Interview With Howard Everson on Common Core Implementation

Cross-posted at Education Week

Howard Everson is Professor & Director, Center for Advanced Study in Education, Graduate Center, City University of New York.Everson

Marc Tucker: Howard, when the Common Core was released, what did you think was most likely to trip it up?  What concerned you?
Howard Everson: There were two related issues.  First, I thought from the beginning that implementing the Common Core would be a heavy lift because I did not see where the high quality curriculum needed to implement the Common Core was going to come from.  Under the principle of local control, each school district is entitled to its own curriculum, but most districts do not have the resources to develop high quality curriculum.  I also thought it would be a problem from the standpoint of instruction because the Common Core requires a fundamental shift in thinking, instructional shifts about what kids know and are able to do — a shift from a topic-centered point of view to a learner-centered perspective.  This is very difficult for most teachers.  Many teachers I have interviewed think about a curriculum as essentially a “laundry list” of topics.  The folks who drafted the standards were keenly aware of how knowledge, skills, and abilities in ELA and Math are developed over time.  So they thought about the curriculum not just as topics to be taught but, from the standpoint of the learner, as a body of knowledge that unfolds over time in a logical way that is keyed to the way a student can best grasp that body of knowledge.  That is, they had a learner-centered view.  This requires a teacher to look at how knowledge, skills, and abilities are acquired, and what the teacher has to do to support and reinforce that unfolding.  That is different from an approach that says, “all I have to do as a teacher is get through six topics by December.”  And if I’ve covered the remaining topics by April then I’ve done my job.  Really implementing the Common Core requires much deeper knowledge and understanding on the part of the teacher.  Our teaching force generally is having a great deal of difficulty making that shift.  They were not trained that way.  The curriculum they had in school was a mile wide and an inch deep, and that is what they know how to teach.  They need a lot of help to make the change and apparently they are not getting it.

MT: There does not seem to be very much capacity in our education system to address these issues.  So, if that is true, won’t it take years to teach the Common Core as it was meant to be taught?
HE: Yes, I share that view.  I don’t know that we’ve had enough guidance from instructional experts on how best to teach the Common Core.  That work is lagging in a number of ways.  School districts, and state education departments, aren’t organized to dramatically improve their workforces in a meaningful way.  They don’t have the wherewithal and technical skills to do that.  When I look at how school districts are organized, I see that their organizational structures serve administrative purposes, not instructional purposes.  They keep the lights on, sports teams playing, the buses running on schedule, etc.  But I don’t see any significant capacity to improve instruction or the skills of teachers.  That set of skills is not there at the system level.  Sometimes there are teachers who know what needs to be done, but that expertise is not distributed well and there is no mechanism for sharing their knowledge.  Hospitals don’t ratchet up their expertise by bringing in one outside expert after another to deliver endless rounds of workshops.  In the hospital model, cardiologists meet regularly to discuss changes in practice.  There is constant consultation and collaboration.  Schools are not organized that way.  Teachers close their classroom doors and go about teaching the way they see fit.  That culture makes it very difficult to learn about new practices and to bring them into their classrooms.  Innovation in the school system is always a “drop-in from the sky”, top-down proposition.  New York State has a great Web site with great materials, but what we hear teachers saying is, “I don’t have time to use this day-to-day.  It’s not my job.  It’s not what I signed up for.”  There is a disconnect between the management of the organization and the workers on the factory floor.  That’s what is slowing implementation and could ultimately frustrate it completely.

MT: So the obvious question is where should these teachers look for help?  And the obvious answer is the schools of education.  Do you think they can provide the kind of support needed for teachers to teach Common Core properly?
HE: The work of Lucy Calkins demonstrates that it can be done.  She has an instructional program with a clear pedagogical and philosophical point of view that is valued by practitioners and is bringing it to scale here in New York.  But she is the exception, not the rule.  Prof. Calkins’ work has not been replicated elsewhere or in other content disciplines.  Where we see really constructive involvement of the university in the work of professionals is in the schools of business, not the schools of education.  Business schools are constantly supplying valued technologies and innovative practices to their practitioners.  That is a model that the education schools need to look at.

MT: How has the effort to implement the Common Core gone in New York?
HE: New York’s Race to the Top proposal included implementing the Common Core and using it to drive an aggressive program of teacher evaluations using data-driven instruction, as well as other things.  Two components were rolled out relatively quickly: new state tests aligned to the Common Core were implemented in 2013, and those tests were used to implement a new teacher evaluation system, despite what experts told them.  And they designed curriculum modules and instructional modules matched to the Common Core and put them up on their Web site.

MT: How did it go?
HE: I would give New York an “A” on development of materials.  They did a damned good job, relying on good contractors, who managed to develop high-quality materials.  They have built a good repository of curriculum-related materials.  The question becomes how to disseminate that material.  Plenty of people from other states saw these materials and are using them.  But there are many teachers and schools in New York that are not, as far as I can tell.  Naturally, it will take time for that knowledge to spread.  I think state officials may have underestimated the time it would take for teachers to access these materials and learn to use them.  In fact, the teachers were increasingly focused on the way the state planned to use the new test scores based on the Common Core as part of their evaluation.  Their predictable response was not the kind of thoughtful implementation one might have hoped for, but more of a mad dash to test prep.  This may be mitigated somewhat by the use of high quality tests of the kind that are hard to prep for but, in this case, officials opted instead for what they saw as an incremental step toward such a test, a paper-and-pencil, four-option multiple-choice test design.  Because the consortia tests were not yet developed, the New York tests, in my view, did not have a clear target to aim for in terms of the learning outcomes they were attempting to test for.  The result was a test that was more rigorous, more aligned from a content standpoint, but not very useful as a guide to instruction.

MT: So New York quickly developed new tests not very well aligned with the Common Core and used them to produce test scores that were supposed to be used right away to evaluate teachers.  I have the impression that the teachers were very angry about this, feeling that they were being held personally responsible for student performance under the new standards before they had had a chance to develop the skills they needed to teach the new standards well.  I gather that many teachers who initially had a good impression of the Common Core became opponents as a result.
HE: That is my impression as well.  When the tests were implemented, the percent proficient dropped, from roughly 60 percent or so proficient in mathematics in 2009 to 30 percent in 2013.  Those are startling drops which, in turn, led to all sorts of concerns about how test scores would be used in the accountability system generally.  Let me add one point about capacity building and that is the assumption that districts would be capable of building their own evaluation systems for teachers.  My sense is that districts have little or no capacity to build durable, valid, reliable assessments locally.  This only added to the anxiety and confusion of teachers.  One last point.  New York State has been very accountability driven.  When people have a close look at the standards, they say, “these aren’t bad.”  But we don’t know how to organize our instructional methods around standards like this without the aligned textbooks and other materials that teachers rely on to organize their instruction.  The research community is strong on theory, but not particularly good at tool building.  We see now that we are paying a price for ignoring the engineering work needed to support sound implementation of a change in instruction that is as profound as this.