Implementing Common Core left to districts

The Plaquemines Parish school district trained its teachers to develop their own lesson plans. St. Tammany Parish school officials revised online curricula that teachers across the district can use. The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has looked at paying as much as $2.7 million to consultants to reshape classroom instruction.

As debate seethes across Louisiana about a new set of academic standards known as Common Core, one sometimes overlooked aspect of the coming transition is the extent to which Louisiana has given local educators wide latitude in deciding how to implement the changes.

In large part, the blowback over Common Core has centered on the contention that the new standards represent a power grab by the federal government, an attempt by the Obama administration to meddle in local classrooms.

In Louisiana though, even more than in other states, it is largely parish educators, not federal or even state officials, shaping how Common Core plays out on the ground.

Common Core, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, is not in and of itself a curriculum. Instead, it lays out specific skills students should master in different grade levels — first graders should be able to describe a story’s characters, settings, and major events using key details — and overarching education principles — teachers should emphasize literacy across the curriculum.

Some states have responded with a relatively centralized approach. New York, for instance, has created a set of state-sponsored curricula aligned with the Common Core, although districts do not have to use the new curricula. In Tennessee, the professional development is relatively consistent across schools and districts.

Louisiana is taking a more laissez-faire tack. “Some districts believe we should prescribe actions down to the lesson level for teachers,” said state Superintendent John White. But “we know we are never going to realize the value of the new standards if we reduce them to a set of rules for teachers to follow.”

White said he believes a hands-off approach empowers teachers and principals to be creative.

Whether intentionally or not, it’s also politically shrewd given that some Louisiana conservatives have attacked Common Core, complaining it represents federal and state encroachment on local affairs.

Embracing the new curricular standards, but in a decentralized fashion, allows state officials to say they are honoring local autonomy and control.

The state has provided schools with some common resources, including sample lesson plans, videos, and examples of the types of questions students will be tested on. Some school leaders say they would have preferred the state provide more support and consistency with Common Core implementation, however.

“I appreciate decentralization on some level,” said Bernard Taylor, the superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish school system. “But there’s something to be said for the economy of scale and sharing of best practices if there’s a more comprehensive approach given to us by the state.”

A learning experience

With no single mastermind calling the shots, Louisiana schools have tackled Common Core in a variety of ways.

In Baton Rouge, Taylor plans to bring in experts to help design a curriculum and coach teachers in how to teach it, even if that expertise comes at a significant cost.

Taylor proposed hiring the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning for up to $2.7 million over four years.

When some school board members protested that price tag, the district issued a request for proposals; Taylor hopes to hire an outside group by the end of the fall.

“In the end, what I believe we need is technical assistance,” Taylor said. “This work is very multifaceted and I’m not sure if people understand the magnitude of the change.” He said the Pittsburgh group would provide comprehensive training in curriculum development, teaching strategies, and student assessment.

The comparatively small Plaquemines Parish school district has taken a different course. While the district has brought in numerous experts and speakers for professional development sessions, teachers have done the majority of the new curriculum development on their own.

Shelley Ritz, principal of Belle Chasse Primary school in Plaquemines, says the process has been both liberating and daunting for teachers.

The state essentially said, “Here are standards; interpret that,” said Ritz. “That was tough. Most teachers are fluent in pedagogy, but they are not developers of curriculum.”

The district provided stipends for teachers to come in at various points over their summer breaks, which most teachers took full advantage of.

On one July morning, dozens of teachers worked virtually nonstop in the district’s central office, scarcely looking up when someone announced lunch break. The teachers brainstormed lesson plans and conferred on the upcoming PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which are online tests aligned with the Common Core that Louisiana and several other states will start using in 2014.

For veteran educators such as Mary Beth Newchurch, who teaches fourth grade at Belle Chasse Primary, the Common Core validates the autonomy she has always exercised in her classroom.

“I think it does give us teachers more leeway,” she said.

Ritz is proud of how energetically her teachers have studied Common Core and adjusted their lesson plans. She worries, however, that interpreting standards, then translating them into effective curriculum and classroom instruction, will come far more easily to some teachers than others.

“Some teachers really have the capability to tap in and understand what a standard is,” she said. “Others are not as fluent.”

Options draw interest

Several districts and charter schools have taken a middle-of-the-road approach: developing or purchasing a Common Core-aligned curriculum teachers can use as a resource at little to no cost.

In St. Tammany Parish, educators worked in-house to revise the district’s existing online curriculum to match the Common Core standards, said Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Arabie.

Common Core stresses students should be able to pull specific examples from texts when writing about them, for instance. So an old writing prompt in St. Tammany’s online curriculum read: Write a report on Amelia Earhart. What did you like or dislike about the Biography of Amelia Earhart and why? By contrast, the new prompt reads: After reading three texts describing Amelia Earhart’s bravery, write an essay that analyzes the strength of the arguments about her bravery in at least two of the texts. Remember to use textual evidence to support your ideas.

Arabie said the curriculum is not “scripted” in that teachers should elaborate or diverge from it based on their students’ needs. “We don’t say, ‘Monday at this time you have to do A, B, C and D,’ ” she said.

FirstLine, a charter network that operates five schools in New Orleans, has also provided its teachers with math curriculum materials in sync with the Common Core.

In FirstLine’s case, the curriculum was created by an outside organization, a nonprofit contracted by the New York State Education Department as part of an effort known as EngageNY.

Kirsten Feil, the director of academic support, said FirstLine opted to use the materials, which are free, because national experts steeped in the new standards helped review the units.

“We don’t have the resources in house to do that,” she said. “We’re just getting our heads around the standards, and are not willing to take the risk of misinterpreting a standard.”

Culling new materials

Regardless of whether they are called on to be curriculum developers or not, Common Core will put Louisiana’s teachers to the test.

“There’s no one right answer to this,” said Greta Anderson, a fifth-grade math teacher at FirstLine’s Dibert school.

“You could have a great curriculum, but not teach it well. Or you could have a weak curriculum, but be a great teacher.”

Anderson has done substantial research on the Common Core on her own, scrutinizing several new online curricula and training programs. “Personally, I don’t think anything has been vetted enough to say, ‘Oh, this is the best thing around.’ Everything says it’s Common Core-aligned.”

After years of her own research, Anderson can spot red flags that call into question the claim of “alignment”: Too many shortcuts or tricks such as the “invert and multiply” strategy of dividing fractions (part of the point of Common Core is to move away from shortcuts in math instruction); a dumbing down of the material (the new standards encourage students to wrestle with complex material on their own); or a focus on closed-ended questions.

“For so many people, good math teaching has been about making it painless for kids to learn math,” she said. “Now it’s a different mindset.”

By late August, EngageNY had released unit and lesson plans in math for the first half of the school year, but teachers still awaited the second half, which likely won’t arrive for several weeks.

Anderson plans to rely on a blend of that program and strategies and lessons culled from her own experience and online exploration. When teaching her fifth-graders about place value, for instance, she will use elements from a Common Core preparation program called LearnZillion and a game-based instructional software program called ST Math.

Anderson said she has enjoyed the research, but thinks the shift to Common Core could be more challenging for first-year teachers and for teachers who aren’t as accustomed to using online tools.

“These mathematical leaders did a ton of work to create standards, but they didn’t actually create users’ guides,” she said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.