What changes and what stays the same? This question can serve as a catalyst for student inquiry into important understandings in chemistry, history, and mathematics. It is also a question that can be used to guide leaders’ efforts when navigating change. Implementing new standards requires leaders to consider the depth and complexity of the effort required to truly impact student learning.
As I engage in work with schools and districts around the country in their efforts to improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment, I am struck by the range of approaches used to implement the Common Core standards. Some districts seem intent on maintaining the status quo; they want to document existing practices as aligned to the Common Core and claim victory. Although this approach may create a changed clerical document that allows administrators and teachers to show the board and community evidence of alignment, students are left with a classroom experience that remains exactly as it was in the past.
Other districts understand the reality of the Common Core: the standards serve as the premise for the work we do in schools and classrooms. If you change the premise, you need to be very strategic in considering how various components of each student’s classroom experience might need to change and what might stay the same. In this scenario, the standards serve as the basis of a complex system that can be used to guide teachers’ and students’ efforts. It is not enough that teachers are aware of the standards or that some documents are aligned to the standards; the system of assessment, curriculum, and instruction needs to be developed in a manner that provides appropriate levels of challenge and support so that each learner can meet—or move beyond—the standards.
It is clear that the challenge and opportunity of implementing new standards will be limited or accelerated by the extent that leaders see implementation as an opportunity to improve the system each school has in place to support each student’s learning. Systems work is not only an obligation of leadership; it is the most important work that leaders can do. But the magnitude of this potential change can be overwhelming. Where do you start?
Leading implementation of the Common Core requires leaders to exercise a broad range of skills and understandings. First, leaders need to understand the standards themselves, including key shifts in the Common Core standards from existing standards. Leaders need this knowledge so they can guide efforts to analyze gaps, affirm areas of alignment, and strategically address areas of need. As leaders guide this change process, they will need to be able to recognize and articulate key indicators that demonstrate progress toward deep implementation of the standards at the classroom, school, and district levels. Furthermore, leaders need to be versed in the level of rigor that is expected of the students under the new standards so they can help teachers build classroom assignments that help students scaffold toward higher-level skills and understanding. Finally, administrators need to know what to look for in classrooms to ensure teachers are using effective instructional strategies that connect students to the standards in ways that are meaningful and engaging for each learner.
This work is challenging, but it is critically important. And no teacher or leader should feel as though they, alone, are responsible for reinventing assessment, curriculum, and instruction that are aligned to the Common Core. There are thousands of educators around the country who are also moving down this path. By accessing some of their best work, looking into highly effective classrooms, and hearing important stories of what has—and what has not—worked, leaders can make better-informed decisions as they help educators in their own schools and communities navigate the changes that will ensure each student in each classroom is taught in an aligned system of responsive assessment, curriculum, and instruction.
What changes and what stays the same? Standards are the foundation of a system that can inform teaching and improve learning. Implementing standards in a manner that has the potential to change student learning requires leaders who have the knowledge, skills, and resources to lead this important systems-level change.
To learn more about leadership and the Common Core standards, attend an upcoming two-day professional development institute in a city near you.
Tony Frontier is an assistant professor of doctoral leadership studies at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. He is coauthor of Five Levers to Improve Learning: How to Prioritize for Powerful Results in Your School (ASCD, 2014).