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How Do Teachers Feel (Now) About the Common Core?

In a new survey, teachers say they’re feeling more confident about using the Common Core State Standards in their classrooms — an optimistic finding that comes even as recent polls suggest dwindling public support for the initiative.

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This is the most recent installment of the “Primary Sources” survey conducted by Scholastic Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a key Common Core supporter), and it focuses on the new English language arts and math standards, which most states have adopted and are now implementing.

The organizations’ larger survey of public school teachers took place in July 2013, on a broad range of educational topics. A year later, Scholastic followed up with nearly 1,700 of the surveyed teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in states where the Common Core is being implemented. Among the highlights:

  • The percentage of teachers who say they feel prepared to teach the Common Core climbed to 79 percent, up from 71 percent in 2013.
  • More teachers described the implementation as challenging: 81 percent compared with 73 percent last year.
  • Enthusiasm for the Common Core declined to 68 percent from 73 percent last year. However, among teachers who have worked with the standards for at least a year, 86 percent described themselves as enthusiastic about the implementation.

The last finding is consistent with recent surveys of other educators, suggesting that confidence in the Common Core is higher among educators in states that were early adopters.

Here are a few of the takeaways that struck me:

This is not a theoretical debate:  Of the teachers surveyed, two-thirds said implementation of the new standards is either mostly or fully complete in their districts. That’s compared to less than half – 45 percent – of survey respondents in 2013. In other words, while the political fighting continues outside the classroom, Common Core is already the daily reality for millions of public school students in more than 40 states.

Margery Mayer, the president of Scholastic Education, told me she was encouraged that when it comes to the day-to-day work of the new standards, the outlook among the surveyed teachers is more positive than might be gleaned from many of the media reports.

“If you actually talk to the teachers, more of them feel it’s going well,” Mayer said. “They’re seeing their students do better work … there’s more critical thinking and discourse in the classroom. That’s the Common Core becoming established.”

The higher the grade level, the harder the transition: Compared with their peers at middle and high school level, elementary school teachers were significantly more likely to say they’ve seen positive changes in their students’ abilities since the new standards were added:

The Common Core is predicated on the expectation that students will develop skills and knowledge that grow and deepen with each successive year of instruction. It makes sense that the progress could be easier in the lower grades. Here’s another way to think about it: Many high school teachers are, in theory, being asked to build a house without a foundation, since their students were presumably not taught a curriculum aligned with the Common Core for most of their prior academic career.

Robert Pondiscio, a vice president at the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, worded it nicely in a piece on the challenge of teaching students to engage in the “close reading” Common Core requires: “Background knowledge is intended to be built systematically over time and across subjects—neither disregarded or backfilled in the minutes before students begin reading a complex text.”

Resistance might also be greater for high school teachers who typically view themselves as subject specialists, said veteran educator Ray Salazar, who blogs about his work teaching English language arts at a Chicago public high school. Embracing the interdisciplinary approach required by the Common Core can be a difficult transition, Salazar said.

Additionally, “the Common Core expects that there’s been at least eight to nine years of aligned instruction before we get our students,” said Salazar, who is in his 19th year teaching. “We’re supposed to make sure they’re analyzing complex documents and writing profound narrative texts. Some of our students may not have developed those skills.”

Teachers fear unfair tests, not innovation: As with any new assessment, it’s widely expected that students will struggle with the Common-Core-aligned tests being rolled out by states. In the Scholastic survey, nearly 60 percent of teachers said their concerns about Common Core implementation were influenced by the fact that their own job evaluations were tied to how well their students perform on those new assessments. This is hardly a surprise, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“The Common Core State Standards can work if teachers have the time, tools, and trust to implement them, and if the standards are decoupled from the testing fixation that has taken hold in this country thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top,” she said in a statement about the new Scholastic survey.

As for the innovation angle, 68 percent of the surveyed teachers said they had sought out ideas for teaching that would facilitate deeper learning among their students. But there is a potentially alarming flipside: only half that many teachers – 34 percent — said they obtained those kinds of materials from their school, district, or state.

A mantra of the Common Core’s advocates has been that it sets standards, not curriculum: teachers are not being told what to teach, but rather given grade-level expectations for what students should know and be able to do, year by year. However, based on the responses of the teachers surveyed by Scholastic, there isn’t a clear path for finding appropriate tools to guide instruction.

A similar tension exists when it comes to training for educators. Four out of every 10 teachers said they had sought out their own professional development to better prepare for the new standards. (In a recent survey by Education Week, teachers said they were getting more training related to the standards, but it wasn’t necessarily making them feel better prepared to implement them.)

It will be especially interesting to hear what teachers think about the Common Core after the implementation is further along in more districts, and the first round of testing results come out following the spring assessments. I’m also hopeful that at some point a survey is done to ask the students themselves how they feel about the new standards. Like teachers, their voices too often go unheard.