The Principal’s Role in Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Ten Keys to Success

This blog is the fourth 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.

School leaders should consider 10 keys to successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards:

  1. Vision – School leaders will need to collaboratively construct a “crystal clear mental picture” of what they want to accomplish that is based on the data-informed needs of the students and which is shared by the entire staff.
  2. Focus – Most schools are trying to do too many things and they end up doing none of them well. High-performing schools have three and not more than five areas of focus.
  3. Easy – The chosen initiatives must be easy to understand and leaders should constantly seek to simplify, clarify, and amplify the school’s plan through many, and frequent messages through varied media. That means school leaders must ultimately change the conversation.  One address to the faculty at the beginning of the school years is important but not sufficient to sustain school wide change. School leaders must also tie what they do to a higher purpose and seek “simplexity” by connecting the dots between complicated theories, research, and every day practice.
  4. Mindsets – Attitudes, beliefs and expectations make up the invisible operating system of the school. They drive behavior. However, school leaders cannot wait until they achieve a change in attitude before implementing the standards. They must begin implementation—the visible—while they simultaneously work to change the mindsets of the staff—the invisible.
  5. Implementation – The CCSS are not our greatest challenge. Standards, by themselves will do nothing to raise student achievement. Schools and teachers raise student achievement. Thus, it is the implementation of the CCSS with fidelity that will ensure that all students are college and career-ready.
  6. Collaboration is easier explained by asking a question. Would you rather have control over your staff or the cooperation of the staff? High-performing schools seek cooperation not control. They practice shared decision-making, which results in shared responsibility and shared ownership. If principals want voluntary cooperation, they must lead as though they are seeking cooperation. If they want teachers to take ownership of the standards, they must treat teachers as co-owners and provide staff members an integral part in making the key decisions that affect their classroom practice.
  7. Leadership is strongest when it is given and shared. The best organizations and schools grow leaders and, in doing so, develop people. One person cannot implement the CCSS. It will take the collective effort of everyone working together. Growing leaders is a conscious act. Developing and spreading leaders throughout the school is not an accident. Leaders grow leaders by sharing decision-making, creating an environment in which trying new ideas is the norm, and by creating a culture of continuous improvement.
  8. Time – Just as every school has its own DNA, so does every change initiative. Every successful change initiative starts small with a select group of willing people and builds on success. On the other hand, the school staff will need short-term wins to maintain motivation. Therefore, school leaders will need to create both a short-term and long-term, minimum of three years, plan.
  9. Inclusive – The CCSS significantly change expectations for student performance and demand that everyone work together toward a commonly agreed upon set of student outcomes. Joint effort and collective action now become the primary focus of a school leader.
  10. Collective – Traditionally, school leaders have attempted to improve teaching one teacher at a time, and they must continue to do that. Teamwork must become a non-negotiable. Schools can build individual capacity by carefully recruiting and hiring staff, who are first and foremost team players. The changes wrought by these new standards are of such a magnitude that school leaders must build the collective capacity of the entire staff through defined, school wide instructional practices.

The CCSS change the conversation from high school completion to college and career-readiness. Changing the conversation means shifting the culture. School leaders already shape the school culture. Now, principals must become intentional ‘culture creators’ who work in direct partnerships as co-equals with other school leaders. The result is a restructuring of the role of the principal. Instead of adult-focused, top-down and hierarchical, schools must become student-focused, more collaborative, and less hierarchical.

In summary, the CCSS represent a daunting challenge for school leaders. This work is too important to leave to chance. Just as we must build the capacity of our teachers to deliver these new standards, so too, must we invest in building the capacity of our school leaders to implement them. 

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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