adopt SBAC, the legislature insisted in 2012 that the Iowa Assessments be used—a position reemphasized in the 2013 legislative session, which requires that successor assessments originate in Iowa, be aligned to the Iowa Core, and field tested in the state. Grieves also pointed to highly emotional political opposition to the Common Core from both the left and the right. Presentation at:

In short, in terms of implementation readiness, states and districts across the United States present a mixed picture, with the substance of the Common Core often at the mercy of politics and budgets.

School Systems that Learn

During the Roundtable’s visit to the French Ministry of Education in Paris in June 2012, Paul Ash (Lexington, Massachusetts) asked one of the twelve ministry officials who briefed us, “What are the Finns doing that’s so different from what you do?” The response from Chantal Manes, the Inspector General responsible for English language learning in French secondary schools, was instantaneous: “The Finns,” she said, “give all children what they need, when they need it.” And, she continued, “All the testing and accountability we insist on here from Paris has just brought us to mediocrity.”

Imagine an American system that provides “all children what they need, when they need it.” That’s what Ash and his co-author John D’Auria have done in their seminal new book School Systems that Learn. It’s a markedly different approach from the education reform approaches championed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In his presentation, Ash argued that school systems as currently designed have reached the limits of their capacity to educate all students at high levels. They call for responding in real time to student needs.

Think about how school systems are designed not to change, urged Ash. A lot of it is laws and regulations, inherited mindsets, and standardization and isolation in place of personalization and collaboration. Why do achievement gaps exist even in well-funded districts? It’s because even the best districts have “maxed out their capacity,” he argued.

We already know what won’t work, stressed Ash. Firing all underperforming people … hiring more outstanding teachers … increasing teacher evaluation—these are all seductive palliatives that won’t move the achievement needle. What will work is commitment to a set of values, four key drivers of student achievement, a commitment that’s in short supply today: trust, collaboration, capacity building, and leadership at all levels. It’s collaboration as the art of leading. The synergy of these four drivers is what moves the needle. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Ash spoke of the “fractal” nature of schools, a mathematical term describing recurring, complex patterns throughout systems. What is needed is a commitment to taking advantage of the fractal nature of school systems by strengthening the adult learning culture to benefit students. The idea is to create a learning culture so that school board members learn, central administrators learn, schools and departments learn, and individual teachers learn. It’s a way of creating “school systems that learn.” And what stands in the way are five big fears (on the part of students, parents, and adults in the system): fear of making mistakes, fear of looking like a fool, fear of having a weakness exposed, fear of not being liked, and fear of failure. The keys to moving ahead, he suggested, include creating a climate encouraging vulnerability and trust, promoting psychological safety, managing conflict within the organization while encouraging dissent, and cultivating effective teamwork. Presentation at: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/45362102/Ash.pptx

Looking Ahead

With that the meeting turned to the Roundtable’s future. Director James Harvey noted that retirements of one kind or another require constant membership renewal  if the Roundtable is to maintain its ideal size of around 100 members. Annually, about 10% of members move on, a figure that increased substantially in 2012-13 as New Jersey implemented new limitations on superintendents’ salaries and straitened budgets eliminated district professional development and travel costs.

That aside, the Roundtable sought an agenda around which to frame at least half of its meetings in the next 3-5 years. After some discussion, the members enthusiastically agreed to an agenda that addressed continuous improvement of school processes.

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