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December 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 4

Putting the Pieces in Place

Unprecedented efforts are underway to ensure that this round of standards reform, unlike past efforts, will really make a difference.

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In his book Standards Deviation, James Spillane (2006), a professor of learning and organizational change at Northwestern University, analyzed what happened in nine Michigan school districts in the early 1990s after the state introduced new mathematics standards. The standards were intended to lead to substantial changes in classroom practice and, ultimately, higher student performance. But as the book's cleverly worded title suggests, educators interpreted the standards in widely varied ways. Some saw them as calling for substantial changes in practice and made corresponding adjustments in their instruction; others viewed them in a relatively superficial way, making few changes. Student achievement barely improved.
Spillane offers several reasons for educators' varied reactions to the standards. A reduction in staffing at the state level curtailed the state's ability to provide resources and assistance to schools. Districts varied in the level and kind of support they provided to schools and teachers. The state test and the standards were misaligned, and some teachers focused more on what was tested than what was in the standards.
In the end, Spillane saw the communication between the state and schools as akin to the children's game of telephone, in which the standards were whispered from the state capitol, to school districts, to schools, to classrooms, only to create a muddled message at the end of the line.
The story of Michigan mathematics standards in the early 1990s provides a cautionary tale that states are working to avoid repeating today. Forty-six states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Department of Defense schools have adopted the Common Core State Standards. But adoption was only the first step. Ensuring that the standards will improve student learning will require new assessments, curriculums, instructional materials and resources, and professional development. Implementation will likely be expensive—a particular challenge at a time when state budgets are still climbing back from their recession-era lows.
But states and districts are moving ahead with implementation efforts. And a number of factors make it more likely than in the 1990s that these efforts will succeed.
In this smartphone era, the game of telephone might be a thing of the past.

Progress in the States

A recent report by the Center on Education Policy (2012), based on a survey of officials from 37 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards, found that all surveyed states have developed plans to fully implement the standards by 2014, the year that assessments tied to the standards are expected to be operational.
Specifically, all 37 states plan to adopt or revise assessments and to revise curriculum materials aligned to the Common Core standards; develop and disseminate materials for professional development; and conduct statewide professional development activities. In addition, most states plan to align teacher preparation programs to the standards and modify or create teacher evaluation systems that hold teachers accountable for student mastery of the standards. Sixteen states are even aligning college admission requirements or entry-level college coursework with the Common Core standards.
This level of activity suggests that states are moving forward in their implementation efforts. But state progress is not uniform; some states are further ahead than others. Kentucky was the first state to adopt the standards (in February 2010, four months before the standards were formally released). The Bluegrass State has undertaken extensive efforts to prepare teachers to work with the new standards, make changes in classroom instruction, and clarify expectations for students.
For example, the Kentucky Department of Education prepared and distributed an extensive analysis that compared the Common Core standards with Kentucky's previous standards. Kentucky Educational Television created online units to explain the standards to parents, teachers, and community members; and the Prichard Committee, a statewide organization of civic leaders, launched a campaign to explain the importance of the standards to parents and community members across the state.
The Kentucky Department of Education also built an online portal called the Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System, which will host lessons, tests, and curriculum materials. The system will include podcasts to make teachers aware of new instructional strategies designed around the standards.
The state has also engaged its higher education institutions. The Council of Postsecondary Education, the governing body of colleges and universities, is working with the K–12 education system to develop assessments based on the standards to be used to determine placement in first-year college courses. And Kentucky colleges of education are redesigning their teacher-preparation programs to align them with the standards.
Other states are also working to prepare and support teachers in implementing the Common Core standards. For example, Massachusetts is revising its state test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) by incorporating topics from the new standards and dropping topics that are not included in the standards. And the state's department of education engaged 200 teachers in a process of developing a model curriculum aligned to the standards.
Utah, meanwhile, created the Utah Common Core Academy for more than 5,000 teachers and principals to help districts and charter schools redesign curriculum and implement the standards. Indiana revamped its teacher education programs to ensure that new teachers are prepared to teach to the standards.

National and Cross-State Efforts

While state efforts are underway, national organizations and companies are developing materials and preparing educators to revamp instruction and supervision around the new standards. The fact that the standards have been adopted by so many states opens the door for cross-state partnerships that could not have taken place when each state developed its own standards.
In the most extensive cross-state effort, two state consortia—the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—are developing assessments in English language arts and mathematics for grades 3–8 and high school. These consortia, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Education, have proposed ambitious plans to create tests that include performance tasks—for example, asking students to conduct research or write essays. Both intend to administer their assessments online, taking advantage of technology to incorporate items and tasks not possible with paper-and-pencil tests.
In addition to developing the assessments, the two consortia are also assisting states and districts in the implementation of the standards. To support these efforts, each consortium applied for and won a supplemental grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The Smarter Balanced consortium's supplemental proposal promised to involve nearly 2,800 teachers in creating a digital library of curriculum frameworks, sample instructional units, and formative assessment tools. The consortium will also provide professional development to help teachers understand the assessment system and how to score test items.
PARCC, too, plans to develop instructional and curriculum tools for teachers and to create a digital library of curriculum resources and assessment tools. The consortium proposes to create the Partnership Resource Center, an interactive online tool that will include curriculum frameworks, model lessons, and formative test items. In addition, PARCC will develop an online diagnostic tool teachers can use to evaluate the complexity of a particular text (teaching students to read increasingly complex texts is a crucial component of the Common Core standards); an interactive data tool and reports that will help educators gather and use data on student achievement; and college-readiness tools, such as coursework to help students who are not on track toward college readiness.
Both consortia are taking steps to engage higher education institutions. Because the standards are intended to measure students' readiness for postsecondary education, they will only have meaning if colleges and universities accept them as measures of readiness. The consortia have lined up letters of support from public institutions of higher education in the participating states, which pledged to use student scores on the new assessments to help place incoming freshmen in math and English courses. Higher education representatives have also been advising the two consortia in developing the assessments to ensure that the standard for college readiness matches colleges' and universities' expectations for first-year students.
Other cross-state efforts are underway as well. In one notable effort funded in part by the National Science Foundation, a group of universities, community colleges, and school districts in 30 states have formed the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership to align teacher-preparation programs with the Common Core standards. The partners include 68 institutions of higher education and 87 school districts.
Private groups are working to develop materials and provide professional development. Student Achievement Partners, a New York–based organization founded by two of the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, received an $18 million grant from the GE Foundation to create immersion institutes to familiarize teachers with the standards and to create a storehouse of materials for them to use in their instruction.
Publishers are moving to develop new materials based on the standards. Pearson, a major publisher with headquarters in London, has undertaken one of the largest such efforts: With input from members of teams that wrote the standards, Pearson is creating a series of K–12 curriculum materials that will be delivered completely online through tablet computers. These curriculums will include projects for students to complete, texts and digital materials to support students in conducting their projects, and assessments to check student understanding. The Gates Foundation is providing support for this effort; as a condition of this support, some of the materials will be available to all schools free of charge.
Because the 46 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards represent a near-national market, other publishers are likely to follow suit. In addition, 20 large urban districts that are part of the Council of the Great City Schools have banded together to press publishers to create materials that match the standards' expectations. The districts are hoping their leverage can influence the development of better products.

The Funding Challenge

Although these efforts at the state and national levels appear promising, states and districts face significant challenges in implementing the Common Core State Standards. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding the funds for implementation. In the Center on Education Policy's 2012 survey, more than half the states identified funding as a "major" implementation challenge.
How much will implementation cost? Two national organizations commissioned research to find out, and they reached different conclusions.
The Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based organization that has been critical of the Common Core initiative, issued a report in February 2012 that found implementation would cost states a total of about $15.9 billion over seven years (Accountability Works, 2012): $1.2 billion for new assessments, $5.3 billion for professional development, $2.5 billion for textbooks and instructional materials, and $6.9 billion for technological infrastructure and support. Of the total, the report noted, $10.5 billion were "one-time" costs associated with putting the standards in place; the rest were ongoing expenses.
A separate report issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a supporter of the Common Core initiative, addressed what the authors called some of the flaws in the Pioneer Institute analysis and came out with more modest estimates (Murphy & Regenstein, 2012). For one thing, the report noted, many of the activities states will undertake to implement the standards are things they do every year, such as buying new instructional materials, administering assessments, and conducting professional development. A realistic estimate of the cost of implementing the standards would examine what states would pay on top of what they already pay for these activities.
In addition, the Fordham report noted, there are many ways to implement the standards. States can save money by taking advantage of technology and open-source materials. Using this premise, the report outlined three scenarios:
  • Business as usual (using hard-copy textbooks, in-person professional development, and paper-and-pencil tests) would cost an additional $8.2 billion.
  • Bare bones (using open-source materials, online assessments, and online professional development) would actually cost $927 million less than what states currently spend.
  • Balanced implementation (a mix of the two) would cost an additional $1.2 billion.
The report also noted that states can use the opportunity the common standards provide to form multistate collaborations and save money.

Challenges and Hope

For example, although the Common Core State Standards are creating opportunities for the development of new materials and new professional development offerings, not all of these products and services will be truly aligned to the standards or be of high quality. How can educators make informed decisions?
The cross-state partnerships made possible by the Common Core standards offer one solution. Three states—Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island—have developed and plan to pilot a tool to evaluate materials for their alignment to the standards and their quality. Officials from the states shared this tool with those from a larger group of states in spring 2012. More activities like this are likely.
Because of these efforts and others, we have some cause for optimism that the outcome of this round of standards setting might produce better results than previous rounds did. The level of activity that states are engaged in, the possibilities offered by technology and cross-state collaborations, and the extraordinary effort to develop new assessments suggest that the Common Core State Standards might generate some real changes in instruction.

EL Online

Learn more about two initiatives that assist educators in implementing the standards in the online-only article "High Expectations, High Supports" by Vicki Phillips and Carina Wong of the Gates Foundation.


Accountability Works. (2012). National costs of aligning states and localities to the common core standards. Boston: Pioneer Institute.

Center on Education Policy. (2012). Year two of implementing the Common Core State Standards: States' progress and challenges. Washington, DC: Author.

Murphy, P. J., & Regenstein, E. (2012). Putting a price tag on the Common Core: How much will smart implementation cost? Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Spillane, J. P. (2006). Standards deviation: How schools misunderstand education policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Robert Rothman has contributed to educational leadership.

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