Seven Common Core Strategies for Principals

As an experienced educator and a member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, I was asked to share my top tips for principals facing Common Core implementation

1. Ask what staff know and need. Survey staff about their knowledge and comfort level with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the implementation process, using a free online tool like Survey Monkey.

The survey will provide valuable information on how to best focus professional development efforts. A survey could show you that a significant number of teachers are familiar with ELA standards, but that the non-English teachers are struggling with implementation. You may learn that, despite previous professional development, most of the staff is not comfortable with the content of the standards. Obviously, you can make better decisions with this kind of data.

2. Draw upon the expertise of all members of your team.  Distributed leadership and decision making can help the whole staff anticipate, prepare for, and resolve implementation issues. Make sure all voices are being heard — it can sometimes be easy for veteran voices to drown out the newbies.  Set up protocols to help build trust with the group and encourage everyone to contribute.

As Nancy, an English teacher in North Carolina, puts it: “Teachers who have had some experience teaching lessons using CCSS can be quite helpful in PD sessions.  Not only can they develop immediate capacity with the participants, but they can continue to provide support and encourage collaboration as schools and districts begin to implement the standards.” 

3. Set the tone. Many teachers and administrators have seen so many initiatives come and go that they are not preparing for CCSS implementation, but muttering, “This too shall pass.” Marie, a math teacher in Kentucky, challenges administrators to “Ignite, not Ignore” when it comes to Common Core.  

Be visible and active in the Common Core staff development that is offered at the school, county, and district level.  This approach will help you understand what CCSS expects teachers to know and do in their classrooms; it also shows staff that you feel these trainings are valuable and important. Lines of communication will open up as the faculty recognizes your vested interest in what is going on in the classroom.

And take Marie’s suggestion: Look for ways to support and encourage teachers. Post a helpful CCSS-related website in the weekly bulletin. Give shout-outs for outstanding CCSS-aligned practices during staff meetings. Write a quick note to a teacher who is helping others adjust to implementation. 

As Rod, a social studies teacher in North Carolina, points out, you could also use Twitter (if permitted by your district). Use your account to share your Common Core philosophy with your staff. Give shout-outs for outstanding practices you observe. Follow (or encourage tech-savvy teachers to follow) #commoncore or #ccss and retweet great resources to each other.

Rod also suggests using Scoopit or Diigo for curation of Common Core resources within a school. (For example, you might share teachers' tips and reflections on bringing the Common Core to life in their classrooms.)

4. Rethink your school’s schedule. Get creative with your school’s schedule to arrange for subject and/or grade-level teachers to have common planning time. As Nevada teacher Ernie Rambo has pointed out, common planning time enables teachers to “develop lessons/units that implement Common Core Standards without the intervention of outside publishers and consultants” as well as “share their progress and results.”  If common planning time is not feasible, encourage teachers to use some virtual tools such as Google docs, Blackboard or virtual PLCs to foster collaboration and sharing resources.

5. Analyze and compare. Expect—and acknowledge to staff—that there will be a learning curve. Start by asking teachers to analyze and compare CCSS with their current state standards.  Teachers need to understand what topics have shifted to different grade levels and what students will now be expected to know and do.

For example, one of my state’s first grade mathematics standards is “Tell time at the hour and half-hour.” The CCSS objective for the same grade level is “Tell and write time in hours and half-hours using analog and digital clocks.”  While the objective did not drastically change, what the student is expected to do for that objective has. 

Helping teachers see the connection to the old objectives might help ease their fears of the unknown.  Teachers might also realize that some of their teaching approaches are already aligned with the type of instruction prompted by CCSS. Encourage them to share that work with others!

6. Encourage vertical alignment conversations. Teachers can better scaffold their lessons when they are deeply familiar with what is taught in their subject (and how) across grade levels. This helps the teacher scaffold their lessons by having an understanding of a student’s prior knowledge of the subject.

Vertical alignment conversations can also encourage cross-grade-level planning as teachers see the connectedness of the objectives. For example, ELA standards are designed as a progression model in which students build on skills learned from previous grades.  This gives teachers opportunities to use or at least reference texts or documents used in multiple grade levels to build on students’ prior knowledge.

7. Organize rounds and reflection. Encourage teachers to reflect on the work that they and other teachers are doing to implement the CCSS. For example, you could organize “rounds”—a group of teachers observing another teacher’s class. 

Here’s how it works. The teacher who is being observed develops a couple of questions that (s)he wants the observers to focus on, like, “Do the assigned roles for group work promote student collaboration?” In the classroom, observers collect non-evaluative data related to the teacher’s questions. 

Afterward, the observers share what they witnessed without making any judgments.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to synthesize and reflect on the information gathered. 

The rounds process is beneficial for all parties involved.  The observed teachers acquire valuable information that can help them improve their practices.  And observers often discover strategies they can use in their own classrooms. 

July 11, 2013