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Priscilla Wohlstetter: Helping Educators Implement the Common Core

New York City by all accounts is considered a frontrunner in implementing the Common Core (CC).  New York State was the second in the nation to adopt the CC standards in 2009, just after Kentucky. Now, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them.

The state’s first round of CC test scores were released last August. As predicted, they fell sharply from the previous year’s scores. However, New York City fared relatively well. In the city, a little over a quarter of the students hit the state’s new proficiency standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, while in mathematics the proportion was even higher, closer to 30 percent. These results were only a few percentage points off the state average and compared even better to other large cities with similar populations in California, the District of Columbia, Kentucky and Wyoming.

So, what is helping the Common Core succeed in NYC?

#1: The New York City Education Infrastructure:  Prior to adopting the Common Core, New York City underwent a major reorganization.  The central office and individual schools were strengthened, while the power of intermediary decision-makers was weakened, as elected school boards were eliminated and district offices were cut in size and responsibilities. At the same time, principals were empowered as CEOs of their schools, and given responsibility for budgeting, staffing and instructional programming. As a way to support principals and better serve the day-to-day needs of schools, the City created a system of 60 school-based networks – known as Children First Networks – which offered both instructional and operational support to schools that chose to affiliate with them. As part of the decentralization, the Department established five cluster offices, situated between the central office and the networks that streamlined communication and was a more efficient way to offer resources and information to the networks. The new structure of the NYC DOE was already in place and ready to take on the rollout and implementation by the time New York State adopted the CC.

#2: Annual Citywide Instructional Expectations (CIE):  Educators and administrators at all levels were given clear instructions regarding the top reform priorities of the NYC DOE:  implementation of the Common Core Standards and a new teacher effectiveness system. By framing these two reforms as equal and interdependent, the CIE built cohesion among schools and the Children First Networks that supported them, by highlighting how Common Core-aligned curricular and assessment practices were interdependent with teachers’ strong pedagogical practices. In NYC, the key reforms were not layered on top of the other but instead were presented as a single, integrated strategy.  (Think marble cake versus layer cake.)

Did the NYC train veer off-track? Well, yes and no.

The CIE emphasized preparedness for assessments over curriculum development.  The CIE signaled to schools that preparing students for student assessments – performance tasks (formative assessments) and later on, yearend assessments – was a priority. The problem with this approach was that teachers had little access to curriculum – frameworks, units, lessons plans and so forth – that supported the Core Curriculum. Under the NYC DOE’s decentralization model, school leaders and teachers were left to create their own, leading teachers to allege, “You’re asking us to build the plane while flying it.”

Early on in the process, the NYC DOE offered curriculum bundles to schools, but they weren’t always relevant to urban students. For example, one of the few (only?) performance tasks for mathematics featured “Farmer Fred.” But how many students in Harlem had ever visited a farm? Did any of them know what hay was? Teaching the vocabulary in the exercise was as much a challenge as preparing students for the performance task.  A few enterprising teacher teams at higher-performing schools got on the Internet, figuring some CC states must have prioritized curriculum development.  Visiting a Queens middle school, I walked into the faculty room and saw the seventh-grade teacher team huddled around a monitor. “What are you up to?” I asked. “Oh, we’re on the Utah website; they have so many materials online. We’ve been downloading their curriculum frameworks, units and lesson plans. It’s not a perfect match, but tweaking materials that already exist is way easier than starting from scratch.”

What lies ahead for New York City?

The city’s test results suggest it has been focusing on mainstream students – not the English Language Learners, not special education students and not at-risk students. The test results from August show that New York districts with more ELL students struggle on the new, harder tests. The challenge in moving forward will be to resist the temptation to create its own interventions for each of the various sub-groups.  New York could invent its own specialized curriculum, but it should not. There are resources already in place.  Take, for example, Understanding Language, a program on the Web site of the School of Education at Stanford University  that is designed to develop instructional resources in line with the Core Curriculum that support ELLs. Stanford offers teaching resources for teachers of ELLs and has launched a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) on the Core Curriculum and ELLs (                                                                            

The test results in New York City also show that the achievement gap persists. Once again, the city should resist the temptation to devise its own solution. Study after study on charter schools conclude that “no excuses” charters, such as Achievement First, Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, are effective at closing the achievement gap. What strategies can NYC adopt from charters to promote academic excellence and grit?

One of the major opportunities presented by the Core Curriculum is that 45 states and the District of Columbia are all tackling the same challenge. In this new reform environment, parochialism is out. What remains to be seen is whether New York City, while now a front runner, will take advantage of the opportunity in the future to learn from other states and districts.

Priscilla Wohlstetter, Ph.D., is a distinguished research professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.