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Lessons Learned on Standards Implementation from State and District Leaders

Katie Pak
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
English Language Learners
Standards Implementation
Students with Disabilities
Teaching and Instruction


This April, key administrators from the state departments of education in Massachusetts, Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, and Rhode Island convened for “A Conversation on College- and Career-Readiness Standards” hosted by C-SAIL in Washington, D.C. Joining them were administrators from D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), and the WIDA Consortium, as well as ELA and math coaches from C-SAIL’s FAST program. These expert guests shared their unique experiences, lessons learned, and recommendations regarding college- and career- readiness (CCR) standards implementation, some of which we highlight here.

Implementation Strategies that Support the Standards  

  1. For Tennessee, which was the most improved state based on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, the fact that they saw consistent growth on both their state assessment and the NAEP showed that they were accurately measuring their progress in raising student achievement rates through their assessment/accountability system.
  2. For DCPS, they focus on three buckets: teacher effectiveness, curricular quality, and family and student engagement. In terms of teacher effectiveness, DCPS invested in placing instructional coaches in every school, training teacher leaders and assistant principals in developing content expertise, and coaching teachers on pedagogy and curriculum for 90 minutes each week with a grade-level and content expert. For curriculum, DCPS sought to have texts, formative assessments, performance tasks, and other core components within and across units aligned to the standards. 
  3. Massachusetts is focusing on the “granular level of standards implementation and the organization of instruction” by developing curricular materials that can serve as guidance to districts as they make decisions around aligned curriculum. They are also working on partnering with teacher preparation programs to ensure that teacher candidates are being trained to assess curricular materials for alignment to the standards.  

Implementation Strategies that Support English Learners (ELs) and Students with Disabilities (SWDs) in General-Education Classrooms

  1. The standards have helped create consistency and guidance for diverse populations. Prior to the standards, special education teachers had to adapt and modify curriculum for different students with varying sets of expectations. With the standards, there is “more predictability in terms of what students need to receive,” said one state official. For both Tennessee and Rhode Island, the standards, plus Response to Intervention (RTI), have helped districts engage in intentional conversations around student data and employ differentiation strategies in order for all students to have access to core instruction. Additionally, Tennessee revised policies around Individualized Education Plan (IEP) development so that students would receive specific supports in meeting grade-level standards. In Rhode Island, ELs will have the opportunity to graduate with a bi-literacy credential on their diplomas.
  2. Texas is rolling out a resource for teachers that shows them how to differentiate instruction for their special populations within an RTI setting. Teachers will be able to search an interactive database of the standards to see how the state defines key terms in the standards, access sample lessons, and find recommended practices for differentiation. Massachusetts is developing is a similar platform, where they are embedding supports into the standards so that teachers can access instructional tools to support the teaching of each standard. Similarly, Ohio is embedding differentiation guidance directly into their model curriculum units to guide teachers in supporting ELs and SWDs.
  3. DCPS’ approach involves structural changes, instructional changes, technical changes, and adaptive changes. The structural changes involve schools building schedules to accommodate inclusionary practices. The technical changes involve providing teachers with online platforms that support SWD and EL instruction and development of IEPs. The adaptive changes involve building awareness of the race and equity issues related to SWDs and ELs.
  4. SDP is focusing on “what students can do versus what students are still struggling to learn… and especially with our English language learners, for teachers to understand the rich set of skills that students do bring to the table.” Principals are the levers for making sure that students are being rostered for inclusive classrooms so that ELs are not missing content instruction.
  5. WIDA has received more requests in recent years from districts in implementing professional learning for teachers to help them understand the role of the language standards. Through this work, they are supporting the shift away from “remedial, down the hall support for [ELs] and really getting schools to see that everyone is fundamentally a language teacher.”

Challenges that Teachers Face in Implementing Standards

Note: This section is based on insights provided from a panel of FAST coaches and an SDP administrator working with the FAST program.

  1. FAST Coaches Perspective: Finding materials that align with the standards is a major concern for teachers without access to up-to-date textbooks. Additionally, meeting standards is only a small fraction of what concerns teachers during a school day. They have to balance the demands of their children, their students, their students’ families, their administrators, and their district. Finding the time to understand the cognitive demands of the standards is a challenge.
  2. District Perspective: Several years ago, due to budget constraints, SDP had to let go of 5,000 teachers and 60% of central office staff. This also represents a loss of cultural and organizational knowledge and limited the district’s capacity to switch over to the Common Core State Standards. Teachers did not have the opportunity to learn the standards and understand their cognitive demands, which is reflected in instruction today. When working with teachers, the challenge is having conversations about the need for more cognitively demanding instruction without offending their instructional practice and professionalism.

Lessons Learned on Implementation

  1. While states initially focused on training educators to understand and unpack the standards, Tennessee is now seeing more benefit from building capacity at the district level to support instructional shifts. Understanding the standards themselves is not sufficient: district staff need to know how to coach and support teachers in enacting the instructional shifts.
  2. Small districts, in particular, look to the state to provide resources and guidelines for standards implementation, as they themselves lack the capacity to do that research, especially as the district superintendent serves as the substitute teacher, bus driver, lunch distributor, and special education director—a common theme in small, rural districts.  Texas has assumed greater responsibility over the past two years in assisting those districts, which serve approximately 60% of the state’s students.
  3. As is the case in DCPS, administrators “still need to work on winning hearts and minds around what standards are designed to do” by focusing on issues of equity and engaging instruction. The standards themselves are not fun to talk about, and they are often associated with standardization. Getting that teacher buy-in to the broader goals around standards is still a work in progress.

Recommendations for Future Research

  1. DCPS: Some administrators do not know how to interpret situations when student achievement results seem to increase on the PARCC but decrease on the NAEP. Research that seeks to understand the source of those diverging data points, and how administrators should respond to those divergences, would be beneficial.
  2. Texas: Is the existing state infrastructure for providing support to a diverse spread of districts currently working well? Where are the areas in need of improvement? How else can they better invest their state resources to maximize impact for districts? Additionally, what does it look like for states to set strong policies that then get filtered down to districts in meaningful ways, and that avoids compliance-oriented monitoring? Is the state providing a strong instructional framework for supporting SWDs, ELs, and general-education students, and how should the state self-regulate so they know how to better support their smaller districts? 

Final Thoughts

One theme running through these thoughtful conversations was the positioning of standards as the mechanism for rigorous, core instruction for all students, with the caveat that they should not be at the forefront of all conversations and activities intended for teachers. Instead, teachers need “resources at their fingertips” to help operationalize the standards and ensure cognitively demanding instruction, which explains the heightened focus on developing easily accessible curricular materials, as Massachusetts, Ohio, and DCPS are doing. More findings from C-SAIL Implementation Team will be released in the coming year.