The big clock in Dowan McNair-Lee’s 8th grade classroom is silent, but she can hear the minutes ticking away nonetheless. On this day, like any other, the clock is a constant reminder of how little time she has to prepare her students—for spring tests, and for high school and all that lies beyond it.
As an English/language arts teacher in the common-core era, Ms. McNair-Lee is part of a massive nationwide push to turn millions of students into powerful readers and writers.
The District of Columbia, where she’s taught for 11 years, was quick to adopt the Common Core State Standards. But putting them into practice demands a heavy lift: With their emphasis on mastery of complex text, the standards require far stronger literacy skills than most students here—and many in the 46 states that also adopted the common core in English—currently possess.
“Every day when they come to class, there is so much they don’t know,” Ms. McNair-Lee said one day last winter. “Every day, I’m trying to fill in those gaps. Some days I feel like I just can’t do enough.”
Mikel Robinson is one of the students she is trying to support. The 14-year-old has had an uneven year in her class. His work shows promise, but too many assignments are incomplete or missing; he bombs too many tests. Ms. McNair-Lee watches over Mikel as much as she can with 128 students revolving through her day. But she agonizes about him as his teetering grades hover just at the edge of her reach.
How well the school district can reach Mikel is an open question as it brings the common standards into the classroom. And it’s one that resonates nationwide, where students like Mikel sit at millions of desks in schools that are trying to do the same.
In districts of all sizes, teachers are scrambling to get their arms around the new guidelines. The demand for good curricular resources and professional development outstrips their availability.
The response here to those dynamics has been to bet big on the common standards, with a full-bore K-12 English/language arts implementation that features some of the most leading-edge instructional resources and far-reaching professional development in the nation, experts say.
“The district has done this more comprehensively than most places in the country,” says Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which analyzed the district’s emerging common-core program. “DCPS is in full tilt, whole-hog.”
The school system brings key assets to the work: optional model instructional units and lesson plans, and thousands of new books; coaches who work with teachers in nearly every school; professional development that reaches all teachers and administrators at least five times a year.
Stuart-Hobson Middle School, where Ms. McNair-Lee teaches, brings strengths of its own to the common-core challenge. It’s one of the highest-achieving of the district’s 13 middle schools; it is blessed with extra staff for academic intervention and social-service support.
Ms. McNair-Lee, who chairs the school’s English/language arts department, brings a rare level of familiarity with the standards. She studied them in depth for a graduate-level urban-literacy course she teaches at a nearby university. Through a teaching fellowship, she is attuned to the policy and instructional debates sparked by the common core.
And she knows her students exceptionally well, since she taught them as 7th graders and “looped” up to 8th with them this year.
The story of putting vast new changes on the ground can show off a system’s strengths, but can also showcase its limitations.
Mr. Casserly’s report pointed out a pivotal trickle-down challenge facing the district as it puts the common core into practice: “how the reforms conceived at the central-office level are put into place in schools and classrooms.” Also daunting: the “significant” amount of professional development teachers need and the “enormous gaps” in students’ skills and knowledge.
To be sure, the school district’s work is tested daily by its own limits. It struggles to reach all 4,100 of its teachers in ways that will deeply affect their practice. Its army of coaches—a key conduit for its common-core work—varies in effectiveness. Stuart-Hobson administrators search for sure-footedness as they try to lead teachers to better practice. Teachers feel alternately inspired and overwhelmed by the size of the job they have to do.
And students: They’re all over the achievement map. The ones with stronger skills are doing well. Those furthest behind are inching forward with special help. Many of those in the middle, like Mikel, need more support than is available.
Much is at stake, too, as the district tries to get the common core right. How well its students progress is central to its accountability system, in which lackluster results could mean less control over the way it spends federal dollars. Its viability is on the line, too; it competes with a burgeoning charter school sector that steadily siphons away students—and funding.
The district is also acutely aware that it could influence the national dialogue at the nexus of race, poverty, and education.
“We have the opportunity to rewrite the narrative on urban education in a city where everybody in the world is watching us,” says Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Teachers, coaches, and administrators have much at stake, too. They are being judged in part on their students’ and schools’ test scores. And for students, the stakes couldn’t be higher: How well prepared will they be for life after graduation?
Ms. McNair-Lee has less on the line this year than some teachers do. For the past three years, she’s been rated “effective” or “highly effective”—the top two of the district’s five teacher-evaluation categories—so her job is safe for now. At present, she’s more worried about other things.
“For two years, their [English/language arts] experience here has been me,” she says, sitting in her quiet classroom after students had left for the day. “When they go to 9th grade, if something is missing, they can only point to me. These are my babies. What will happen to them?”
The District of Columbia school system has been trying to answer that question with its intense focus on the common core. It was one of the first in the country to use a year-end test designed for the new standards.
Its 2012 DC CAS was revamped to include more complex questions that require students to analyze and compare text passages, and write brief essays citing evidence in those passages. District leaders theorized that the exams would serve as a vivid signal of what common-core classwork should look like.
The state superintendent’s office, which functions like a state education department for the District of Columbia schools and redesigned the DC CAS, issued a list of priority standards on which the test would be based. Teachers use what some call the “power standards” to guide their instruction.
In fall 2010, a few months after the final version of the common standards was unveiled, the district’s curriculum leaders brought teachers and central-office content leaders together to start writing a scope-and-sequence, or high-level outline, for English/language arts instruction. In the following months, the school system would use similar teams to write themed instructional units spanning the school year. Officials put a premium on replacing textbook-based instruction with a range of “authentic texts”: high-quality literature and informational books.
Each unit lists a handful of “anchor texts,” along with dozens of articles, novels, plays, poems, essays, and other works as suggested readings. It sets out the “essential questions” of the unit, learning activities, target vocabulary, and the focus standards for that unit. Teachers and central-office staff are now working on more-detailed lesson plans within each unit that will include differentiated activities for students below, at, and above grade level.
Although the district presses teachers of struggling readers in early grades to adhere to certain foundational programs, its overall theory of action is to capitalize on teachers’ judgment.
“The idea is to put good stuff in teachers’ hands and let them elegantly adapt it,” says Brian Pick, who oversees curriculum, assessment, and professional development as the school district’s chief of teaching and learning. “What we are not doing is, ‘Do Open Court,’ ” he says, referring to a popular reading program.
To align with the state office’s DC CAS, the end-of-year test, the district crafted new interim assessments to give feedback to teachers as they teach. Those Paced Interim Assessments, or PIAs, echo the DC CAS, requiring students to answer questions and write brief essays on literary and informational-text passages.
A top priority was using high-quality texts as reading passages and upgrading the writing prompts so students must read the passages carefully and grasp them well in order to answer.
“We wanted more complex texts, authentic texts, texts that are worth teaching,” says Mr. Pick. “We’re moving from, ‘Write about a time you were scared,’ to a more text-dependent prompt.”
To infuse their approach into classrooms, Mr. Pick and his team rely heavily on 113 instructional coaches—nearly one in every school building—at a cost of $13 million a year. They envisioned the school year as a series of “learning cycles” that last six to eight weeks and mirror the instructional units.
While teachers teach those units, coaches work individually with them, observing and giving feedback. They also meet in small groups to delve into a specific pedagogical focus, such as how to help students do “close reading” of complex text, a key emphasis of the common standards.
At the end of a unit, students take the interim assessment, or PIA. In a few days, when results are back, teachers and coaches gather for a professional-development day. Half the day focuses on common-core instruction issues, and half is spent analyzing the PIA data and deciding on reteaching strategies to address weak areas as the next unit begins.
The district has been feeling its way toward the best use of the coaches over the past five years.
Tovah Koplow, who oversees them, says she and her team realized the coaches “were not always used well consistently,” too often switch-hitting among multiple duties in their schools. They restructured the program two years ago to focus coaches more intently on their work with teachers, although they also still serve as test coordinators.
Ms. Koplow, a former New York City elementary teacher, says that even with a coach in almost every school, she knows the need for such teacher support outstrips the supply.
“I wish we had more coaches,” she says, against a backdrop of the city from a 12th-floor window at district headquarters. “I know how bad I was my first year of teaching. I needed support, and I failed my students.”
Some coaches are far more effective than others, Ms. Koplow acknowledges, so the program has stronger and weaker patches. The mode of conveyance—in which coaches are trained by the district and then carry that learning to school sites—has its weaknesses as well, according to Mr. Pick.
“Any train-the-trainer model is a mixed bag,” he says. The district aims to take more sessions directly to teachers next year.
Pillars of district operations must be reworked to facilitate a big push like the common core, and moving them can be slow going. Even revamping the school calendar to create each learning cycle’s professional-development time caused a big pushback from parents, who were faced with more days of child care. Mr. Pick remembers making many rounds at community meetings and scrambling to engage the city recreation department to provide programming.
But that work pales in comparison to the content and pedagogical shifts in which his teachers are immersed now, midway through the 2012-13 school year. He says he’s “optimistic our teachers can do it” before new assessments for the common standards—designed by a consortium that includes the District of Columbia and 21 states—roll out in spring 2015.
“But we have a lot to do to be ready for that,” he says.
As Christmas 2012 approaches, teachers are working to be ready at Stuart-Hobson, in a gentrifying neighborhood of row houses two miles from the U.S. Capitol. It’s a school in transition; in the past few years, a new principal and two new assistant principals have replaced longtime, beloved school leaders, bringing new ideas blended with strains of discomfort and resentment. Some staff turnover followed.
The heavy push for the new, common-core approach to English/language arts only complicated matters.
“Last year, [English/language arts] got hit hard,” Ms. McNair-Lee recalls. “There were lots of tears. It was ugly. It was like, ‘Here are the common-core standards, go teach them.’ ”
As the instructional coach assigned to Stuart-Hobson, Sarah Hawley carries the district’s hopes for deep changes in practice.
A veteran teacher, but first-year coach, she has finally gotten her feet down in a new job that reduced her to tears more than a few times last fall. Juggling all her obligations—overseeing testing, planning with the principal, designing coaching calendars for her teachers, as well as observing them and providing feedback—felt overwhelming.
At midyear, she’s received a good evaluation, but was advised to better focus the overly ambitious agendas for her group-study meetings with teachers.
Ms. Hawley drafts coaching plans tailored to each teacher, and Ms. McNair-Lee’s has focused on posing higher-level questions to students and finding ways to engage more students in answering questions.
Dawn Clemens is in her second year as the principal at Stuart-Hobson and oversees its two feeder elementary schools as well. Because she is spread thinner than other school leaders, her two assistant principals shoulder more leadership duties, including nearly all the teacher observations. That frees her up to manage a major building modernization and myriad other obligations that crowd her days.
Among the weightiest is managing her budget; already this year, she’s had to notify three Spanish teachers and the technology and math-intervention-lab teachers that she can’t afford them next year because 30 students who had signed up for Stuart-Hobson decided to enroll in charter schools instead, taking $274,000 in funding with them. In triage mode, she persuaded the PTA to pay for Spanish after school. She still managed to secure a schoolwide enrichment program for Stuart-Hobson next year.
The day-to-day work of overseeing English/language arts instruction falls to Assistant Principal Katie Franklin. She observes half the teachers at the school for their evaluations, and says there is much to celebrate in their teaching.
But there is also much to be done to move her corps of teachers up to where the district’s pedagogical framework—and the common core—would like them to be. And while she gets training from the district, she still struggles to foster better practice.
“I don’t know how to help them sometimes,” she says of her teachers. “It’s hard. I don’t think it’s the district [failing to provide sufficient training]. You have to just experience teaching this. My teachers are trying so hard, but some are just not there yet.”
As the administrator in charge of academic supports, Ms. Franklin is acutely aware of how lucky her school is. Here and at 10 other middle schools, a district initiative aimed at better supporting young adolescents provides a mental-health clinician, a social worker, and a “wrap care” coordinator, who connects students to social services.
The initiative also created the job Ms. Franklin now holds: assistant principal of interventions. Her position gives her a bird’s-eye view of the shortfalls, as well as the strengths, in her school’s services.
Only 10 students at a time can participate in wrap care. It’s reserved for the neediest students with ongoing problems. “More kids could benefit from it, but we are more fortunate than many schools,” Ms. Franklin says.
Similarly, Read 180, an intervention Stuart-Hobson uses for children reading two to five years below grade level, can accommodate only 20 students from each grade at a time.
“Agonizing” choices must be made continually, Ms. Franklin says, about when students are ready to move out of the double-period program and attend only their regular English classes. Such moves allow more students to benefit from Read 180, but she worries that too many move out before they’re strong enough readers.
Mikel Robinson was one of those students. He spent double periods in Read 180 last year. As an 8th grader this year, he’s in regular English class, even though a reading test given last fall showed him at the 7th grade level. He’s bright and outgoing, according to his teachers, but weak skills in key areas, combined with a lack of academic focus sometimes, are getting in his way. By Christmas break, he’s carrying a D in Ms. McNair-Lee’s class.
She’s got her eye on him, but she’s also got her eye on the 127 other students who fill and empty the desks in her room five times a day. During fourth period, Mikel’s class, she posts herself next to his desk when his focus wanders, tapping his paper or lightly admonishing him to get to work.
After a year and a half, she knows these students’ quirks, hopes, life challenges. She peppers her oversight with motherly tending, often answering students with “yes, baby,” and sprinkling hip cultural references into her explanations to make sure they know she “gets” their world.
But Ms. McNair-Lee also nurtures high hopes for them and isn’t above bursts of frustration when her students squander opportunities to learn. “You all’d better get with this,” she erupts at Mikel’s class one day when they’re particularly disruptive. “Do you have any idea what’s ahead for you next year?”
And every day, no matter what kind of day it is, she begins class with the same greeting, as if by sheer repetition it might shape these young lives.
“Good morning, scholars,” says the teacher.
And every day—more energetically on some days than on others—comes the same response: “Good morning, Ms. McNair-Lee.”
This story appears courtesy Education Week. Reproduction is not permitted.