How School Leaders Can Successfully Implement the Common Core State Standards


ASCD Faculty, Sue BeersSue Z. Beers has been a middle and high school teacher, coach, and K–12 curriculum director. She currently serves as the director of the Mid-Iowa School Improvement Consortium, leading a collaborative of more than 160 school districts in Iowa that work together to improve teaching and learning. She will be presenting at ASCD’s Common Core Professional Development Institutes, which you can learn more about and register for here.

The ultimate success of a thorough and complete implementation of the Common Core State Standards rests, to a great extent, on the ability of school leaders to provide support and direction for teachers. The standards call for a transformation of the way we do business in providing instruction. To facilitate this transformation, school leaders themselves must undergo a change in how they lead their schools and districts.

Understanding the Transformation

One cannot lead what one does not understand. In order to provide appropriate instructional opportunities for students, teachers must have a deep understanding of what is required by the standards. Using these insights to design activities and assessments will result in classrooms where students achieve the kinds of thinking and learning that they will need at each grade level. School leaders need to understand the transformative nature of instruction called for in the standards in order to monitor progress and assist teachers in designing appropriate instructional strategies. At times, leading will mean helping others give up activities, lessons, and even units of instruction that do not help achieve the standards or that are not the most effective for reaching the standards.

Leaders can help the transformational process by ensuring that there is a clear vision of what the standards mean and what it will look like when it is achieved. By providing a clear picture of what is expected, teachers and students—as well as parents—will have a better chance of achieving the goals of the Common Core standards.

Providing Resources for Implementation

Because transforming instruction to meet the intent of the standards is more of a remodel than a redecoration, leaders will need to ensure that they provide access to tools and resources that are necessary to fully implement the standards. It may be simply giving permission to teachers to abandon past practices or materials. It may mean helping teachers redesign or repurpose materials that are already available. It may also mean that budgets and priorities for purchases need to be rethought so that teachers have the resources they need to teach the content of the standards.

In addition to resources, teachers need time to learn, plan, and collaborate as they build new systems of instruction and redesign learning opportunities that are consistent with the standards. The crafting of professional development plans that include exposure to new ideas and tools, as well as time to internalize those ideas and put them into action is crucial. Teachers can’t do what they don’t know, and they can’t adequately implement what they don’t have time to facilitate.

The good news about the standards is that they are common. Forty-six states and many other entities are currently developing materials, videos, lesson plans, unit guides, and a multitude of tools that can be used to create understanding and to design instruction. But the standards being common is bad news as well. There is so much available that it is easy to get lost in the volumes of information. Successful leaders of the Common Core standards will need to help point teachers to key documents and resources that can be most helpful in understanding and implementing the standards. We no longer have to be creators of everything we need; we now can become curators—finding the gems of information and using those to move forward.

Becoming an Agent of Change

Helping teachers understand the changes that are required, sharing the vision of the expectations of the standards, and providing adequate time and resources needs to be rooted in a culture of change. School leaders develop a culture that thrives on and rewards change by becoming role models of change themselves. School leaders need to actively seek new ways of structuring school time, providing opportunities for collaboration and professional learning, and being an active participant in the transformation of teaching and learning. Perhaps most importantly, school leaders need to acknowledge that as we learn and grow in implementing the Common Core standards, we need to support brave efforts that will sometimes fail or that may not be as successful as we had hoped. By giving teachers time to reflect on their efforts, identify what worked and what didn’t  and then redesign instruction, school leaders can inspire teachers to continue the sometimes difficult work of transforming instruction to meet the vision of the standards.

Keeping in Mind Our Purpose

Above all, school leaders need to develop a mantra that the Common Core standards are not about a test, but about the kids. They map out a road to success for students in college, careers, and citizenship. It entails a journey through each grade level that leads students to the real goal of education: ensuring that every student leaves the classroom with the skills and knowledge to be successful in their world.