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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: How Little We Know about How Teachers Teach Common Core

Peter Greene, a retired teacher in Pennsylvania, had this to say about teaching the Common Core standards:

What happens to a teacher who doesn’t teach to the standards?
Oh, teachers still had (and have) to submit lesson plans that show alignment to standards, based on curriculum that is aligned to the standards. However, the alignment process is simply a piece of bureaucratic paperwork– you can simply write down the lessons and units that your professional judgment considers best, and then just fill in the numbers of various standards in the blanks. Maybe you have an administrator who will hold your feet to the fire (“Mrs. McTeachalot, I believe your use of standard RL.5.2a is not entirely on point”), but mostly, life will go on, your paperwork will be filed, the district’s report to the state will show that teachers are teaching to the standards with fidelity, and you can close your classroom door and do what you know is right. As long as the paperwork is good, reality can take care of itself.

Greene may well be right. For so little is known about how teachers actually teach the Common Core in their daily lessons.

Since 2010, nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards or a modified version. Surely, those state policymakers and federal officials who championed these standards believed that adopting these reform-driven standards would lead eventually to improved academic performance for all students (see herehere, and here).

In the back-and-forth over the politics of these standards, it was easy for these policymakers to lose the critical, no, essential, connection between adopting a policy and implementing it. Any adopted policy aimed at changing students is put into practice by teachers. And the Common Core standards asked teachers to make major shifts in how they teach. So civic and business leaders and academic experts who pushed such reforms  forgot a simple fact:  teachers are the gatekeepers to the “what” and “how” of learning.  Mandating big changes in how teachers teach ain’t going to happen. Why?

Because virtually ignoring the very people who must put a policy into practice nearly guarantees partial implementation. Without involving teachers in the process, without spending time and money on insuring that teachers are in sync with the policy and have the knowledge and skills necessary to put it–and there’s never only one “it”–into practice, the hullabaloo and promises curdle into policymaker and practitioner complaints and disappointment.

Yet for the most part, even after initial struggles over getting the right materials and learning the ins-and-outs of the standards, most teachers across the country have taken on the responsibility of putting these standards into their daily lessons. So how has the implementation gone?

Do one really knows since few researchers, pundits, and policymakers have systematically examined a representative sample of actual classroom elementary and secondary teachers (across academic subjects) teachers teaching lessons aligned to the Common Core standards. Yes, that sentence is correct. Actual classroom observations have seldom occurred. What is available are surveys teachers completed over the past five years.

Sure, surveys asking teachers about their teaching to the Common Core standards is useful. Teacher perceptions of what and how they teach lessons geared to the Common Core such as content, activities, and assessments give a glimpse of what happens when teachers close the classroom door.  That glimpse, however, is a self-report by someone who recalls what happens in their lesson. Useful but insufficient to judge what actually occurs in that room during the lesson.

So what have surveys of teacher opinion on their lessons revealed thus far about teaching the Common Core?

A 2016 national online survey of elementary teachers teaching math Common Core standards sponsored by the Fordham Foundation, an advocate of the standards, listed the following “takeaways” from the survey:

  • Teachers know what’s in the Common Core—and they’re teaching it at the appropriate grade level. Though it may seem unsurprising, it is notable that teachers are able to identify from a list of topics (some of which are “decoys”) those that reflect the standards—and they report teaching them at the grade levels where they’re meant to be taught. Once upon a time, teachers shut their doors and did their own thing. Now we have many instructors teaching to the same high standards nationwide.
  • Further, they’re changing how they teach. More teachers report incorporating the standards into their teaching, including the 64 percent of teachers who say they  increasingly require students to explain in writing how they arrived at their answers.
  • But teaching multiple methods can yield multiple woes. The Common Core math standards require that students “check their answers to problems using a different method.” And sure enough, 65 percent of K–5 teachers are teaching multiple methods more now than before the standards were implemented. But 53 percent of teachers also agree that students are frustrated when they are asked to learn different ways of solving the same problems.

Then there is a recent RAND study (2018) that sought out responses over the past three years from a randomly selected panel of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers about the text and online materials they use and their daily classroom practices.*

Here is what the RAND report concluded:

Given that the Common Core and similar standards are being implemented in most states across the United States, one might expect to see changes in teachers’ knowledge. However, we saw no clear changes in teachers’ knowledge about their mathematics standards when comparing teachers’ survey responses in 2016 and 2017…. 

For ELA, we found a decrease in teachers’ perceptions that “assigning complex texts that all students in a class are required to read” was aligned with their state standards, despite the fact that the use of complex texts is emphasized in most state standards. 

Teachers’ use of published textbook materials changed very little over the period examined in this study. Thus, despite the fact that most published textbooks we asked about in our survey were not clearly aligned with the Common Core, teachers did not appear to be shifting toward more use of standards-aligned textbooks. 

However, teachers’ use of online materials did change over the period of our surveys. Specifically, mathematics and ELA teachers reported using more standards-aligned, content-specific online sources and less use of Google in 2017 than in 2015. 

On one hand, these findings suggest that teachers are seeking online materials to help them address state standards within their content area. On the other hand,—a lesson repository that is not vetted for quality or standards-alignment—saw a large uptick in use, and more than one-half of the ELA and mathematics teachers in our sample reported using the site “regularly” (once a week or more) for their instruction. In addition, increases in use of standards-aligned and content-specific materials were not even; such increases were not as clearly present among teachers of the most vulnerable students (i.e., ELLs, students with IEPs and low-income students). 

These findings suggest that teachers who serve our neediest students may not always be aware of or using online materials that support standards-aligned instruction….
We saw no changes in standards-aligned practices among all mathematics teachers, and we saw few changes when comparing responses among all ELA teachers. However, the changes we found suggest that some teachers may be engaging students in fewer standards-aligned practices now than in previous years. For mathematics, in particular,teachers serving less-vulnerable students reported using significantly fewer standards-aligned practices in 2017 than in 2016, whereas we did not see these significant decreases among those serving more vulnerable students. 

That said, teachers’ self-reports about students’ engagement in various practices should be interpreted with caution, given what we know about the accuracy of teacher self-reports….

That last sentence is key. Yes, teacher surveys (both Fordham’s and RAND’s) give a partial picture of practice. They are useful bits of evidence. But self-reports need to be handled carefully since earlier studies that collected teacher perceptions of how they taught were compared to independent observers who were in the very same classrooms (including students) and gaps arose  between teacher perceptions and observers’ reports (see herehere, and here). Thus, the reliability of such surveys is suspect.

The answer, then, to the question of whether Common Core standards have changed what teachers think and do is mixed. From these surveys of math and ELA teachers do report a few changes but stability in classroom practices persist. While teacher surveys are surely helpful in suggesting what occurs when policies get implemented, they do not substitute for researchers directly observing classroom lessons, interviewing teachers before and after lessons, and analyzing student responses to teaching practices.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...