Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers

The last year has found critics and advocates of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) duking it out in the political arena. That a common set of high expectations for K–12 students would catalyze such fierce fisticuffs reminds us of both the ugliness and beauty of democracy. Indeed, we at Fordham, ardent supporters of high standards for some seventeen years, have lurched out of the safe haven of think tankery and into the boxing ring. It is not a role that we asked for—or particularly relish—but, confident that the interests of America’s children and its future are worth fighting for, we laced up our gloves.

Yet wherever one stands on the merits of the Common Core, one thing is certain: all of the political posturing and mudslinging distract attention and energy from the crucial work of implementation. Like it or not, the Common Core State Standards are in place in forty-five states—and in many of those jurisdictions, educators are hard at work trying to operationalize them in their schools and classrooms.

We wanted to know how it was going, so we sought answers via an in-depth examination of real educators in real districts as they earnestly attempt to put the CCSS into practice. The result is our new study, Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers. Our goal was to peer into this void via an up-close look at district-level, school-level, and classroom-level implementation in a handful of jurisdictions. We sought out “early-implementer” districts that have moved with fair speed to implement the new academic standards—most of them well ahead of their own state timelines for doing so—in the hope that they would reveal lessons worth sharing with the broader field.

To conduct this study, we teamed up with Education First, a consulting firm founded by standards-reform veteran Jennifer Vranek, who a decade earlier had herself launched Achieve’s American Diploma Project—which is often viewed as the precursor to the Common Core standards. Ed First is doing valuable work on sundry topics related to Common Core implementation, and we were fortunate to nab two of its finest analysts, Katie Cristol and Brinnie Ramsey.

With plenty of feedback from additional experts, including some at Fordham, the team identified four early-implementer districts that appeared worthy of scrutiny: Kenton County (KY), Metro Nashville (TN), Illinois’s School District 54 (Schaumburg and vicinity), and Washoe County (Reno, NV).

What follows is a summary of what they learned, as well as our own main takeaways.

Key Findings

1. Teachers and principals are the primary faces and voices of the Common Core standards in their communities.

In large part, the teachers and building leaders in a child’s school shape parents’ impressions of the new standards. If educators believe in the Common Core, they communicate that conviction to their students’ families—and through them, to the wider community that employs them.

Further, smart districts strive to roll out information about the standards gradually and deliberately, in the context of improved student learning and with enough advance notice that parents are not surprised by changes. Early and often, they explain how the Common Core differs from prior standards, what students should know and be able to do by year’s end, and what new testing items will look like.

Still, major public-opinion challenges lie ahead for these districts (as well as for states and the nation). The implementation of rigorous Common Core–aligned assessments could bring a backlash, particularly if and when parents see test scores plummet. In other words, we’re still waiting for the—ahem—scores to hit the fan.

2. Implementation gains traction when district and school leaders lock onto the Common Core standards as the linchpin of instruction, professional learning, and accountability in their buildings.

Districts that are serious about high-quality Common Core implementation select, evaluate, and hold principals accountable based on their skills in instruction. Principal training in these districts is focused on instruction—not administrative issues. (Those are dealt with in other ways on other days.) As a result, principals speak in compelling detail about their understanding of the new standards and can give examples of what Common Core–aligned instruction looks like in their buildings. Even more importantly, they can identify areas in which teachers are struggling to make the instructional shifts that the Common Core demands.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Principals in the two larger districts profiled here say it is a struggle to give top billing to the Common Core, given their other duties and scarce resources. What’s more, teachers worry that uninformed leaders will fail to understand the primary tenet of the Common Core: that fewer standards, covered more deliberately, translate into deeper and better learning. Further, teachers fret, will they be evaluated unfairly if their own principals don’t appreciate the instructional shifts called for by the new standards?

3. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own.

Curriculum publishers were suspiciously quick to proclaim that what they are selling is aligned with the Common Core—and districts are rightly wary of such claims. It takes time to develop and vet high-quality textbook series and other curriculum. All four districts expressed caution about spending limited dollars on materials that were not truly aligned to the Common Core and are delaying at least some of their purchases until they see products that are.

For now, they have approached curriculum development in patchwork fashion. Even districts with the most extensively redesigned curricula have kept at least some of their previous instructional materials, with teachers pulling out isolated lessons, problem sets, assessment items, and so on, as they fit with the new standards. This is understandable; jettisoning all prior materials is expensive, time consuming, and can make teachers uneasy. (And did we mention that there’s a dearth of high-quality, expertly vetted, complete Common Core-aligned curricula?! We at Fordham are in search of them for a forthcoming curriculum review.) Yet creation of homegrown materials carries the same uncertainty as vendor-developed materials: Are they truly aligned? Are they any good? Will they produce the desired results in students?

Still, for all the risks and uncertainties, homegrown stuff fosters buy-in and ownership. In fact, teachers in these districts support a district-wide, common curriculum—precisely because they’ve had a hand in creating, judging, and improving it. Engaged in such activities, they welcome the materials as an asset, rather than resisting them as a ploy to undermine their autonomy or professionalism.

4. The scramble to deliver quality CCSS-aligned professional development to all who need it is as crucial and (so far) as patchy as the quest for suitable instructional materials.

Where do teachers go to glean new expertise relative to the Common Core? Our four districts rely on familiar delivery mechanisms—instructional coaches and master teachers—who are themselves trained via a variety of methods. As early implementers, these educators have gone both to the “source” of the standards and used other proxies for quality and alignment: They’ve worked directly with and learned from the standards’ authors themselves and/or used tools created by them (e.g., the Publishers’ Criteria developed by Student Achievement Partners and several other groups). They’ve checked their understanding against instruments developed by field experts and other states (e.g., the EQuIP rubric). And they’ve scrutinized their interpretations of the standards by consistently returning to them as the basis for professional-development content.

Districts have put considerable thought and energy into cultivating Common Core expertise. Still, major inconsistencies exist in the quality of instructional coaching across buildings. Teachers and principals report that the stronger specialists help them analyze lesson plans and student work in the context of the new standards, while the weaker ones add little value at best—and misinformation at worst.

5. The lack of aligned assessments will make effective implementation of the Common Core difficult for another year.

Most states and districts are in the unenviable position of having to implement new standards without the summative assessments in place that will measure student mastery. But they’ve had to make do, to the chagrin of most educators, who—at least in these early implementer districts—believe that their current state tests are poor measures of student understanding relative to the new standards and may even detract from proper implementation.

This void creates two problems. First, misaligned assessments undermine the critical link between what is reported in accountability systems (test-score and teacher-evaluation data) and what districts purport to value (Common Core–aligned instruction and student success with the new standards). Second, without Common Core–aligned summative data, districts don’t know whether their implementation strategies are effective on a school- and district-wide scale.


What do we take away from these findings? Here are four lessons for district leaders.

First, leave the politics to others. Discuss the merits (and drawbacks) of the Common Core as they relate to academic content, instruction, and assessment. Help parents understand the changes inherent in the CCSS, and prepare them for the potentially upsetting test results to come.

Second, allow teachers to have a hand in developing and improving the shared materials they’ll use in classrooms. At minimum, this enhances ownership and buy-in of the new standards.

That said, lesson three is to beware of recycling old materials (e.g., via a “balanced literacy” approach or a text like Everyday Mathematics) when they don’t share the fundamental precepts of the Common Core. Square pegs simply don’t belong in round holes.

Finally, take a serious look at the quality of your own implementation efforts. Educators spend a lot of time talking about the importance of professional learning communities, instructional coaches, reviews of student work, and so on. To those of us who have been in education for any length of time, this talk begins to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. So ask yourself: Is my district engaging in business as usual? Or is it using familiar mechanisms and strategies in ways that truly bring these rigorous new benchmarks to life?


Right now, districts are in the near-impossible situation of operationalizing new standards before high-quality curriculum and tests aligned to them are finished. Until we have those in place, implementation will remain uneven. Yet time is passing, and the new tests and truly aligned textbooks are coming. Think of it this way: we’re still in spring training, a period when focusing on the fundamentals, teamwork, and steady improvement is more important than the score. But districts oughtn’t dawdle: they are just a year away from the big game. Batter up!

-Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli

This first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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