Are Teachers Ready for Common Core?

Each year the MetLife Foundation conducts the important Survey of the American Teacher offering a temperature reading of perceptions related to our educational system. While in the past, they’ve focused on facets such as teacher preparation, parental involvement or even professional development, this year they zeroed in on the complexities of leadership as well as the Common Core. It probably comes as no surprise that school leaders continue to find their jobs more complex and overwhelming than ever before. Such perception just reminds us how these roles have and must continue to shift until our managers become instructional leaders.

But school leaders aren’t the only ones facing more complexity, so are teachers who must understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. And according to the MetLife survey, teachers feel confident. Here’s a snapshot of some of the most prominent findings.

  • Nine in 10 principals (93%) and teachers (92%) say they are knowledgeable about the Common Core.
  • Nine in 10 principals (90%) and teachers (93%) believe that teachers in their schools already have the academic skills and abilities to implement the Common Core in their classrooms.
  • A majority of teachers (62%) and a smaller proportion of principals (46%) say teachers in their schools are already using the Common Core a great deal in their teaching this year.

As with all surveys of perception, I think these findings offer some space for speculation. Here are a few insights I’ve gathered in working with teachers and administrators, as well as through my own efforts in the classroom.

1. We know we need to teach students how to think, but it’s harder than it sounds.

The survey points out several times that both principals and teachers are confident in their academic abilities to teach Common Core. I agree. Teachers know how to think like mathematicians, they know how to discern what’s credible in an informational text, they know how to frame a piece of writing in a way that makes an argument.

What I’ve learned, though, is that doing it ourselves and transferring those skills to our learners is the tough task. In order to do this, we have to teach in ways that value process and support a spiraling curriculum. We have to individualize and differentiate, we have to get response to student work in thoughtful ways. This all takes a different kind of time, the kind that will be most successful in buildings where the principals understand these processes just as clearly as the teachers do.

2. The more you work with the Core, the more you understand it.

Principals note that the teachers “in their school [who] are using the Common Core a great deal” are three times as likely to say those teachers are very knowledgeable about the Core. In other words, we learn by doing. We come to deep, conceptual knowledge when we wrestle with it every day. I know that’s true for me. When I use the language of the Core to draft an assignment or to compose a rubric, I’m having to struggle through the nuances of what the Standards mean and what they mean for my students.

3. There’s a difference between surface shifts and cognitive shifts.

I often have opportunities to sit down with teachers and talk with them about what it means to “be teaching the Core.” Because most of us are still coming to terms with it, the response is often a euphemism for “our textbook is aligned to the Core” or “I’m using the word ‘precision’ to talk about mathematical practices” or “I’m teaching non-fiction now.” While these are all commendable shifts, they are also the surface shifts, the entry points in teaching the Core. More non-fiction means more opportunity to look at argument, but there’s a lot of messy work under the surface of that non-fiction piece in order to help learners understand argument.

A lot of teachers and principals, according to the survey, are skeptical that the Core will make any real difference in student achievement. If our Core shifts are to introduce different materials without diving into the complexities of teaching students to think differently, then I’m afraid the skepticism will become our reality.

4. The nature of professional learning is crucial to moving beyond surface shifts.

In one part of the survey, teachers responded to the kinds of supports they felt they most needed. 96% of teachers noted that they need real-world problems for students to solve, while 93% championed assessments aligned to the standards to show mastery of concepts. Further, 93% of teachers called for strategies and coaching to teach content more deeply. In other words, we need both the “what” and the “how.”

We need examples of real-world problems and text-dependent questions to learn how to craft our own. But we also need a system that supports a dynamic approach to teacher growth. Our teachers will be able to exact those cognitive shifts when they are lifted out of isolation and have coaches, colleagues, and administrators who are growth-minded.

5. School culture and high morale makes the toughest work doable.

The survey found that “schools where the educators are doing an excellent job and have high morale are also more likely to report higher levels of student performance.” It’s not surprising that teachers and principals who work within school cultures where people feel valued, professional and aren’t afraid of punitive consequences flourish.

This work we’ve been asked to do is tough. For many it’s paradigm shifting, in fact. If we want to build on the expertise of our teachers, then, we must pay attention to the culture of learning and intellectual risk-taking we create for every learner in our building.

Note: At Teaching Channel we want to do as much as we can to help teachers prepare for implementing the Common Core State Standards. Below if a list of all the installments of our ongoing series, Let’s Chat Core. If you haven’t been reading the blogs and watching the videos—here’s your chance to catch up!

Learning to Read the Core (video)

Implementing the Core: Where to Begin?

Core Changes and Their Impact

Unpacking the Standards (video)

A Go to Toolbox for Teachers

Simplifying Text Complexity (video)

 5 Questions to Ask about Core Resources

Beyond Right Answers: Math and the Core  (video)

Debunking 5 Common Core Myths

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. She also hosts “Teaching Channel Presents” on public television stations around the country. Connect with Sarah on Twitter - @SarahWessling.

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