A conversation with Harvard researcher Thomas Kane explores the findings of new research about teachers’ attitudes towards Common Core.
In 2015, researchers from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education wanted to answer a basic question: What do teachers, principals and administrators think of the Common Core State Standards and how they’ve been rolled out?
They surveyed schools in five states–Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Nevada, and, of course, Delaware–and released their findings last week in a report titled “Teaching Higher: Educators’ Perspectives on Common Core Implementation.”
And the survey said…
Well, it said a lot of things. First, it indicated educators have largely embraced the new standards, even if they aren’t sold on its implementation. The report also found classroom teachers have made big changes in what they teach because of the Core, and that certain adoption strategies have yielded better test results than others.
The report earned plaudits here in Delaware from those who back the new, tougher standards. Others raised a skeptical eyebrow.
We spoke with Thomas Kane, one of the report’s authors and the faculty director of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. Prior to his current post, Kane directed the Measures of Effective Teaching Project for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and served on Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers.
The interview below has been condensed for clarity and length.
What’s the most important thing this survey tells us that we didn’t know before?
So for me there were three things that were particularly surprising. Number one was just the magnitude of the changes the teachers are reporting that they have made. I think many people underestimate the number of teachers that have had to change more than half–or in some cases they reported nearly all–of their instructional materials to align with the Common Core. Second, we found several aspects of school implementation that seem to be associated with higher student achievement. Then the third category of results that I thought were interesting and surprising were just how the new ELA test seemed to be discerning bigger differences between teachers than the old ELA test, which had really just focused on reading comprehension, but didn’t encourage teachers to focus on students’ writing skills. And I think the new tests are picking up much bigger differences between teachers and their ability to help students with their writing skills.
You found that 82 percent of math teachers and 72 percent of english teachers have changed more than half of their instructional materials in response to Common Core. I found that fascinating. Given this level of penetration, what do you think would happen if a state, say tomorrow, decided to abandon the Core?
I think it’s important to combine the findings you just cited, the magnitude of the changes that teachers have made, with our findings that there’s still a broad level of support among both teachers and principals for the Common Core despite the magnitude of the changes in instruction they’ve had to make. My fear is that if a state were to reverse course now it would reward the cynics in the schools that said, “This too shall pass. We’re not gonna make the changes that we need.” And it would then just make it much harder the next time around to get teachers on board with almost any kind of reform effort.
You ask teachers in this survey whether they believe their colleagues have embraced the Common Core. Why not just ask them directly whether they’ve embraced it?
There was no strategic decision there. We were interested in asking teachers about their teachers, administrators at their school, and then district folks and we just asked it in that general way. In retrospect I think we might’ve asked some of these questions a different way, but we were thinking about it in terms of categories of actors.
Principals in the survey overwhelmingly said the Common Core will have a positive long-term effect on student learning. But you didn’t ask that question of the teachers. Why not?
Partially because we were asking it of the principals and we had a limited number of items that we could ask of the teachers and the principals. In retrospect maybe we should have asked that of teachers, too. Honestly we sort of thought that was partially what embracing the Common Core meant, that you thought this was a positive thing for student learning. So it would have been a little bit redundant with that question.
Other polls, most especially the Education Next survey, show a real decline in support for the Common Core, especially among teachers. Do you think your findings contradict that?
I wonder whether to some extent teachers views could be reflecting the political debate over the standards in the last few years. They’ve come to represent a federal role in education, even if they’re adopted by states. I would guess that for some teachers their response, how they feel about the Common Core as educational standards, is now being colored by how they feel politically about the appropriate federal role. Particularly over the last year there’s been much more of this as we got closer and closer to the ESSA passing, there was more of a political weight attached to the Common Core. But now that it’s been settled, the Common Core State Standards are just state standards again. I would hope that, now that the ESSA really has left it up to states entirely on what their standards will be going forwad, we’ll have local leaders take a look at these standards, compare them to their old standards, and ask which is going to be more successful in helping their students prepare for life after high school.
The five states included in this study are either swing states or reliably blue states in national elections. Do you think that impacted the outcome at all? What would happen if we threw Alabama and Mississippi into the mix?
That’s a good question. When we were starting it honestly we were just looking for states that wanted to participate in a study like this. It just so happened that these were the states we ended up with. Might we have ended up with different results if we included Alabama and Mississippi? Maybe. I don’t know.
I think one of the things a lot of folks hoped for when the Common Core took off is that you would have big data sets about how students were doing across many states and that you could use those big data sets to analyze the effectiveness of different strategies a lot quicker than if you have this really balkanized landscape. Could you have done this analysis in this period of time before Common Core was implemented in so many states?
You’ve touched on what is still a promising opportunity presented by the Common Core. It makes it easier for states to pool their resources not just for assessment development, but for evaluating the effects of textbooks or evaluating the effects of new professional development efforts or evaluating the effects of different types of teacher evaluation systems. I think our study is the first example the type of analysis you could do with a common assessment. I fear that if we go back to a world each state has its own assessment and their own standards we will see less of this kind of effort to evaluate the effectiveness of implementation strategies.
No single state has the incentive to invest in this kind of learning, or as much incentive to do it. So I think we’ll see less learning in future years if there were no common assessment that a number of states shared.