Why Implementation Matters

My recently retired in-laws finally, after 5 years of searching, found a plot of land they want to build on and they’re starting the process of building a house.

While the blueprint outlines the size, shape and design of the house, there will be so many other factors that will impact the final product. They know they have to work around the sloped plot to build the basement. Should they dig into the ground or work with what’s there already? How do they ensure they have the right contractor to build a sturdy foundation for the home they’ve dreamt about and worked towards their entire lives?

Setting goals and having a vision is important, but the work you do along the way matters just as much, maybe even more.

As a current high school English teacher, I know this firsthand. My home state of Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards. While we’ve revised those standards over the years, I’m proud that our state has kept the bar high for students. More importantly, I’m proud that we have invested in supporting educators, like me, in teaching to those standards.

Just last week I attended a district professional development that brought together English teachers from across middle and high schools in the district. Even though I work in an innovative project based learning school, I was able to work collaboratively with teachers at more traditional high schools to analyze how our common district assessments are aligned to the standards and make aligned lessons that work for our own students, in our own contexts. This is eight years since the adoption of the standards and we continue to revisit and reiterate in order to do what’s best for our students.

That’s why I was so perturbed with a recent opinion piece in Forbes that dismisses both the Common Core State Standards and the ways in which states and districts have approached implementation. Not only have I witnessed how the standards have helped my students to think more critically and make deeper connections, but I’ve also seen how strong implementation is key. Just raising the bar does not help students reach it.

Teachers need curriculum and instructional materials that are aligned to the standards. We need support to raise the rigor in our instruction, as well as to scaffold instruction so that all our students are supported as they build the skillsets needed to master grade-level expectations.

Where the standards have been implemented well, students have begun to soar. In a new series, Success is Trending, the Collaborative for Student Success has highlighted how a commitment to high standards, aligned assessments and strong implementation supports has led to significant increases in the number of students meeting proficiency in states.

For instance, in the four years since New Jersey adopted its new assessment, the number of students reaching proficiency increased an average of 7.8 percentage points in English Language Arts (ELA)  and an average of 6.2 percentage points in math for students in grades 3-8. That’s in large part due to the hard work of teachers and students, as well as strong support during implementation—giving districts and schools the time and professional development needed to improve classroom instruction.

In California, the number of students meeting grade-level proficiency has not only increased significantly since the state began administering its standards-aligned assessment, but gains have been reflected among traditionally-underserved students. Hispanic students, in particular, have not only made gains upwards of 10 percentage points in some grade levels, but in elementary school, they’re making strides toward closing achievement gaps.

And in Arizona, 37,000 more students in grades 3-8 have reached proficiency in ELA. There, the Arizona Department of Education analyzed the alignment between their previous curriculum content and the new standards, providing professional development to help teachers navigate the conceptual shifts in instruction.

In each of these examples, implementation mattered. Having a clear goal and vision is critical, but just like a blueprint doesn’t guarantee the quality of construction for a house, high standards don’t guarantee student success.

Raising our academic standards was a significant undertaking that impacts every aspect of classroom instruction. It necessitates new ways of teaching, new curriculum and new materials. But it also can lead to new and improved outcomes for students.

Whether I’m looking at the growth of students in my own classroom, or the gains we’ve seen across the country, one thing is clear: When we support teachers and students, great things happen.


About the Author

Kari Patrick teaches high school English at STEAM Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. She also serves as Senior Advisor of Teacher Outreach for the Collaborative for Student Success.