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Books in Translation

The Principalship
April 11, 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 14
Table of Contents 

Five Findings for Leading Common Core Implementation

Nonie K. Lesaux and Joan G. Kelley

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are encouraging instructional change across the country. Much of the focus is on developing higher-level literacy skills among our nation's students to better prepare them for the literacy demands of the 21st century economy. For educators, this will mean the implementation of new curricula, frameworks, and approaches that will guide the kinds of instruction that build advanced oral and written language skills and critical thinking, especially in secondary schools. In many settings, this will be a professional challenge. But with a principal's riveted focus on the literacy instruction—including ongoing teacher support—opportunities for literacy learning and practice will become integral to students' everyday classroom experiences.

This raises the question: How can principals successfully support teachers' implementation of new curricula?

After designing and implementing an academic language curriculum in 14 urban middle school English language arts classrooms, my colleagues and I gathered feedback from teachers that could help principals successfully guide Common Core implementation efforts. Here are five of our findings:

#1: Robust materials can be the solution—but also the challenge.

We provided our teachers with robust, research-based lesson materials for each class session, but without the one-page daily instructional framework, many would have floundered.

Principal takeaways:

  1. Design or select literacy programs made up of rich and rigorous materials that challenge students and that are easy for teachers to follow and deliver.
  2. Make sure that there is an outline that encapsulates the day's plan and gives teachers a much-needed road map for instruction.

#2: Training didn't train teachers; teaching did.

Although we provided a requisite training session and a website filled with information and lesson materials prior to implementation, teachers learned the curriculum by diving in.

Principal takeaways:

  1. Implementing a new curriculum takes time and practice, especially in the beginning. Consider decreasing duties to free up teachers in the first month of implementation.
  2. Given that on-the-job learning is the most effective training regimen, materials need to heavily support real-time implementation.

#3: Web-based support may be very helpful, but not in the beginning!

Even though we designed a website to support implementation, many teachers did not access it during the early weeks.

Principal takeaways:

  1. Provide live support to address problems of practice and to offer supplemental materials, especially in the early days of implementation.
  2. During faculty and grade-level meetings, model and reinforce how to access the website and what is available on it.

#4: Regular and repeated routines make a difference for students and teachers.

An instructional cycle made up of repeated, but varied, routines was critical to our program's influence on students' oral and written language skills. Reaction to this structured teaching was mixed: some teachers saw the curricular routines as boring, but other teachers appreciated the cycles because they allowed students to focus on the concepts rather than the specifics of new tasks. As one teacher noted, "Even low [English language learners] gained confidence [from] the repetition. There [were] no surprises."

Principal takeaways:

  1. Developing advanced literacy skills demands structured opportunities for practice. Educate staff about how instructional routines are central to substantive, high-quality curricula and make the learning more effective.
  2. Ensure that students can reap the benefits of high-quality curriculum by requiring that programs be implemented with fidelity.

#5: Teachers' expectations influence students' learning opportunities and outcomes.

When teachers expected that their students couldn't handle the complex material, or it seemed too difficult in comparison to their standard practice, they were reluctant to present it. At the same time, many teachers expressed surprise at what their students accomplished when they were given instruction in full. Regarding program expectations, when teachers encountered an unexpected problem during lesson delivery, instruction was often derailed.

Principal takeaways:

  1. Affirm personal expectations that all students can and will learn complex subject matter with effective, scaffolded instruction.
  2. Help teachers to troubleshoot lessons ahead of time so that they are aware of and prepared for the difficulties and will persevere through the lesson.

Like all best practices, these five guidelines have application beyond implementing CCSS and would benefit any school or district adopting new curricula. As schools across the United States juggle Common Core implementation on top of an already packed agenda, we hope these pointers will help ease the transition.

Nonie K. Lesaux is a professor of education and Joan G. Kelley is a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 14. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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