Have the Common Core Standards Changed What Teachers Think and Do?

Changing what teachers think and do has been the target of many reformers in the past century. Every generation of reformers, regardless of political ideology, have aimed their reform-smeared arrows at the classroom because they wanted students to remember important facts, think rigorously, heighten creativity and classroom collaboration, and, yes, increase academic achievement.

What reformers discovered then and now is that for any of these reforms to alter students’ behavior, attitudes, and achievement, teachers had to first change their practices either incrementally or totally. If teachers’ classroom lessons hardly moved the needle of change, might as well forget influencing the “what” and “how’ of student learning.

So, have Common Core standards changed what teachers think and do?

Since 2010, nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards or a modified version. Surely, those state policymakers and federal officials who championed these standards believed that adopting these reform-driven standards would lead eventually to improved academic performance for all students (see here, here, and here).

In the back-and-forth over the politics of these standards, it was easy for these policymakers to lose the critical, no, essential, connection between adopting a policy and implementing it. Any adopted policy aimed at changing students is put into practice by teachers. And the Common Core standards asked teachers to make major shifts in how they teach. So civic and business leaders and academic experts who pushed such reforms forgot a simple fact:  teachers are the gatekeepers to the “what” and “how” of learning.  Mandating big changes in how teachers teach ain’t going to happen. Why?

Because virtually ignoring the very people who must put a policy into practice nearly guarantees partial implementation. Without involving teachers in the process, without spending time and money on insuring that teachers are in sync with the policy and have the knowledge and skills necessary to put it–and there’s never only one “it”–into practice, the hullabaloo and promises curdle into policymaker and practitioner complaints and disappointment.

Yet for the most part, even after initial struggles over getting the right materials and learning the ins-and-outs of the standards, most teachers across the country  have taken on the responsibility of putting these standards into their daily lessons. So how has the implementation gone?

A recent RAND study sought out responses over the past three years from a randomly selected panel of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers about the text and online materials they use and their daily classroom practices.*

Here is what the RAND report concluded:

Given that the Common Core and similar standards are being implemented in most states
across the United States, one might expect to see changes in teachers’ knowledge. However, we saw no clear changes in teachers’ knowledge about their mathematics standards when comparing teachers’ survey responses in 2016 and 2017….

For ELA, we found a decrease in teachers’ perceptions that “assigning complex texts that all students in a class are required to read” was aligned with their state standards, despite the fact that the use of complex texts is emphasized in most state standards.

Teachers’ use of published textbook materials changed very little over the period examined in this study. Thus, despite the fact that most published textbooks we asked about in our survey were not clearly aligned with the Common Core, teachers did not appear to be shifting toward more use of standards-aligned textbooks.

However, teachers’ use of online materials did change over the period of our surveys. Specifically, mathematics and ELA teachers reported using more standards-aligned,
content-specific online sources and less use of Google in 2017 than in 2015.

On one hand, these findings suggest that teachers are seeking online materials to help them address state standards within their content area. On the other hand, Teacherspayteachers.com—a lesson repository that is not vetted for quality or standards-alignment—saw a large uptick in use, and more than one-half of the ELA and mathematics teachers in our sample reported using the site “regularly” (once a week or more) for their instruction. In addition, increases in the use of standards-aligned and content-specific
materials were not even; such increases were not as clearly present among teachers of the most vulnerable students (i.e., ELLs, students with IEPs and low-income students).

These findings suggest that teachers who serve our neediest students may not always be aware of or using online materials that support standards-aligned instruction….
We saw no changes in standards-aligned practices among all mathematics teachers, and we saw few changes when comparing responses among all ELA teachers. However, the changes we found suggest that some teachers may be engaging students in fewer standards-aligned practices now than in previous years. For mathematics, in particular,
teachers serving less-vulnerable students reported using significantly fewer standards-aligned practices in 2017 than in 2016, whereas we did not see these
significant decreases among those serving more vulnerable students.

That said, teachers’ self-reports about students’ engagement in various practices should be interpreted with caution, given what we know about the accuracy of teacher self-reports….

The answer, then, to the question of whether Common Core standards have changed what teachers think and do is mixed. From these surveys, math and ELA teachers do report a few changes but stability in classroom practices persist. While teacher surveys are surely helpful in suggesting what occurs when policies get implemented, they do not substitute for researchers directly observing classroom lessons, interviewing teachers before and after lessons, and analyzing student responses to teaching practices.

___________________________________

*RAND writers are clear in stating that the findings from their surveys are “reported” by teachers. No classroom observations were done. Teachers answered survey questions and indicated what they knew and did in putting the Common Core standards into practice. Are there gaps between what teachers report and what they actually do in their lessons? Yes–see here  and here. But keep in mind, that these gaps in reporting perceptions compared to on-site observations of practice are common. They also apply to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals reporting what they think and do

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