Why Teachers Should Take the Lead on Implementing New Educational Standards

As a classroom teacher, former teacher union leader, and teacher advocate, I have always believed that educators and their unions should be leading the profession, and I have advocated for teachers to be at every table where policy and practice are being developed.

As a union leader, I called upon educators to make sure that every local association not only worked on contract and grievance issues, but to also develop a strong group of members who could focus on education policy and practice and the many professional issues educators facing, such as new evaluations, developing ways to measure student outcomes, implementing new standards and preparing for new student assessments.

As many educators know, over the past several years, the education community has been embroiled in a fierce debate over the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). CCSS are voluntary national standards in English language arts and mathematics. To date, more than 40 states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense, Catholic schools and four territories have adopted either the CCSS standards directly or some localized version of the standards. In 2010, the standards were adopted in Massachusetts by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as part of a normal revision cycle of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

The biggest objection to adopting the new standards in Massachusetts came from groups which expressed concern that the quality of our prior state standards would be diminished and that Massachusetts would be dragged down by the lower expectations of other states. State education officials, external reviewers and classroom educators, however, have held that the standards are as good as or even more rigorous than our past standards.

In 2016, Massachusetts once again began its standards revision process and educators have been actively working to revise the state curriculum standards, as well as new student assessments. Districts should have already aligned their local curriculums with the 2010 frameworks and the new assessments have been piloted over the past two years.

The standards will be approved and released in the spring of 2017. They are not expected to be a radical departure from the 2010 standards, but standards are only as good as their implementation. These changes are at the heart of the instructional changes we are seeing in our schools. The rollout of the new standards and assessments in the spring of 2017 provides educators with a perfect opportunity to communicate with parents and the public about the importance of having strong standards and meaningful assessments to promote excellent instruction and accelerate student learning.

Educators have repeatedly stated that they like the new standards. They are high quality and good for our students, but educators have repeatedly asked for more time and support for implementation. Educators and their unions should insist that adequate time and resources be devoted to making sure that what they are teaching matches what their students are expected to learn and be able to do.

The standards call on students to master both content and important learning processes. For example, only a limited number of specific literary texts are listed in the standards, giving teachers and schools the latitude to incorporate their own materials. The standards also have literacy links to history, social studies, science and technology.

The standards emphasize reading, writing and speaking grounded in evidence from the texts, both literary and informational. Those skills cannot be “drilled” into students with test prep. Math standards call on students to learn math through an inquiry based approach and call on students to demonstrate and apply their knowledge as opposed to the rote memorization of formulas.

The value of having our state standards that are also aligned to a broader set of national standards is multifold: In the past, state standards have been criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The CCSS developers looked at standards in other countries that have superior student performance, and found that they generally cover fewer topics but in greater depth. They created standards aligned to the highest achieving education systems in the world. The new Massachusetts standards reflect these improvements.

In many states, standards and expectations for students were low. Massachusetts, however, has ranked number 1 nationally in national assessments for more than a decade and has ranked very high on global assessments in comparison to top-performing nations. As such, we have served as an exemplar for other states. The belief is that establishing high standards for all students will lead to better performance by low achieving students and help narrow achievement gaps in Massachusetts and nationally.

We live in a highly mobile country and a globalized economy. It makes sense for students to be learning subjects in the same sequence so they aren’t repeating some topics — or missing others — if they move to another state while in school. It also makes sense to prepare them for college and careers in the 21st century, no matter where they live.
Massachusetts schools are in a very strong position. Still, there is much to be done now and in the coming years to align instruction with the new standards and assessments.

In order to be successful, administrators and educators must be given the time to work together and the curricular resources to support the proper implementation of our new standards. Educators and their unions should be at the forefront in advocating for the professional development, common planning time and individual preparation time you need to help your students become proficient in standards that aim to make sure all students are ready for college or a career when they graduate from high school.

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Paul Toner

Paul Toner

Paul Toner is the executive director of Teach Plus Massachusetts, an education non-profit "empowering highly effective teachers to take the lead on key policy decisions and providing teacher-led professional learning to support student success."