Feature Pages 20-26
The Common Core C's of
A forward-looking Delaware district pushes hard to put in place the new standards in the face of opposition
BY SUSAN SMITH BUNTING
The 9,500-student school district I lead in southeastern Delaware embarked early on systematic implementation of the Common Core State Standards by applying the seven C’s. Doing so made a lot of sense.
The Indian River School District covers 365 square miles with a demographic makeup in 15 schools that’s as diverse as the school district’s landscape. Even though 65 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches and 16 percent are English language learners, Indian River’s student achievement in core subjects, as measured by the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System, is annually among the state’s highest. We’ve earned a statewide reputation as a model of excellence.
Despite the district’s recognized progress, critics of the Common Core recently placed a billboard message admonishing “Stop the Common Core: Save Your Child’s Education” for all who travel the main thoroughfare. The cry of alarm has been sounded by local residents convinced that implementation of national standards places too great a burden on students and teachers and facilitates intrusion of the federal government into local classrooms.
Susan Bunting, superintendent of Delaware’s Indian River Schools, is working to counter claims about the Common Core standards’ excessive demands on students.
To counter effectively the campaign waged by Common Core skeptics, the Indian River School District charted a course of action with tactics that previously had proven successful in taking on challenges in our midst. We were guided by the 7 C’s of Common Core change — all well-recognized qualities of our school district. These are a culture of learning, connections, communication, collaboration, catalyst reputation, continuity and community.
As Indian River’s chief school officer for the past eight years, I fully accept responsibility for maximizing educational opportunities and academic achievement of students. With a curricular and instructional background, I approach the superintendent’s role from a unique perspective.
I believe firmly in the value of developing students’ critical thinking skills, incorporating more rigorous assignments and challenging them to analyze, synthesize and evaluate information. I’ve long been a proponent of “an inch deep rather than a mile wide” curriculum. I’m a firm believer in promoting the educational “cutting edge.” Continuous curricular and pedagogical growth are critical. Therefore, I have championed the advent of the Common Core State Standards.
Furthermore, as the district’s instructional leader, I want to create and sustain a culture where teachers and administrators promote experimentation with, evaluation of and prudent adoption of innovative programs and practices.
When Indian River began its foray into continuous school improvement, it found the framework established by a North-Carolina firm, Learning-Focused Strategies, helpful. The framework uses exemplary practices to increase learning and proved so highly effective in raising student achievement that the model’s lesson template and strategy implementation became non-negotiables in our schools. After sharing the dramatic impact on Indian River students’ state test scores with my superintendent peers, we collaborated on a statewide initiative to prioritize the curriculum.
Mixed school district teams of K-12 teachers reviewed the existing math and language arts standards in Delaware to differentiate those that were essential to testing success and those that could be addressed only if time in the school year allowed. In leading this review, Indian River earned a reputation as a strategic curricular and instructional trailblazer.
Indian River’s pacesetter reputation reflects its willingness to contribute, to be involved and to pursue professional growth opportunities. We connect with people in the know via state committee work, engage in professional organizations and participate in national conferences — all of which yielded early insight into the Common Core.
Because Delaware Gov. Jack Markell co-led the National Governors Association initiative to promote a national set of standards defining what students should know and be able to do at the conclusion of each grade level, the winds of change quickly swept into discussions and training in his home state. This advanced notice helped us prepare for the journey into uncharted curricular waters.
Aware of the forecast, I realized that communication about what lay ahead was imperative. Hence, a district team began to weave information about the imminent changes into staff presentations. Curricular specialists incorporated draft standards into discussions and demonstrations. We shared sample classroom activities tied to the new standards whenever an opportunity arose.
In essence, as a team we initiated the transition process — through back-to-school presentations, district newsletters, curricular committee recaps, public forums and one-on-one conversations. We communicated a candid yet concise message about the Common Core.
Empathizing with those administrators and staff members who immediately vocalized the challenges of time, curricular redesign and outdated instructional materials, the district embarked on an ambitious CCSS transition journey that emphasized collaboration.
During summer of 2012, about 30 selected elementary grade representatives became immersed in professional growth opportunities. They undertook the yeoman’s task of redesigning reading and math units to focus on the Common Core standards. A parallel process involving secondary teachers commenced the following fall. As a result of a mini-series of board of education presentations and discussions during districtwide curriculum committee meetings, board members approved additional “alignment days” in the school calendar. These days enabled all Indian River teachers to deepen their understanding of the new standards and collectively incorporate CCSS-linked strategies into instruction.
These sessions also facilitated the rollout of revised curricular units by the teachers who had served on the writing committees.
To further support effective implementation in schools, the district developed a snapshot tool featuring Common Core “look fors” — evidence of CCSS use and the related instructional shifts — for use by principals and central-office teams. Simultaneously, building administrators deepened their knowledge of CCSS through their own professional learning community’s after-school sessions, during which they analyzed the rigor of assignments and assessment samples; digested Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (Heinemann, 2012), a book with practical applications; and crafted CCSS implementation plans.
Principals have dutifully fulfilled the role of catalyst (as do I), providing time for teachers to learn together, enabling in-house Common Core “experts” to encourage and reinforce transition attempts, allocating funds for CCSS-related endeavors and purchases, establishing confidence among staff and serving as cheerleaders for the heavy lifting. In essence, transition to the Common Core has warranted a concerted effort. Although district leaders can set the course, building administrators must make it happen.
We have made significant progress, yet two additional factors will determine whether Indian River can reach its final CCSS destination.
First, the district’s administrative team deems continuity vital to systemic change. We believe in staying the course. Thus, quality implementation targets are included not only among the district’s annual goals but also on each principal’s balanced scorecard. To ensure consistent headway, periodic progress checks are scheduled for CCSS implementation planning. In essence, Indian River’s staff members have a required opportunity to teach to the CCSS.
Cognizant that what gets monitored, gets done, I expect building administrators to observe and record the appropriate use of the Common Core standards in classrooms and to reflect this non-negotiable goal in each teacher’s formative and summative evaluations. The district’s evaluators review 20 percent of the documents and provide feedback to principals and their assistants as to how they can further support classroom teachers’ implementation of both the CCSS and research-based instructional practices. Moreover, I discuss the resulting individualized recaps with each principal and include feedback in his/her evaluation.
Lastly, the school district unequivocally needs the support of its community members, for this partnership is critical to students’ maximized achievement. Convincing stakeholders that the Common Core will better prepare our graduates for the 21st-century world of work is an ongoing process. Thus, hearing and addressing parents’ and citizens’ concerns is imperative. Either I or a central-office director responds to each concern shared with us, whether by phone, by e-mail or in person.
Because civic organizations, university groups and alumni associations are curious about so-called educational reforms, I accept every invitation to explain the new standards, their effect on classroom instruction and their long-term benefits for students. During meetings with the public or staff, Indian River‘s instructional leaders eagerly entertain questions, for only through their asking and our empathetically enlightening community members can their concerns be allayed.
Among the fears that surfaced during public discussion was the fear of data-mining. Some people were worried the district would be gathering family information including financial data and religious affiliation and would retain these records until the student is 26. We relay that Indian River intends to record only the personal information currently gathered and to track only information related to students’ academic progress. When confronted with the “more testing, less learning time” argument, we explain that as Delaware shifts to the Smarter Balanced Assessment to gauge Common Core mastery, testing time will actually decrease.
When teachers express fears they will lose control of how they teach, we remind them that the Common Core focuses on the what, not the how of teaching. Entertaining the worry that the CCSS curriculum is “dumbed down,” we accent the increased rigor, critical thinking and real-life application emphases of the new standards and the extensive training teachers will receive to more effectively prepare students to compete in the highly competitive global market.
Finally, to those who are daunted by the threatened “government takeover” of classroom instruction, we describe the standards as guides identifying what students should know and be able to do at each grade level and affirm that CCSS-linked curricula will be developed by individual districts and their schools. Local control remains alive and well.
John C. Maxwell, internationally recognized leadership expert and author of such books as The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, attests, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” Indeed, conscious of the direction in which we need to travel, as Indian River’s superintendent, I had to chart the course and captain the ship. However, the secret of our progress on the Common Core must be attributed to teamwork. Together as a crew of teachers and administrators, we are successfully traversing the stormy seas of change.
Susan Bunting is superintendent of the Indian River School District in Selbyville, Del. E-mail: susan.bunting@IRSD.k12.de.us