Just before the 2012 school year, Louisiana lawmakers decided that instead of two years, districts would have only one year to transition to Common Core. West Baton Rouge Parish School District, a small but growing district in southeastern Louisiana, moved quickly to implement the new standards.
One major challenge: getting teacher buy-in for the significant change toward a new curriculum and new way of teaching. One principal summed up the initial hesitation from many teachers this way: "Everybody's having to work harder than they ever had to work before, and the pay is the same. That goes against life, so it's difficult to get people to buy in."
District leaders knew that this shift in mindset and teaching practice would not be easy and made sure to give teachers the tools and supports they needed to make the change. You can read more about how the small district built support systems and secured the necessary resources for teachers in our detailed case study.
There are many more observations and insights related to the district's Common Core implementation. Below, Supervisor of Secondary Education Dawn Henry, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Sharon Lair and Superintendent Wes Watts share their thoughts on the shifts in mindset and teaching practice, professional development and the next steps and goals for the district.
Common Core-related Shifts
Supervisor of Secondary Education Dawn Henry:
"For me, the biggest shift that has happened is that our classrooms have gone from a teacher-centered environment to student-centered one. I think our teachers had to learn to give up a lot of control, and give it to their students. That's especially true for middle and high school, but also the elementary schools, which is amazing to me.
"The other shift is that our middle school and high school teachers have realized that even though they might for example teach chemistry, they still can support literacy.
"When we first started implementing literacy strategies across the board, teachers said, "I don't teach kids how to read in high school. I'm an English IV teacher. They should know how to read by the time they get to me." But over time we've seen a huge shift in understanding at the middle school and high school level: that if they use literacy strategies they will be able to support instruction in the classroom.
"The Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) training has especially made a huge difference for middle school and high school teachers. The way they plan, the way they set up their lessons, their activities, the assessments have all changed.
"Finally, we learned early on that what you tell to teachers, you also have to explain to your principals, otherwise there's a disconnect. I think we've done a really good job of making sure that whatever professional development our teachers have, that our principals have been made well aware of and could participate."
Associate Superintendent of Instruction Sharon Lair:
"We have teacher leaders that have been designated in each of our schools. It helps tremendously to have those people, along with professional development that actually ties everything together.
"When you have a teacher leader, that's a person who actually has no classes assigned to them. They have time to actually research and get the proper resources that are needed and that teachers say they need. They also conduct the professional learning communities that go on in each of our schools.
"We make certain that all of our teachers are getting the professional development they need so that the rigor is there in the classrooms, the engagement of students continues, and that students are excited about learning."
"I know that students are more engaged since we implemented Common Core. In student interviews we hear how they experience the changes. For example, we had several middle school students specifically point out that they now had more opportunities to get into groups and work together.
"They also mentioned that they could now assist a fellow student if he or she didn't understand the question. It's important to them that they can now talk about things that they've experienced and bring it as insight into what they're learning at the time.
"Our leaders - our principals and administrators at the schools - get the professional development they need as well. We do have a principals PLC. We make sure that principals are knowledgeable about everything in order to correctly evaluate their teachers and to have that leadership team that actually drives the instructional program within their particular school site. We find that to be very, very important."
Next Steps & Goals
Superintendent Wes Watts:
"West Baton Rouge Parish embraced Common Core early. It wasn't like some who say, "Well, we're not sure if this is going to pass. We'll wait and see. It will change in two years so let's not dive in." The district embraced it early and that helped.
"Our next steps are really to make sure that the standards transcend from grade level to grade level, that we don't have gaps. We also will be continuing with parent communications - a lot of them still don't fully understand Common Core. We have just decided with the political landscape as it is today, with all the discussion around repealing Common Core, we're going to take all our focus and energy on using these standards to help our kids.
"Moving forward, we want to become a top ten school district in Louisiana. But we're not going to chase the score. We want to prepare our kids to go pursue whatever it is they want to pursue. For example, we're having billions of dollars of chemical industry growth here. If that's something that they want to do and make a career of it, we want to offer the opportunity to be trained by the time they leave us to go jump into that job market.
"Overall, our big focus is providing great, rigorous instruction and character-building experiences. Hopefully, this focus will result in higher scores that show that we're a high-performing district in our state."