Voice from the Field

Reflection on Common Core Standards Midway to Launch

A BLEgroup Thought Leadership Piece for Educators and the Industry

Common Core in 2013
Major reform efforts never work as planned; to be successful, midcourse corrections are needed so the original goals can be achieved. States and school systems have been working on Common Core for two years and plan to test results in 2015. It is a good time to reflect on progress and suggest midcourse corrections. Across the country, from classroom teachers to the USDOE, there is tremendous excitement about the Common Core Standards. There is also noise from a significant minority who are concerned about a national education reform effort.

The Starting Point
Historically, content was the king of education. Now, content is ubiquitous and the objective of education is about understanding the context of content:

  • How to find information 
  • How to determine if what is found is relevant to the task at hand
  • How to determine if the relevant information is accurate

The Common Core Standards were developed to address the change in the objectives and process of education. Before addressing the necessary processes to implement the standards and the potential roadblocks that can prevent effective implementation, we want to note the following:

Historically, educational reforms fail to be fully executed. Educational institutions are remarkably resilient organizations, and they resist change. Will the Common Core Standards be an educational fashion mode that passes in a few seasons? Or will CCS transform American education so that the next generations are prepared for 21st century work and exceed their counterparts globally.

In the remainder of this piece, we will discuss four elements that are central to the fate of Common Core Standards from a school-centric perspective:

  • A Framework for the Effectiveness of Common Core
  • Implementation
  • Testing
  • Recommendations

1. A Framework for the Effectiveness of Common Core
Before initiating CCS, it is necessary to have a vision or target environment of what the practice of Common Core will be when it is fully implemented. This is needed prior to beginning the implementation process, which begins with current educational standards and moves to the target environment of implemented Common Core. The SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) model illustrated below is both a metric for illustrating progress as well as a way to evaluate effectiveness.

To successfully implement Common Core Standards, teaching and learning must be operating “above the line” in the transformation area.

  • Substitution – All teachers usually begin in the substitution area. An example of this would be doing addition problems on a computer instead of on paper.
  • Augmentation – An example of augmentation would be doing addition problems on the computer, but using an electronic device to tell you if you got the correct or incorrect answer.

These substitution and augmentation categories are “below the line” and fail to satisfy Common Core because they still involve teaching the old content skills, but using a computer rather than paper.

One of the commonalities of all effective Common Core implementation is that it has to include technology, simply because it is impossible to gather sufficient information or to determine accuracy if it is done on paper. This is more than using a device or a computer; it means there is purposefulness in the use of the technology. In addition to the examples of modification and redefinition in the graphic below, here are two other examples:

  • Modification – To locate all of the cities with a mean temperature today of greater than 20°C, you would need to use a weather program to gather the global data.
  • Redefinition – If three science classes in Australia, Chile, and Canada were doing project-based learning on gathering data on the depth of the ozone layer, that is an activity that could not have been done prior to the use of interactive computing and target tools.

Only modification and redefinition meet the Common Core requirements. Substitution and Augmentation are the old standards presented in new clothing. The SAMR model, which classifies Common Core tasks, not only enables design of activities to address Common Core Standards, but it also establishes metrics to determine the progress of districts in developing Common Core activities and in doing classroom walk-throughs to evaluate implementation.

SAMR model

2. Implementation
If a project is not implemented, one cannot expect results.
The most critical activity in projects is implementation, not testing. Common Core is a complex reform effort with interdependent components of instruction, infrastructure, support organizations, management, curriculum, and leadership. It includes:

  • The complete rebuilding of curriculum to address the new standards
  • The professional development of teachers changing from a teacher-centric to a student-centric methodology
  • The restructuring of the teaching and learning role, which moves from teacher- to student-centric learning
  • Policies at the district level to support and enable Common Core
  • The utilization of a variety of new curricula that are oriented to individualized learning
  • The establishment of new roles in the school to support the transformation of teaching and learning
  • The use of adaptive assessment and instruction to individualize instruction
  • The development of teacher evaluation systems driven by standards

Implementation is a complex process with several phases of planning, implementing, and institutionalizing. It is a process that takes several years. The most important thing to ensure effectiveness of the Common Core standards is effectively implementing them.

  • The Planning (Vision) PhaseIn this phase, the ultimate outcomes are designed, necessary resources are determined, and policies are put in place. The vision phase is the most important phase as there needs to be a champion who enrolls staff in the process, gets the necessary financial and professional resources, sets policies, and designs a multiyear implementation process.
  • The Implementation PhaseThis is the opposite in style of the planning phase. It demands very concrete, sequential tasks in a variety of domains: professional development both before and during the use of Common Core, the development of curriculum, the expansion of infrastructure, the establishment of evaluation criteria and processes, and the establishment and use of metrics to determine if the implementation is on target or needs to be modified. It requires the establishment of a vertical governance process that involves ongoing communication from the classroom teacher to the superintendent and back. Implementation is particularly difficult because there is an interdependence of infrastructure, teaching and learning, management systems, and support organizations. These four elements must be coordinated by ongoing communication among stakeholders linked to metrics.
    • Management Style: Ideally, implementation is accomplished by a combination of carrot-and-stick approaches, such as paying teachers for training or holding them accountable to strict evaluation criteria. If districts lack resources to use a carrot approach that includes extra support, training, and new job roles, they may have to slow their implementation and emphasize the stick approach of compliance and evaluation.
  • The Institutionalization PhaseAfter three to four years of implementation of Common Core Standards, there will be some elements, such as walk-through evaluations, that work and others, like adaptive assessment and adaptive instructional curriculum, that may not work. In the institutionalization phase, all levels of the district need to decide which aspects to keep permanently, which to eliminate, and which to rebuild.

3. Testing
The proposed implementation of Common Core assessment is incredibly rapid. Online assessment is beginning in 2015, three years after the initial planning of CCS began. This is particularly challenging since 40% to 50% of teachers’ evaluations will be based on their classes’ performance on Common Core Standards. Testing is a double-edged sword. There is a belief that what you inspect is where you get results. There is another perspective that states that early testing can backfire because the assessments do not test what they were designed for and it takes time for teachers to learn the new ways. Tests are perceived to often cause resistance to reform. The rapidness of Common Core assessment is scary. Technically, it is difficult to get online assessment in place so rapidly, and teachers who are used to NCLB may just focus on the assessment rather than the reform of teaching and learning. We should all remember that Head Start failed to calibrate test items in reading readiness, math readiness and socialization with the Head Start program for several years, significantly limiting the accuracy and usefulness of the assessment of the program. Common Core is also a major new program; significant efformay have to be made to ensure that the test is valid.

4. Recommendations
We are educators who believe strongly in Common Core and think it can permanently transform American education if implemented effectively. However, we are concerned about several factors that can impact its promise:

  • There should be a focus on implementation for another three years, with an emphasis on metrics to ensure schools are effectively implementing the program and can improve it.
  • The use of technology should be purposeful and timely. There has to be a true integration between the learning task and the technology. We see the two as two sides of the same coin. Technology can no longer be an add-on to curriculum; it must be part of it
  • There should be a system of implementation metrics used voluntarily by school systems. If implementation metrics are not being met, then states or the consortia may want to consider either postponing testing for a year, staggering the implementation of assessment, or using the assessment as a diagnostic test in the initial year.
  • There should be a strong emphasis on leadership training at all levels of education to plan, support, and evaluate the new standards.
  • There appears to be a shortage of bandwidth, well-designed infrastructure, and Wi-Fi density, which can impact instruction and assessment. These infrastructure issues have to be addressed prior to the commencement of the assessment program.


The co-authors Rob Dickson, Sheryl Abshire, and Eliot Levinson are all heavily engaged in common core planning and implementation issues.   The BLEgroup is a group of 180 leading ed-tech decision makers from k12 organizations who provide services to both the industry and schools on the planning and implementation of innovative products.  The BLEgroup writes thought leadership articles from a school centric perspective on critical issues for EdNet and report on a quarterly basis.  www.blegroup.com