The Principal’s Role in Implementing the Common Core State Standards

“In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over.”—Tom Friedman

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are about more than the old average. The adoption of these standards means that all students are now on a pathway to college and career-readiness. CCSS represent a real and fundamental shift in instructional intent from high school completion to college and career readiness.

These new standards completely change the conversation about school improvement. We are no longer talking about school improvement or school turnaround. Because successful implementation of these new standards requires new knowledge and new skills, they have shifted the conversation to school transformation.

The implementation of these standards will require a change in teaching as well as changes in the way principals lead schools. Knowing about the Standards is important. Unpacking the Standards is a necessary function. Learning how schools must change in order to meet the Common Core State Standards is critical.

The responsibility for implementation of the standards will fall squarely on the shoulders of the principal. School leaders need so much more than understanding the standards. Rather than simply drilling down into the details of the Standards, school leaders, including principals, assistant principals, teacher leaders, and district leaders need a practical understanding of the school wide changes made necessary by these new Common Core State Standards and how to lead those changes to create a culture of success in our schools.

Standards alone will not improve student achievement, nor will they close the achievement gap. The key to the success of these standards will be the extent to which they are implemented in each and every classroom with fidelity.

As in any other change, school leaders will be the key to implementation in their respective schools. The changes emanating from these standards are sweeping and will represent a daunting challenge to even the most seasoned veteran principals. High schools are at a particular disadvantage because these changes will all happen simultaneously and because high school students will be assessed under the assumption that they have been exposed to the new standards for their entire school experience.

Studies show that our teachers are weakest in the areas in that are deemed critical to the Common Core State Standards. Our teachers are strongest in classroom management and organization and weakest in questioning and higher-order thinking. Implementation of these standards will require a “deepening” and a “retraining” of our entire teaching corps.

Learning new ways of teaching and leading will be critical. However, unlearning old habits will pose the greatest challenge to school leaders. Studies indicate, “more than 40% of the actions adults perform each day are not actual decisions, but habits.”[1] In schools, where we intentionally build in procedures and routines, habits could make up as much as 80% or more of our actions. The way teachers begin class, the way they question students and the level of the questioning, how they group students, how they end class are all routines and habits, many of which will have to be unlearned and new habits learned. These changes will require months and years of focused, deliberate practice.


[1] Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

This blog is the first in a series of blogs by Mel Riddile, Associate Director for High School Services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, on the principal’s role in implementing the Common Core State Standards. 

Guest Author: Mel Riddle, Ed.D., is the Associate Director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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