Glenn Wood is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and Thomas Hernandez is director of community relations, at Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have the potential to be a positive force in education, but the success of students will rise and fall depending on how the standards are locally integrated into curriculum, instruction and assessment in school districts across Illinois.
To ensure successful implementation, school leaders must clarify and community members must understand two important facts: State governors and state education leaders — not the federal government — created the Common Core State Standards. The State of Illinois — not local school districts — adopted the standards.
CCSS are designed to provide English literacy and math skills necessary for students to compete in the 21st-century global market. New standards match academic expectations for students held by higher-performing countries and aim to assure that all high school graduates are prepared for first-year college classes or rigorous career training. Common Core standards are higher, clearer and deeper than previous standards. They are more challenging and require students to become critical thinkers who demonstrate perseverance while problem-solving.
The Common Core State Standards, like all previous learning standards, set expectations for academic achievement. The fact that Illinois adopted CCSS does not usurp local school authority to write curricula or choose teaching materials, nor does it hamper creativity of teachers. A district’s school board-approved curriculum is the map to achieve the standards. Local boards of education continue to adopt curricula developed specifically for their districts, as well as purchase texts and supporting materials most appropriate for children in their district.
Illinois school districts began implementing the standards after the Illinois State Board of Education adopted CCSS in June 2010. Integration of the Common Core into a district’s curriculum is a multi-year process with no easy answers. Simply put, we must implement the Common Core State Standards. Therefore, school districts must have a continuous cycle of reviewing and revising curriculum based on standards.
A more engaged community results in improved teaching and learning. A school district’s community engagement program should aim to improve student achievement by building trust, confidence and support with stakeholders. A strong curriculum and community engagement plan together will produce outstanding results for students.
Why CCSS and PARCC?
The National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State Schools Officers led the initiative to establish the Common Core State Standards — a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics. Raising standards for students is not a new idea. Several federal initiatives have attempted to raise standards and improve student achievement including Nation at Risk in 1983 and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002. However, NCLB allowed states to established assessments with different proficiency levels and standards.
In response to states lowering standards to meet NCLB progress goals, the National Governors Association wanted a common set of standards and assessments that all states would agree to join. Governors and state superintendents of education enlisted experts to draft and review the standards before opening them up for public comment and finalizing them. The Association released the Common Core State Standards on June 2, 2010; later that month Illinois adopted the standards. By 2011, encouraged by the federal Race to the Top initiative, 45 states adopted the benchmarks that detail what students should learn at each grade level.
Beginning in the current 2014-2015 school year, Illinois students will take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment to measure their learning. As PARCC gets closer to implementation, Common Core has received much more attention.
Support for CCSS slipped
While most states remain committed, a number of public polls indicate that support for Common Core slipped noticeably between 2013 and 2014. The change to CCSS in American classrooms stayed mostly out of the public spotlight until 2013, when backlash began to grow. In New York, new Common Core tests sent scores plummeting. In Indiana, conservatives were leery of the Obama administration’s support of the standards. In early 2014, the changes in American classrooms began to hit the mainstream. The Common Core State Standards became a hot topic on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and provided material for television pundits and comedians.
Public opposition has come from both bi-partisan political groups who fear expanded federal control and from teachers unions worried about consequences for teacher evaluation. Elected officials, including school board members, have received pushback from community members. Politicians are using Common Core as a political platform.
School board members must strive to ensure that their districts have processes and systems in place for curriculum development and community engagement as new initiatives are implemented.
Curriculum development at District 202
Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 implemented its new CCSS-aligned mathematics curriculum in 2013 and English/language arts curriculum in 2014 using a multi-year curriculum development process. That work began in the fall of 2011 and involved teachers, administrators and community members in the process to write curriculum and common outcome assessments, design professional development and review resources. This process allows curriculum teams to respond to changing needs of students.
During the curriculum development process, it became apparent the district would need to teach Common Core to parents and students alike.
Community engagement plan
At Plainfield 202, we have a comprehensive community engagement plan, which includes regular community forums, an updated website and regular correspondence with stakeholders using email, newsletters, letters and press releases.
Based on the significant shift of public response to and support for CCSS, we felt it necessary to develop a long-term focus on Common Core. By design, our Common Core communications plan fostered a welcoming environment for families, created predictable community meetings that made it easy for community members to be involved, and included parents in the decision-making process. Over 2 1/2 years, district and building personnel held 12 evening community forums around the district. Specific events around CCSS and PARCC include:
- Initial distribution of 30,000 specially-produced fliers, mapping “The Road to the Common Core,” to all parents during parent-teacher conferences (November 2012)
- Mass mailing/letter from the superintendent to all district addresses (November 2012)
- Flier posted on all 31 websites and promoted in district email newsletter reaching 38,000 email addresses (Winter 2013)
- Held the first of three rounds of community forums, each with four meetings. The first round was titled, “What’s coming …” (Spring 2013)
- Community forums were promoted in press releases to local and regional media and websites, in the district’s Spring 2013 newsletter and in a series of Connect-ED calls.
- A second round of community forums emphasized “Math standards/teacher experience.” (Fall 2013)
- The third round of community forums included “English standards/PARCC” and a status update focusing on the shifting political and public reaction to CCSS. (Fall 2014)
- A fifth forum will take place in Spring 2015 to highlight the results from the first-ever PARCC assessment
- Special “Common Core” website with links to many parent resources
- One-way email address so that parents can share concerns/questions directly with district administrators.
These communications efforts — most especially the community forums — have helped parents understand the transition to CCSS. Still, many parents found themselves frustrated by CCSS when they sat down to help their children with math homework. Based on feedback from the community forums, we have taken a multi-pronged approach to getting the word out to parents: the Common Core standards will change what and how students learn. That approach includes family math nights, letters to parents about Common Core math, videos that describe curricular changes, and posting detailed parent math guides for each grade level on school websites. Teachers also send home one- to two-page newsletters for each new unit students are doing in math class.
The road to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in school districts is continuing. It has been filled with curves and speed bumps along the way. Higher, clearer, deeper standards are a good thing. When implemented properly in a school district, and by developing parent support for the change, students will become self-directed problem solvers better prepared for the world of work or college.