The Common Core Implementation Gap

A new report on state-level implementation of Common Core merits some attention—but less for its top-line findings and more for how it confirms what I’m now calling the “Common Core Implementation Gap.”

That’s the miles of daylight between the platitudes about the new standards’ “dramatic,” “transformational” nature and the distressing reality of implementation.

The report’s upside is that we now know more about state-level planning. The downside is that we know nothing more about the quality of that planning—and this is the whole ball of wax.

This might sound like the classic unfair criticism of a research project—point out what you wanted a study to answer and then shame the authors for looking into something else.

I’m succumbing to this temptation because I’m troubled by all of the Common Core cheerleading going on. Apart from a still relatively small band criticizing the standards for stealing fiction and states’ rights, most reformers contend that Common Core is just shy of avert-your-eyes miraculous.

Tom Loveless had the temerity to wonder if the standards would improve achievement, and the response from their incredulous supporters was, said Loveless, “like putting my hand in a hornet’s nest.”

We’ve made the necessary oblations to Common Core, and now it’s time to get serious about the seriousness of implementation. That means no longer marveling at the shiny hubcaps and supple leather interior or, worse, just taking the salesman’s word for it, but opening up the hood and .

It’s this mindset that I bring to the Education FirstEditorial Projects in Education study on the results of a Common Core survey. It asked state leaders about implementation in areas like professional development and aligned instructional materials.

The high-level headline is that states are better off than they were last year and things are generally looking pretty good.

For example, 42 states report either having plans or building plans to revise their teacher-evaluation systems to comport with the expectations of Common Core. Thirty states claim to have “fully developed” plans to change their instructional materials to align with the new standards.

Moreover, if you just glance at the report’s Exhibit 1, you’ll see most boxes filled with “Completed.”

A reasonable person would walk away thinking that implementation is going swimmingly.

But things aren’t so rosy.

States do have “plans” in lots of areas; the issue, though, is what these plans amount to.

For example, even the best state departments of education were fretting about the massive challenges associated with overhauling educator evaluation systems before Common Core implementation was front and center. Student achievement data for untested grades and subjects and inter-rater reliability of observations were keeping smart folks up at night when state content standards, teacher professional standards, and assessments were static.

With changes afoot in all of these areas, teacher-evaluation reform has gotten exponentially more difficult. Sure, any SEA can put some ideas on paper and call it a “plan.”

But what if the survey had asked something like, “Are you confident that, when Common Core is fully implemented in 2014–15, your educator evaluation systems will accurately differentiate among educators based on their levels of effectiveness, provide meaningful feedback for teachers, and enable administrators and policymakers to make decisions related to preparation, certification, hiring, tenure, and compensation?”

There is no way that 42 states could, with clear consciences, answer, “Yes.” (Take a look at this recent article: Florida’s state board is raising red flags, and the department of education is creating a “Plan B.”)

The same applies to the optimistic self-reporting about professional development. You should dig into your state’s Common Core PD plan. Be prepared for it to look a lot like the SEA’s current PD plans: same state office, same providers, same higher-ed institutions, same quality monitoring, same number of hours required, etc.

Had the survey, instead, asked about states’ confidence that their plans would enable teachers to prepare students for successful acquisition of the skills and information required by the new standards, then the results would’ve been far less sanguine.

I’ll have much more to say about instructional materials in the weeks to come, but for the time being, I’ll leave it at this: Comparing the navigability of the CC-aligned resources marketplace to the Wild West would be an insult to the Wild West. You might want to check your state’s “fully developed” align resources plan to see how it intends to pilot these rocks.

Finally, the survey didn’t ask states about the area that concerns me most: whether there are any activities underway to improve teacher preparation programs so their graduates are ready for the demands of Common Core. As far as I can tell, most states haven’t even begun working in this area.

So about those vaunted “plans”…

The Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke famously wrote, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis said, “Everyone’s got a plan until he gets hit.” In other words, there’s a world of difference between what you put on paper and what actually carries you to victory.

When it comes to Common Core implementation, too much of the ed reform world is still acting like it’s at the ceremonial, bragging-as-currency, pre-fight weigh-in.

But the bell has rung. It’s go time.

Unless we stop hyping the crowd and flexing for the cameras and get down to the real business at hand, a whole lot of states, come 2014, are going to find themselves on the mat.

—Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institution”s Common Core Watch blog

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