Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What it Takes to Stay the Course

January 28, 2014

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending time in Kentucky classrooms to see how teachers are helping transform education for all Kentucky students.

It was especially interesting since Kentucky was the first state to adopt and start using the Common Core State Standards. These learning goals—known as the Kentucky Core Academic Standards—are providing clear expectations of what skills and knowledge students need for success after high school.

 When the state began implementing the standards, only 38 percent of students were ready to go on to college or start a career. After just a single year, that number jumped to 47 percent. Teachers are working with education researchers to create teaching tools to help them sync their lesson plans with the new standards. One such tool is the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), which allows teachers to collaborate with their peers across the country and provides the framework for teachers to create their own classroom assignments and lesson plans aligned to the standards.

While in Kentucky, we heard about a teacher who had some healthy skepticism about the common core because he has seen too many reforms come and go with little impact on his students. But after teaching the Kentucky Core Academic Standards using the LDC materials, he witnessed the power of the common core in strengthening his students’ ability to deeply master the topics taught.

As Kentucky teacher Sherri McPherson told my colleague Vicki Phillips last year, the LDC is a "format that allows us to design approaches based on our students.”

In addition to what teachers are experiencing individually in their classrooms, the day is coming—and soon—when an Algebra teacher in western Kentucky will call a teacher in New York City and ask them: “How did you teach the module on differential equations to your seventh-graders?” It’s real-time, relevant professional development, leading to better results for students.

That future is why it is worth states’ efforts to stay the course with the common core.

To ensure that students benefit from the standards, Kentucky focused on partnerships from the beginning. This includes collaboration between the state teachers’ union and PTA, business leaders, and the Kentucky School Boards Association. The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide citizens’ group advocating for school improvements, helped lead much of this collaboration.

There were certainly hiccups. Teachers felt overwhelmed and frustrated when they first began implementing the standards in their classroom. To support them, school district leaders made sure teachers had the time to study the standards and collaborate with one another on lesson plans.

Parents also lacked information about what this all meant for their kids. At the same time, state leaders knew that—because they were raising the bar with the new standards—a new baseline for student achievement would be set. So state officials warned parents, teachers, students, and the media to expect a new benchmark, and encouraged citizens to see the results as a sign of progress and the long-term benefits of the new standards.

These efforts are what it takes to stay the course, and these efforts paid off.

When the state began implementing the standards, only 38 percent of students who graduated from Kentucky high schools were ready to go on to college or start a career. After just a single year of using the Kentucky Core Academic Standards, that number jumped to 47 percent. A year later, it jumped to 54 percent.

Think of how many more students in Kentucky will enter college or start a career prepared as a result of this collaboration. Kentucky is just one example of what it takes to stay the course. Have you seen something similar play out in your state? Tell us about it.

 
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