The State Education Department (SED) and the Board of Regents have now been forced to acknowledge what the field has known for a long time – that the statewide implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is deeply flawed. This system failure has hurt everyone and seriously injured the state’s credibility and capacity to lead just at the time when societal forces are converging which require fundamental change in our educational system.
The current predicament wasn’t inevitable. In recent decades, SED successfully managed statewide implementation of the Regents Action Plan, changes in the state assessment system, increases in graduation requirements and the implementation of NCLB (No Child Left Behind). The current effort, however, appears to have been managed by unconsciously unskilled leaders who didn’t know what they didn’t know. They didn’t appreciate the importance of context and the unique nature of the state’s nearly 700 school districts. They didn’t value practitioner wisdom and the considerable insight which teachers and field leaders could have shared. They listened but they didn’t hear. And they didn’t understand how to guide system-wide change.
Recent SED admissions of implementation failure have led to confusion in the field and undercut local leaders’ efforts to align their curriculum, instruction and assessments around the CCSS. This has provided a powerful excuse to those who have resisted change and also resulted in a leadership vacuum. As aggressive state leadership wanes, local leaders who have been unaccustomed to taking the lead must reconsider their roles. The current situation, though chaotic, can also be viewed as tremendous opportunity for field leadership and a time when local leaders can regain their voices to do what is right for their communities. However, as they do, it is critical that they manage change much more skillfully than state officials. They must:
Create Demand for Change – In many places, the rationale offered for the implementation of the Common Core has been that it is a state mandate and compliance is required. The state devoted most of its effort to telling the field what, when, how and how long. It spent insufficient time working with educators to make the case for change. As local leaders now inherit this implementation effort, they need to take the time to do so. The world is changing. Students must be prepared to live in the mid-21st century. They must cultivate the skills and dispositions to use their minds well and become lifelong learners. Leaders need to create this demand for change and stay with this step long enough and with sufficient intensity to establish a solid foundation for real change. If they don’t, they will find themselves returning eventually to this missed step.
Implement Skillfully – Until recently in many districts, CCSS implementation meant following the SED checklist precisely. Send staff to trainings, transmit SED directives to faculty, report progress to the state. Yet, in many settings, resistance among educators, parents and students grew and it became increasingly clear that statewide implementation was in trouble. The reasons are not hard to understand. What state officials viewed as a straightforward technical adjustment was in fact a huge adaptive and much more complex set of challenges which required different organizational norms and considerable new learning. With an unrealistic timeline and the weight of a statewide implementation which it didn’t have the capacity to carry, SED failed miserably with this step. To do better, field leaders will need to execute well and tend to detail carefully. It’s not enough just to do the right things; you have to do the right things right.
Monitor and Adjust – This may well have been SED’s major failure. There were lots of early signs of difficulty but SED missed them. It professed an interest in listening but heard little. Opposition was discounted simply as parochial resistance to change. No mid-course adjustments were made. All of this felt arrogant and, not surprisingly, anger in the field grew. As local leaders inherit implementation, it will be critical that they be willing to carefully monitor and adjust as needed. Most educators understand the need for the Common Core and their objections must not be misinterpreted. They need time, resources and reassurance to make fundamental change. Leaders must be willing to take half a loaf today, to take a step backward for every two steps forward. Do not try to impose your will—you see how well that works. You have to win hearts and minds and this requires careful listening and a willingness to modify timelines and activities in order to achieve the ultimate objective.
Manage Personal Transitions – This step never made it onto SED’s radar screen. Complex adaptive change is hard for people in any organization. With CCSS implementation, teachers have experienced the loss of familiar curricula and materials as well as a perceived reduction in their professional autonomy. As the change continues, it is easy to feel disoriented. An implementation dip occurs and nothing seems to work anymore. Staff experiences a loss of control and self-efficacy declines.
Eventually, an exciting new beginning will dawn but not until the stages of ending and transition have been completed. Field leaders are in the best position to guide their communities through these steps. Success here starts with a basic assumption.
Do you believe that most educators come each day to work to the best of their current abilities? If so, you will be successful in helping them manage their personal transitions with the coming of the CCSS.
This last step is probably the key. We are in the people business. We either believe in young people and the adults who work with them, or we don’t. In my view, the assumptions which the Governor, Regents and Commissioner hold about accountability, compliance, sanctions and the need for close supervision contributed directly to the failed CCSS implementation effort. Due to their failure, district leaders now have the chance to lead this critical effort. Don’t squander the opportunity.