States Train Teachers on Common Core

August 9, 2013

Hardly a week goes by without controversy about Common Core, the academic standards for English and math that nearly all states have adopted. The standards for each grade level are intended to prepare every high school graduate for college or a career.

In just the last week:

  • The Michigan state legislature held a second debate on the standards.
  • Georgia officials learned the state could lose about $10 million in federal funding for its decision to delay tying teachers’ pay to student performance.
  • Indiana announced it was dropping out of one of two groups developing standardized tests aligned to the Common Core.
  • Ohio lawmakers introduced a bill to repeal the state’s adoption of the standards.

Despite the brouhaha, most states are plowing ahead. (see map)

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in both math and English and agreed to test students on them by the 2014-15 school year; Minnesota adopted them for English only. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted the standards.

Twenty states are scheduled to implement the Common Core for the first time in the upcoming school year. Seven states and the District of Columbia already have implemented the English and math standards, while Minnesota has implemented the English standard.

“There’s an intense sense of urgency right now to prepare students and teachers to get ready for 2014-15, but I do think it’s a long-haul effort,” said Margaret Millar of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which worked with the National Governors Association to create the Common Core. Millar predicted that even a decade from now, teachers will be incorporating the Common Core into their classroom teaching.

Some states are playing a central role in preparing teachers for the new standards, while others are letting school districts take the lead.

In a survey for the American Federation of Teachers, conducted in late March, 44 percent of teachers said their districts were just “somewhat prepared” or “not prepared” to implement the standards. About three-quarters of those surveyed said their district had not given them enough time to understand the standards and put them into practice. A majority also said their districts had not given them enough model lesson plans, or aligned textbooks and other materials with the standards.

“States are at very different stages,” said Michelle Exstrom, program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Some states have fully jumped in – Kentucky being one of them. Other states are hanging back.”

Even within states, preparation for the Common Core can vary widely from district to district.

Mark Dwyer, a ninth grade algebra teacher at Chatham High School in New York, said his district has provided teachers with many opportunities to prepare for the transition, including multiple staff development days and time off from their regular duties to prepare new tests. The district has also purchased new textbooks aligned to the Common Core for kindergarten through 12th grades.

“I’m in a district where we’ve gotten great support and I think we’re as ready as we can be,” Dwyer said. But he said his wife, who teaches in a school district just a few miles away, has received almost no support for the transition, in part because her district has fewer resources.

Common Core supporters say the standards will force students to develop deeper critical thinking skills—and require teachers to fundamentally change how they think about their jobs.

“Imagine a school whose purpose it is to prepare all students for success after high school,” said Sandra Alberti of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit that helped develop the Common Core and is helping train teachers. “That’s not the system we have now. The system we have is to award kids diplomas after 12th grade. That’s the order of magnitude of what we’re changing here.”

Donna M. Harris-Aikens of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, said that if the Common Core is implemented correctly, high school graduates will no longer need remedial classes when they get to college.

“It’s not that people haven’t had the will, it is that these standards essentially say that is the standard for every student,” Harris-Aikens said. “States who adopted these standards say ‘yes, we believe that is the standard for every single student.’”

Some are pessimistic about whether the states are up for the task that lies ahead.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said that while states are making some changes, they will need to create more selective teacher preparation programs to gear up for Common Core.

“It’s going to be a long, slow climb and it’s not going to be done well for quite a while,” Walsh said. “There are too many teachers coming out of teacher preparation programs who do not have the requisite knowledge and skills that would allow them to be successful in a Common Core classroom.”

Two case studies:


Tennessee, which is often cited for its teacher-training efforts, will be implementing the Common Core for students in all grades in math and English in the upcoming school year, for the first time.

Tiffany McDole, who heads training for Tennessee’s education department, said the state created a Common Core leadership council about a year and a half ago to begin implementing the new standards. Last year, the state selected and trained 200 teachers to serve as Common Core math coaches for third through eighth grades. The coaches taught about 12,000 teachers last summer. This year, the state had a total of about 700 Common Core coaches in both math and English, who together trained 25,000 to 30,000 teachers over the summer for math, English and other subjects, from kindergarten through 12th grades.

McDole estimated about half of the state’s 70,000 public school teachers have attended voluntary, week-long Common Core training workshops. Participating teachers studied Common Core test questions and discussed how to prepare students for them. After each round of training, the state has incorporated feedback from the coaches to improve the next round.

North Carolina

North Carolina, which is in its third year of Common Core, holds two-day summer institutes to train teams of up to 18 people from each of the state’s 115 school districts, said Lynne Johnson of the state’s Department of Public Instruction. There are about 110,000 teachers in North Carolina.

After the teams return to their school districts, state officials continue to check in with them throughout the school year. If a group of teachers needs additional help with a particular issue, the state might put together a webinar or host a Twitter session to answer questions.

“We’ve learned that no matter how much we communicate and travel across the state, you cannot communicate enough,” Johnson said. “We are continuously looking at how do we make sure all these resources and training get to the classroom teacher. That is a challenge. That’s why we’ve tried to work on blogs, Twitter, face-to-face, call-ins, on-line surveys to make sure and see how we can continuously do that.”

Click to view an infographic on Common Core:

This article was originally published by Stateline, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy.  It is reprinted here with permission.