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Writing the Common Core standards: teachers on the ground were deeply involved

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Susan Pimentel specializes in writing educational standards and was the lead author, along with David Coleman, of the English Language Arts Common Core standards.  Heather Driscoll helps New Hampshire schools organize and improve their curricula and worked closely with New Hampshire’s Department of Education to gather feedback successive drafts of the standards from teachers all over the state.  They tell the story of a highly participative process in which teachers had a very loud voice.

Here’s Susan Pimentel describing the process.  And, below, from a recent interview we did, Heather Driscoll describes how New Hampshire participated in developing the Common Core standards.

Susan Pimentel on the standards writing process

The New Hampshire experience in writing the standards

Early stage phone calls

In May of 2009, the National Governors’ Association and Council of Chief State School Officers (the education superintendents and commissioners) started by getting Achieve to work on the standards.  They had six months to put their first draft together.

All during that time – and all the way through until the final standards were released a year later – the authors would hold regular feedback calls with the states.  People on the phone from around the country represented the different stakeholders –  curriculum specialists, teachers, administrators.

Deb Wiswell at the New Hampshire Department of Education assembled a whole team at the department to provide that kind of feedback. There would be people from New Mexico and New York on the phone with folks from New Hampshire, all going back and forth giving feedback. Those conversations tended to talk about broader concepts.  They’d go through asking specific questions. ‘What are your thoughts on this?’

New Hampshire DOE has a small staff so it was natural to prepare for these calls by reaching out across the state and saying, “Let’s start digging into this and see what feels right and what doesn’t feel right.”

The writers were open to our recommendations

On one of these calls, we proposed that speaking should be part of the language arts standards.  And from then on it was part of the standards.

In another case, we really championed on the calls the need to include science and social studies in the language arts standards.  Many states agreed.  We were all very impressed that the Achieve took that step early on to include science and social studies as part of the language arts standards.

It was during one of those calls that we said, “Something that’s been very helpful here in New Hampshire is a tabular layout that so that teachers can see Kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade expectations all together and then follow along to see the progression from grade to grade.” And sure enough, the Common Core language arts standards were formatted just that way, like the New Hampshire GLEs. And people were thrilled. That was a huge thing.

We held meetings all over the State

Then when the first draft came out in January, we really went into high gear. We invited the superintendents, assistant superintendents, and curriculum leaders in each district, to structured feedback meetings.  Anyone who wanted to get involved was involved.

The DOE provided strong support from the regional professional development centers across the state.  We were up in the North Country – equal participation from every region.  That was very exciting to see.

We held the meetings on February 11th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 24th, 25th and March 2nd. It was winter and we had a tight timeframe, but we still had 217 educators from across the state give feedback on the standards.

Each meeting spent three hours in the morning on language arts and three hours in the afternoon on math. Some teachers continued their work back at their districts and then emailed in additional feedback.

It was clear that these new standards would be challenge

And these were not high-level conceptual discussions.  We were working with a confidential draft of the standards and looking at very specifically – standard by standard.  Does this work? What is it about the wording? Could this be misunderstood by a classroom teacher? Do we need additional examples? Is this clear? Is this a logical progression? How does this progress from grade level to grade? And then, does it make the transition to the middle school and the high school the way it needs to? Is this realistic? All of those questions were right in the forefront of the work that each group was doing.

There was a lot of discussion about how challenging the new standards were.  Across the board there were concerns – especially in math – about the higher expectations at the high school level.

What the teachers didn’t realize at first was that these expectations were for years down the road, once the kids coming up had been taught according to the new requirements.  At that point, the standards from the lower grades would support them.  And, of course, the standards were not going into their classrooms tomorrow.

But when you’re moving to higher expectations, you have to trust that this is about the cumulative impact of instruction over the years and it’s going to take some time.  And some teachers did go back and looked at the middle school standards and said,

“Wow! Now I see! They would really be doing this in middle school. That would get us what we need at the high school.  And middle school students could do this if they were taught that at the elementary level.”

So it became clear how intricately everything is connected.

We saw the results of all our work in the final standards

We got our New Hampshire’s feedback directly to the writers as they were writing.  Our educators were a critical part of the process in developing of the Common Core. And that was really exciting.

In March, I was going through organizing our feedback and found that the edits we had recorded were already done.  That was a beautiful thing.  When I compared the February 9th and the March 10th drafts of the math standards, for instance, I emailed DOE:

“After reviewing the specific improvements that were made, I am speechless: the public draft addresses almost all of our teachers’ concerns…using their suggested changes (simplify phrasing, terminology suggestions, needs example, etc.)”

I was astounded at the end when I was going through to collate all of those changes because when I looked at the teacher feedback we gave Achieve and the changes they made, it was amazing how few points remained that we were still uncomfortable with.

If you compare the final document with the first document, they are so different as a result of that process that it’s clear how big a role feedback from New Hampshire and the other states played.

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