Over the course of three years, starting in 2009, Kentucky’s state education commissioner, Terry Holliday, added 50,000 miles to his odometer, crisscrossing the state to bring each of the 173 school districts the message: Kentucky was adopting the Common Core.
The government rate at a local hotel was $89 a night. Holliday would start the day at 7:30 a.m. and meet with the principal of a local school. Then he’d go to another school and have a meeting with teachers. Lunch was whatever the school cafeteria offered, followed by more school visits and a town hall, PTA meeting or Rotary club talk in the evening. Then he’d get into his old Ford, drive to the next school district and do it all over again the next day.
“We were the first ones doing it. I needed to personally deliver the message to educators in the district and hear their concerns. We had to make sure we were paying attention to everyone,” Holliday recalled recently.
It’s been six years since Kentucky became the first state to adopt the tougher educational standards that detail what students need to know in English and math in each grade. The efforts paid off, and Kentucky has not seen the strong opt-out movements that have roiled another eager adopter, New York state. There have been some state bills introduced to overturn Kentucky’s Common Core, but not the level of political opposition seen in such places as North Carolina and Louisiana. Even as test scores dipped more than 20 percentage points in the first year of the more rigorous Common Core tests, the transition, for the most part, has been smooth.
Scott Sargrad, managing director of K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, said, “Kentucky is a great example what can happen when all stakeholders are involved from the beginning.”
In addition to Holliday making visits to every school district, and marking them off with yellow tacks back at his office in Frankfort, many organizations at the state and local level were involved.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a big supporter of the Common Core (and among the many funders of The Hechinger Report) made a half-million-dollar grant to an education nonprofit (the Kentucky Chamber Foundation), which then disbursed it in smaller amounts to local groups that introduced Common Core to their communities.
The Department of Education selected a group of 500 math and 500 English teachers to create model curricula for teachers to use as they got familiar with the new standards. Teachers also received 18 hours’ worth of training on the standards.
As president of the 15th District PTA, which oversees the parent associations of individual schools, Heather Wampler received a $75,000 grant to gather educators and school board members to explain the new standards. Parents and community leaders were invited to meetings that ran in the evenings in school auditoriums and local centers.
Wampler estimates that between July 2011 and February 2013 her group held more than 300 meetings that reached over 850,000 individuals.
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County and state efforts were coordinated so that Wampler’s PTA trained other PTAs throughout the state, which then ran their own community meetings. And Wampler and her team created videos and posted them on YouTube to train parents.
Sometimes the meetings did more than just explain the new standards. There were also calls to action for parents to intervene early with their kids. According to longtime former Jefferson County Public Schools board member Carol Haddad, “Common Core accelerates instruction by a year. When we met with families with children going into kindergarten, we needed to have them teach their kids the basic skills they’ll need in school.” Families were given a pamphlet that translated the education jargon into easy-to-understand language and explained what children would be expected to know in each grade.
According to Wampler, the children whose parents used the extra instruction to prepare them for kindergarten did better on school-readiness tests when they started school.
Preparing the community for the new standards led the way to introducing them to the new Common Core aligned tests. “When we introduced the new tests in spring 2012, we had to do the same thing all over again!” Holliday said.
This time the efforts were not as intense, but the commissioner and the PTAs had to prepare parents to expect lower test scores. In fact, the average scores dropped more than 20 points for middle and elementary school students in both reading and math. For example, elementary school students’ reading proficiency scores dropped from 76 percent to 48 percent.
Holliday said that parents were willing to accept the lower scores because there were no serious repercussions. Kentucky did not plan to tie test results to teacher evaluations as some states had done.
For Wampler, this is the first year she isn’t holding meetings in the evenings and can relax — a little! Now she’s fundraising for a clothing drive.
Holliday, who retired from the Kentucky Department of Education in 2015, says that being first helped his state avoid the political problems that plagued the adoption process in many other states, “The whole time, I was travelling and meeting with educators, I got a lot of questions but I never got pushback against Common Core. People understood that we needed higher standards.”