Cutting to the Common Core: What Does CCSS Mean for Early Learning

Benjamin Heuston explains explains why a publisher has adapted its early learning materials to complement the new standards

For 22 years, Debbie Rodriguez has taught kindergarteners at Bellehaven Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She’s no rookie when it comes to implementing new state and national standards. Still, with each new round of standards, from No Child Left Behind to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), even veteran teachers like Rodriguez can feel like first-timers all over again.

“Usually the first year or two of a new set of standards is a big learning curve for a teacher,” she says. “It requires a lot more intense planning and it lasts the whole year, or more.” But the work doesn’t end there. Rodriguez adds that in subsequent years, a teacher is still tweaking lessons and making adjustments based on the new standards and what worked well. “That process is what makes you better at your craft, but it’s a lot of work. When a new standard comes in, you feel like a new teacher again.”

Sheila Bertoni, a literacy consultant for the Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services in New York, has seen hundreds of teachers undergo this challenging process while training teachers on implementing the CCSS. “Obviously there was an initial unsettling, because people wondered, ‘How does what we are doing today compare to what these Common Core State Standards are asking us to do?’” Bertoni explains. “Our initial work with districts was just to help them unwrap the Common Core, this big thick document, and address concerns like, ‘How do I even approach it? How is it set up?’”

Like teachers, educational publishers face similar challenges when presented with new standards, including questions of what to change, by how much to change it, and which methods should be used to meet the new requirements. What follows is a glimpse into what the nonprofit Waterford Institute experienced as an educational publisher when adapting to the CCSS, as well as experiences from users like Debbie Rodriguez and experts like Sheila Bertoni. Imbedded in these experiences, are some lessons and insights gleaned throughout this process that may be of interest to those who are still on the fence when it comes to the CCSS.

Adapting to the CCSS
Researchers, educators, publishers, legislators, and parents have long discussed the need for standards alignment beyond the state to ensure that the proper material is taught at the appropriate time in a student’s career. While this common-sense notion has enjoyed broad acceptance in American education, the definition of what children should know and by when has varied greatly from state to state. Educational publishers, whose materials need to align to each state’s potentially unique standards, have long wondered aloud about the implications of having such a patchwork of standards across American education.

The move toward a more universal set of standards, which is now known as the CCSS, was therefore one we at Waterford Institute received with cautious optimism: the optimism — not having to align to dozens of standards; the caution — not knowing the quality of the new standards. Would the new standards be research based? High level? Detailed? Appropriate? For us as a nonprofit publisher whose entire purpose is to help children, what would it mean if we couldn’t support the standards because we found them detrimental? Surely that wouldn’t happen... would it?

To make our concerns clearer, here is where we were coming from. We publish reading, math, and science curriculum for young children, and we have been in educational technology since our founding in 1976; this is not our first standards rodeo. Our software is adaptive, meaning that it dynamically tailors instruction for each child. It accomplishes this through a sequencer that draws on a large pool of learning activities to determine which activity to give next based on how a child has performed on earlier activities.

Since early science doesn’t (yet) have CCSS benchmarks, some activities don’t need to align, but for the most part, alignment to the CCSS means having to assess every activity. For each one, you need to determine which standard(s) it aligns to, decide whether it partially or fully meets that standard, and finally step back to understand whether it still works in the overall instructional and narrative flow created.

Let’s look at some examples in detail. One of the simplest standards in terms of alignment is Kindergarten Print Concepts 1d: Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet. We have many lessons where students learn the letters, practice recognizing and naming the letters, and are assessed on the letters. In this case, alignment to this standard is straightforward.

A slightly more challenging standard is Grade 1 Fluency 4b: Read grade-level text orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings. In this case, we already had readable books for first grade, but all of our fluency activities were in second grade. We had to make those second-grade activities available in our first-grade materials in order to fulfill this standard. Additionally, in our program, the readable books require students to read and record their reading of the text. Teachers then listen to the recordings in order to assess the accuracy. In this way, this standard is met by blending online and offline activities.

The standards where we had the most tenuous alignments were typified by Kindergarten Production and Distribution of Writing 4: With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed. As an individualized digital curriculum, we obviously cannot directly meet or assess this standard. For these types of standards, we included them in our offline teacher instructional materials, and our full alignment to them rests on teachers properly using those materials.

Judging the CCSS
One question that we regularly get is, “What do you think of the CCSS?” While this is a straightforward question, the answer is a bit more nuanced than a simple positive or negative. The CCSS are thoughtful, and systematic, and they provide a rigorous and viable framework for educators and publishers to work within. While there are a few things that we might quibble with or differ in opinion on, the quality of education our nation can provide is more consistent with the CCSS than without. Returning to the patchwork of standards that we had before would be a detriment to our children. That being said, we would encourage those involved in developing these standards to continue to evolve them in response to data — there is always room for improvement.

In terms of how the standards stack up, it is safe to say that the CCSS ask our youngest children to be more prepared when it comes to literacy than they ever have been in the past. While many early-childhood educators have mixed feelings about this acceleration, our experience in working with parents and schools has confirmed that when young children receive proper support and a quality curriculum, they are able to meet these standards. Based on these experiences, our empirical conclusion is that the CCSS appear to be developmentally appropriate.

While the CCSS do not have stated standards for preschool, it would be a mistake to think that they are not going to have a meaningful impact on early childhood education. Because the bar has been raised in terms of what children will know in kindergarten, waiting for children to arrive there before diving into more rigorous academic material is not going to work. This suggests that early-childhood educators will now need to roll up their sleeves and dive more into the cognitive side of the equation. In short, the CCSS put the school in preschool more than ever before.

After nearly four years of working on professional development centered around the CCSS, Bertoni says learning the CCSS isn’t an afternoon activity; it’s a matter of looking at the standards over time and applying them to each teacher’s practice. “People come into training with their arms folded, saying ‘My district made me do this,’” she said. “And they leave saying ‘Oh my goodness, there is some really good stuff in here.’”

Unfortunately, Bertoni says that too many teachers have been given the message that the CCSS mean they’ve been “doing it wrong forever” and “they better buck up.” This breeds resistance to what Bertoni sees as a useful tool. “These standards provide incredibly valuable best practices that were not universally known and have not been a part of every teacher’s development until now,” she said. “The feedback we hear [after CCSS] is that students are much more engaged and much more excited.”

Part of what teachers need to overcome the stigma surrounding new standards is help with organizing the information, Bertoni says. Teachers she works with want help with assessments and reporting, identifying gaps and suggesting follow-through, and mapping to the standards.

From her perspective, Rodriguez echoes that need for supportive teacher tools. “If [educational publishers] jump in two or three years later, we’re already well into the process of adjusting in the classroom,” she says. “If I know something is aligned with the Common Core, it makes me more willing to work with it from the beginning. I’m going to discard those things that aren’t able to support me.”

If you’re sitting on the sidelines and trying to figure out whether to jump into the lengthy process of aligning to the CCSS, our advice would be to dive in. In the end, standards and standard alignment do not guarantee quality educational offerings or a successful education system, but it is difficult to see how we can get there without them. One-size-fits-all solutions like the CCSS inevitably pinch in some places and sag in others. Even so, their value as a common reference point for students, parents, teachers, administrators, publishers, and researchers far outweighs their drawbacks. While there are certainly detractors, the horse is out of the barn when it comes to standards-driven education, and it’s hard to imagine it going back in anytime soon.

The CCSS will hopefully continue to move and improve over time, but there’s really no reason to wait. You will come to better understand what it is that your program accomplishes and what opportunities there are to make it fuller and richer. Even if you believe that your curriculum will not meet all of the standards, at least you will be able to accurately represent which ones you do meet so that there is clarity on both the successes and gaps at hand — that alone makes the pain worthwhile for all involved.

“It’s hard for us, too, changing after a few years,” Rodriguez says, “but we need our resources to change with us.”

Benjamin Heuston, PhD, is the president and chief operating officer at Waterford Institute, a nonprofit research center and education-technology publisher.