Let teacher leaders lead Common Core professional development

Instead of scripted lessons, what teachers really need to successfully implement the Common Core is support and professional development from other teachers.

One of the best aspects of the California Common Core State Standards is the focus on developing students’ literacy across a number of subjects. This is great news for students, because it means that whether they’re taking history, math, social studies, or science classes, they’ll be developing the advanced literacy skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Rather than segregating these critical skills into one subject period (English) and expecting students to “connect the literacy dots” in their other classes, students will apply these conceptual and functional skills across multiple disciplines throughout the school day.

But many non-English Language Arts teachers have not found this emphasis on cross-curricular literacy to be an easy transition. In part, the difficulty stems from educators being asked to teach classes with unfamiliar Common Core techniques and texts—and without sufficient support for using them. In addition, some school districts require teachers to use prewritten or scripted lessons, ostensibly saving teachers’ time and energy but robbing them of the opportunity to adapt materials based on their expertise and knowledge of students’ needs.

These scripted lessons diminish the true value of teachers. Instead of giving teachers the autonomy to evaluate students and present material that meets their specific academic needs, school districts are shortcutting the professionalism of teaching. They are also denying students the unique cultural and regional-specific lessons that they respond to most readily—which only teachers can create.

What teachers really need to successfully implement the Common Core is support and professional development from other teachers.

I witnessed this last year in my school district when the CCSS began to roll out. The lack of teacher buy in—and confidence—in teaching the standards was evident.

Fortunately, my principal is committed to providing teachers with quality professional development. As the Small Learning Community Lead Teacher at my school, I created two professional development workshops: one for English and history teachers and another for math and science teachers.

As a staff member, I was able to take my colleagues’ individual and team needs into account and create appropriate professional development. Our school is a small public math and science magnet high school. Teachers are organized into grade-level teams, and they collaborate on annual interdisciplinary projects. But some were off put by the notion that they would be responsible for teaching advanced literacy skills in their classes. They also noted that the textbooks offered little assistance, and many were distressed about incorporating the reading and writing aspects of the Common Core.

So I chose to focus the professional development sessions on the technique of close reading, helping teachers create their own lessons and find ways to collaborate with their colleagues. The workshops were hugely successful. Here were the four main benefits:

1. Teachers took away numerous strategies for implementing the standards in class. For instance, one history teacher, who was used to assigning readings from a textbook and using the chapter questions to assess what students had learned, stated that the workshop revolutionized his ideas about teaching the reading of history. He learned a technique that pushed students to interact more deeply with the text, rather than simply answer recall questions.

2. Teachers also learned to use familiar texts in innovative and engaging ways. For example, I worked with a biotechnology teacher who created a close reading lesson based on FDA laboratory standards for preparing specimen plates. He was noticeably more confident using this material because it was a text he already knew well. This made him feel more at ease incorporating Common Core techniques into his lesson. He came to see the usefulness of the close reading technique when, after the lesson, his students showed a better understanding of the text.

3. Teachers shared their concerns about the standards. For example, I worked with a pre-calculus teacher who was concerned about the increased reading and writing required for her class. She confided that while she felt confident teaching numbers, she was concerned about her ability to teach literacy.

We worked together to create a lesson that incorporated a text about matrices. The text contained complex vocabulary that, previously, the teacher would have defined for students. However, in her new lesson, she used questions and graphic organizers (which I taught in the workshop) to help her students decipher the meaning of the words on their own. After she taught the lesson, she reported an increase in her students’ understanding of matrices—and the feeling that she had been able to teach the deeper mathematics of the lesson.

4. Teachers learned to better collaborate across the curriculum. One English teacher created a lesson as part of an interdisciplinary project. She used a William Blake poem, “The Chimney Sweep,” to build students’ understanding of classic poetry, aligning it to related lessons in the engineering and history classes. Across those three classes, students were able to learn about an important social phenomenon and view it through different academic lenses. Pre-scripted lessons would never have given teachers the flexibility to create such a dynamic, cross-curricular project.

It’s important for school districts to value and utilize the expertise of their teachers. By using teacher leaders trained in Common Core techniques and curriculum writing, school districts can effectively and cost efficiently transition into Common Core implementation. Each school and classroom has specific needs—which can be best evaluated and met by the teachers who work in them.

Teachers are the experts in their subjects. By treating teachers as the professionals they are—and giving them professional guided practice to build their confidence in teaching CCSS techniques—students will benefit from experienced teachers and the new skills of the Common Core.

Susan Carlé is a National Board Certified teacher who teaches English Language Arts and AP Psychology with the Long Beach Unified School District. She serves as a mentor to new teachers and is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory.

  • Jan Ogino

    Of Course!

    Try telling that to my district who wants coaches to create 90 minute presentations and train teachers to give them, who will then train other teachers to give them until there is one teacher at every site who can do these presentations.  Top down, uniform, boring and not at all common core-like.  And those of us who have been teaching and experimenting with core techniques for 4 years with success are deemed too out of the box for the average teacher to understand.  They need strategies that they can use and they all need to hear the same message because if everyone is doing different things that would be so bad for students and teachers.  

    We all have to be on the same page, hear the same message, implement common core the same way.  These people have no idea what the standards are all about!! They missed the message and the point of it all!!!  It makes me want to scream idiocracy!  In my district, the experts are the curriculum specialists and the coaches and don’t let any one tell you otherwise, even though none of them have real common core teaching experiences and never have used them with students for any length of time to see how different they are from the old standards.  They have never experienced how to change your role from teacher to facilitator in order to elicit the kind of critical thinking and problem solving the standards want the students to practice.  They have never spent time planning and implementing lessons to help students understand math conceptually, understand the role of working through incorrect answers as a process of thinking, and helping students to reason and critique and to express it with precision and articulately.  

    They simply don’t get it. And I am tired of explaining to other teachers who listen to these “experts” intently that the reason why they are failing in implementing the core in the classroom is that they are listening to the wrong people!


    • CarlDraeger

      One size fits all vs. differentiation

      I feel your pain.  Why do administrators think that a single uniform PD will meet the needs of all the staff, yet require teachers to differentiate their instruction.  Teachers know that within the school there is the teacher strong in technology, the teacher strong in curriculum writing, and the teacher strong in CCSS.  We naturally gravitate to those who have what we need.  In PLCs, either formal or informal, is where true professional development occurs.  This is ocassionally in spite of the district’s best intentions.

      • Jan Ogino

        the need for control

        Districts have a need to control aspects of teaching they have no business controlling.  They think that if they create a Stepford teacher, who follows all the directions, never argues, and does the job the way the district has designed and envisioned, then they can replicate good results in every classroom and every school.

        • CarlDraeger

          Stepford Teacher
          Great word picture. Be sure to secure the movie rights.

  • TriciaEbner

    What a contrast!

    Susan and Jan, there is so much here in comparing your two experiences, and it really speaks to the challenges and issues of implementation of the standards. There are as many approaches to training and implementation as there are school districts, and maybe even schools working on that implementation.

    One of the most powerful elements I’ve seen in my work with CCSS has been the collaboration among teachers, as they’ve wrestled with what standards mean, how their implementation should look in classrooms, and what that means for the lessons and curriculum we’re using. (Do the standards require throwing out and starting from scratch? Tweaking a thing or two? Renovating?) Susan, your post illustrates that very powerfully . . . and Jan, your experience shows what happens when teachers don’t get to do that.

    What strikes me, in looking at both your situations, is that the core of the issue is teacher leadership, and whether teachers are valued as partners and leaders.

  • Dr. Dea Conrad-Curry


    The use of scripted lessons is antithetical to the spirit of the Common Core. The Common Core ELA and literacy standards demand readers consider text in the process of analysis, integration, and justification. Scripted lessons require no thinking on the part of a teacher; therefore, the use of scripted lessons diminishes the need for critical thinking. If teachers are not models of critical thinking, why would students need to engage in the process themselves?

  • Mr. Mike

    Special Education

    So now, after “teacher leaders” were banned from actually participating in the CCSS development, we are supposed to jump up and lead their implementaion in our schools? I do applaud your call for putting trust into teachers and our profession, but it is a hard pill to swallow knowing that those corporate folks and the secretary of education wanted teachers to have no part in developing the standards we are now bound to implement in our classrooms.  Sorry for the negativity, but I have a hard time looking the other way and smiling along with all the lemmings that believe the CCSS is a good thing for our bewildered profession, and most importantly, our students.  

    • Jan Ogino

      I hear you, but I disagree a little

      Teachers can’t be experts in all areas in all grades.  Standards writing is a specific skill in which one needs to know the essentials in all grades and at the same time create a progression and a coherence between them that makes sense and is do-able.  One needs to know the end goal in mind and be able to make sense of what each grade does so that by the time a student graduates as a senior, one can say that there are no gaps that weren’t filled.   I think teachers at grade levels could make the standards more specific to their grade level, but need to keep in mind the progression into the next grade or the progression into their grade.  Standards writing is a scholarly task.  Even the best teachers would find it a difficult job to do.  State standardized test writing is difficult, too.  I have done that for a couple of years.  There are many factors to consider: bias, level of difficulty, suitability for all demographics, level of vocabulary, how the questions are worded, how the answers are stacked, to which standards they are written, etc, etc, etc.

      We all think that we can tackle anything that comes our way and we should be able to have a say in everything.  I think we should be able to review standards (not all of us, just those who demonstrate that level of comprehension) and assessments.  We should have the ability to give input.  But that is a far cry from actually developing and writing them.  So I agree and disagree a little.

  • Susan Griffin

    Literacy Learning Exchange–Center for Literacy Education

    This supports the research from the National Center for LIteracy Education (NCLE) whose research identifies peer collaboration as the most successful approach for implementing CCSS.  literacyinlearningexchange.org


  • AnnieJohnston

    Teacher Leadership, Common Core and Redesigning Instruction

    After 22 years as a high school social studies teacher and College and Career Academy lead teacher, I am now working on transforming secondary education systems as a UC Berkeley researcher and practitioner, focusing on creating more pathways that prepare all students for both college and careers. 

    While there are huge problems with Common Core Standards implementation, what I really like about them is that they promote instructional practices that support higher order thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration on both content and skills, and practical applications that open up possibilities for transforming the design of schooling.  Teacher leaders have been fighting for many of these changes for decades, creating models in small learning communities, College and Career Academies, and small schools.

    Transforming how teachers work together across disciplines and in relation to the career fields in which we are preparing students to both continue their education and to work: that’s a huge, disruptive shift in the nature of our school system.  Changing how teachers work with each other, with their administrators, and with their community and industry partners all require professional development, collaborative planning and release time, changes in scheduling practices, and a concerted effort to support and develop teacher leadership and teacher teams.

    Administrators also need re-training. You can’t change what goes on in the classroom without changing how the school system is structured.  If teacher leadership is only supported in a departmental context, interdisciplinary instructional practices will be difficult to develop. If teachers aren’t supported to experience current real world applications of their disciplines, they will have difficulty integrating applications effectively in instruction. Administrators are responsible for creating the basic skeleton of the education system, and managing its daily operations. At the high school level, both my own experience and recent extensive research suggest that instructional leadership is largely absent. Administrators and teacher leaders need collaborative relationships, in which teacher leaders are charged with and supported to provide the kind of instructional leadership Susan Carle described at the beginning of this post. School site leadership structures need to include teacher leaders from interdisciplinary groupings such as grade level teams and pathways, and teachers need time to meet in those groupings, and professional development resources to support the changes the Common Core standards demand in instructional practice.