Reflecting on the Journey: How States Implemented Higher Standards

Five years ago, Cromwell Public School District leaders were gearing up for a challenge.

The state of Connecticut had just adopted new learning standards that would raise expectations for students. Although it was a shift, district leaders recognized the opportunity to impact student achievement and better prepare their students for the future. They knew that if the standards were to take hold in their district, they needed all 200 of their educators on board and fully capable to teaching to the higher standards. To provide teachers the support they needed, district leaders knew that they would also need reinforcement from the Connecticut Department of Education (CDE).

Wanting to support its districts, CDE came up with two primary ways of providing capacity and support, while honoring Connecticut's dedication to being locally controlled. The CDE chose to create the Connecticut Core Standards website, a dynamic site that houses teacher-vetted materials, model units aligned to the standards, resources for professional development and parent and community friendly materials. The CDE also created the Systems of Professional Learning series which allowed Department staff to travel district-to-district and engage educators in deep content development and strengthen the state and local relationship, solidifying the belief that they shared the same goals for their students -- a bond that continues today.

Because of my role, I get to see many states and I know that Connecticut is neither alone in this journey to continue implementing high standards, nor are they the only state that has experienced bumps and turns along the way. However, across the country, states knew it was a challenge they needed to face head on because it would help their kids.

Seeing an opportunity to help states learn from one another, CCSSO sought feedback from states around their ability to support their districts and impact student achievement through a commitment to higher academic standards. We interviewed state and district leaders from 30 states and Puerto Rico to share their experiences of implementing college- and career-ready standards. The report, A Path to Progress: State and District Stories of High Standards Implementation, reveals several key findings from implementation, including the importance of early engagement with stakeholders, local and continuous professional development and high-quality resources -- themes that can be seen right in Cromwell Public School District's story.

Throughout the interviews, many states and districts noted that early engagement with teachers and other stakeholders is essential to the success of major policy changes. Early communication laid the framework for broader implementation and helped facilitate collaboration toward a shared goal. New Jersey saw the importance of providing a clear curricular framework to guide conversations around curriculum and help New Jersey districts sequence the New Jersey Learning Standards. States, like Idaho and Michigan, made efforts to connect with legislators early in the process. Through memos and invitations to various events, these states began laying the groundwork for a meaningful conversation about higher standards for students.

States also reported shifting their model for professional development, moving away from a lecture format towards regional, face-to-face meetings and continuous support. In some states, this looked like regional master teachers or trainings; in other states, there were virtual professional development sessions, train-the-trainer models and summer academies. To try and reach more educators, Mississippi partnered with their Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs) to deliver a more regional approach, traveling to districts around the state and delivering trainings to over 20,000 educators a year. Idaho created the Idaho Coaching Network to support teachers and principals with face-to-face opportunities to work with colleagues. Tennessee worked with their Centers for Regional Excellence (CORE) offices to provide peer led teacher trainings to over 70,000 teachers over the last four years. Maryland created an online blog titled: FAME (Formative Assessment for Maryland Educators), which allows teachers to reflect and converse with others about formative assessment and its role in the classroom.

While states reported that the tight timeline for implementation was a challenge, those interviewed said the benefit to student learning that will emerge from the new college- and career-ready standards far outweigh the challenges they faced. They see success through the students who are now challenged to critically think about answers and through the teachers modifying lesson plans to provide more inquiry-based problems. "We provided teachers with the opportunity to be learners, to really be comfortable asking questions," said Cromwell Public School District Superintendent Paula Talty. Through the opportunities of the standards, district leaders are seeing a shift to a more collaborative culture in schools and lesson planning.

No two states are exactly the same. What worked for the Cromwell Public School District won't necessarily work everywhere, but the more transparent states are about their experiences, the more they can learn from one another. For all the controversy around these standards, there are countless stories of states and districts working together for a better outcome for kids and that's the real story.