The Principal’s Role in Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Instructional and Cultural Challenges

This blog is the third 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.

The shift in instructional intent from high school completion to college and career readiness effectively places each and every student on a pathway to college and career readiness. The big picture is much higher rigor for all students, not just some students. In discussions with teachers relating to the new standards, we hear the most concern attributed to increased rigor, which teachers view as “absolutely and significantly different.” Backward planning from college and career readiness standards instead of high school completion guidelines has resulted in a grade-level shift in content down through the grades. What was a college expectation is now a high school expectation. The increased rigor and grade-level shift is accompanied by increased text complexity and a new emphasis on informational text and close reading in which students actively highlight, annotate and take notes while reading across the content areas. Because students cannot learn the aforementioned skills by listening to a teacher talk, we must reverse the typical ratio of teacher talk and student work.

Students must be engaged. They must be actively interacting with the teacher and other students relative to the content of the lesson and they must be reading and writing in every classroom. Teachers cannot teach both higher-level content in more depth and new cross content literacy skills without more instructional time. However, tight budgets have rendered longer school days, a longer school year, after school tutoring, and interventions cost-prohibitive. Therefore, school leaders must help teachers make maximum use of the instructional time they already have. Teaching bell-to-bell under the CCSS is now a minimum expectation. Instead of knowing the answer, students must be able to find the answer, make claims and produce evidence from text to support their claims. This is a different type of instruction than what we have come to call “sit and get.”

All of these changes will require a complete retraining and refocusing of our entire teaching staff. School leaders will need to build teacher capacity, not inspect processes. Leaders need to understand that these changes are profound and will be intimidating to many of our teachers. Therefore, school leaders must create a teacher-friendly culture in which it is okay to try new things and to make mistakes. One factor complicating the implementation of the Standards is that a recent survey revealed that 73% of teachers think they are prepared to teach the Common Core. That means that school leaders will be faced with a vastly different set of teacher expectations relative to the amount of work that needs to be done. The principal will be the key to the success of the standards.

Study after study points to the principal as the single key to a strong school culture. Research has consistently shown that having an effective principal in a school is nearly as important as having an effective teacher in the classroom. A 2009 study (by New Leaders, a New York City-based nonprofit group that trains principals in 12 urban areas across the country) found that principal effectiveness accounts for 25 percent of a school's impact on student gains, while teacher effectiveness accounts for 33 percent. While each teacher has more impact on his or her students, the principal impacts the performance of each and every student in the school. Implementing these new standards will require principals to lead a culture change that impacts each and every classroom and in the school as a whole.

Like an iceberg, school culture is comprised of what we can see above the surface and what we cannot see, but is below the surface—the visible and the invisible. Although invisible, our individual and collective mindsets drive our behavior and thus define the culture of our school. One study revealed that only 60% of teachers believed that all students should and could be expected to learn at high levels. That means that school leaders have a lot of work to do in changing staff mindsets—what I often refer to as the “auto pilot” of a school. Mindsets are in the invisible dimension of school culture. However, school culture also has a visible dimension. The visible aspects of school culture include the master schedule, how students are grouped, and bell schedules. The visible elements are the overt manifestations of the mindsets of the staff. In under-performing schools, these practices reveal a focus on adults wants as opposed to student needs. Many schools will have to become much more collaborative, with more shared decision-making and an increased emphasis on teamwork. Outdated grading practices will need to be carefully examined. Schools that are still engaged in tracking will be forced to end this archaic practice.

Check back tomorrow for the last piece in this series on 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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