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NSBA President Anne Byrne on Common Core and School Board Leadership

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

There are over 95,000 school board members nationwide; often overlooked, they are an invaluable factor in the success of education initiatives and the quality of public education in districts across the United States. Anne M. Byrne is the President of the National School Boards Association (NSBA). Since 1981, Byrne has been a member of the Nanuet School Board, on which she has served as president and vice president. She's also served as an officer of the New York school board association in a variety of capacities.

LFA is deeply appreciate to Ms. Byrne for taking the time to share her thoughts on both the importance of the Common Core State Standards as well as some of the challenges states face in implementing them, with a particular focus on her home state of New York. She also discussed the critical leadership role that school boards across the country play in setting the tone and agenda for public education in our communities.

Public School Insights (PSI): First, we would love to get your thoughts on the actual standards. As a school board member, and as a state and national leader, when you assess the standards, what are your first impressions, both in terms of opportunity and potential challenges? Are there particular elements you are excited about, or nervous about? What are the implications for student achievement and equity?

Byrne: This movement to higher standards is a very good thing. High standards are a must whether you call them career- and college-ready standards or the Common Core.  Let me tell you about two experts at conferences I recently attended. At one, I heard from Bill Daggett, the founder and president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, who spoke to the data around present standards and clearly made the point of the absolute necessity to raise our standards in order to be career and college ready--and Common Core does exactly that.  At another, Kevin Baird of the Common Core Institute talked about where we need to go so that all of our children can be successful.  He, too, made the case using data how raising standards is a must. Both were powerful presentations about what the standards are and why we must raise them.

That said, there is a gap between where we are and where we need to be. Some states have greater gaps than others.  Each state has their own standards. Massachusetts, for example, has the highest standards in the nation. All of the rest of the states go from high standards to not so high standards. The key to moving forward is for states to embrace higher standards and build a solid implementation plan.  One state that’s implementing the standards well is Kentucky.

My first impressions are that it is going to be hard work for boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students.  Higher standards allow opportunities that are directly related to brighter futures for each of our children. The potential challenges include making sure the resources are  available to school districts; providing cutting edge professional development  for our teachers; ensuring  curricular materials are aligned to the new standards, and assessments aligned to the new curricular materials; making sure our children with special needs and English language learners are part of the conversation on how to help them reach the standards; and helping parents and communities to understand what the standards are and why they are so important.  I am excited about the opportunities for children.  I am nervous that because the standards are higher than what all of us have now, there might be a tendency to withdraw from them.

The implications for student achievement are not only great for our students, but also our country.

Equity is always a concern, because right now there are schools that do not receive adequate or equitable funding, both of which are needed to implement higher standards.  Schools that are low performing need extra help and resources so that each child has the opportunity to succeed.

PSI: When it comes to district level alignment, what steps should local school boards take to prepare for Common Core implementation?

Byrne: First, we must understand what the Common Core Standards are.  We must ensure that our public and staff understand why we need high expectations for our students, why we need our students to be globally competitive, why we need to train staff in good professional development, and why we must raise our current standards.

This takes resources, so the school board must use the resources necessary to be successful. We need good curricula aligned to the Common Core, good learning materials for our staff and students, staff development to help staff teach and to keep parents and community informed.

We also must have patience.  It will not happen overnight. It will take hard work to accomplish, but it must happen.  We also have to find ways to decrease the test-taking anxiety of our students and their parents.

PSI: One of the big CCSS infrastructure questions concerns technology capacity and online assessments. Would you provide us with some information about your district and your preparations for testing? What are districts doing across New York; how big is the variance in preparedness by district?

Byrne: According to an article by the New York State School Boards Association, in 2010, the Federal Communications Commission surveyed all schools that participate in the federal E-Rate program on their preparedness for online testing.  It found that 80% of participating schools believe their broadband connections don’t meet their demands, and 55% of respondents cited “slow connection speed” as the main reason.  

Most New York schools get their broadband connections through a RIC (regional information center) via a shared wide area network (WAN) service that is constantly being upgraded.  This service is done in conjunction with BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services).  I don’t know if all New York schools have enough bandwidth or capacity with hardware to allow all their students to take the assessments on line, but they are certainly working toward that goal.  My own local school board, Nanuet Union Free School District in Rockland County, has the capacity to allow our students to take their assessments on line.  (The article is available at www.nyssba.org , dated April 15, 2013 by Gayle Simidian)

PSI: New York State has encountered some bumps with implementation. Many individuals ascribe to the belief that there is just as much, if not more, to be learned from failure as there is from success. Would you mind identifying a few lessons that can be taken from New York’s recent challenges?

Byrne: Communication is paramount to implementing the new standards. The implementation plan broke down in New York because communications broke down.  Tests were given last year without curriculum modules, teacher preparation, student preparation, or parental involvement. The curricular guides are still being rolled out for English Language Arts and mathematics, and they have not been available for other subjects. The guides are highly prescriptive-- you would need much longer than a year to complete a year’s worth of work.  Staff is working very hard to modify and adopt the guides for their students. Parents are having a hard time helping their children with their homework, especially in math.

InBloom, the outside data collection group that was going to be collecting our children's data, came under fire from parents because of data privacy concerns; now inBloom is no longer going to be collecting data, and the state education department has scaled back the timeline for implementation.

We see from this experience that we must have a curriculum that aligns with the standards and teachers who are adequately prepared to teach that curriculum. And we must ensure that we are working with a realistic timeframe to make changes and educate our parents, teachers, and other stakeholders about how and why we are doing this.

In spite of all the bumps in the road, teachers in the classroom are seeing their students learning the subject matter more deeply and more clearly. This is a very good result. This is why we need patience.  This is hard work and it takes time.

PSI: More specific to the question of state level implementation, would you be able to discuss the particulars around the role of teacher evaluations during the transition to the standards? 

Byrne: One of the hottest conversations surrounding Common Core is the connection between teacher and principal evaluations and the Common Core.  Some have called for a pause because teachers do not have the needed tools and as a result will be judged unfairly.  Interestingly enough, in the initial round of evaluations, only one percent of teachers were found to be ineffective and less than 5% classified as “developing.” The data suggests that 94% of all teachers are succeeding in showing growth in their classrooms.  Of course statewide exams in New York count for 20% of evaluation, and local exams another 20%, with 60% having to do with classroom evaluations.  The school district, using considerable resources, and the local union negotiated the language used to develop each school district’s evaluation process and implementation plan.

PSI: Full Common Core implementation is a complex task, and general public awareness is fairly low. What is the biggest misconception you’ve personally heard about the standards? What role do school boards play in providing information and transparency for parents and local community members? What resources should they utilize, and what aspects of the standards should they emphasize?

Byrne: There are many misconceptions about the Common Core Learning Standards.  First, the standards are NOT the assessments, NOT the curriculum and NOT a national agenda to take over schools.  Common Core standards are not a dumbing down of the curriculum; in fact, Common Core is more rigorous than most state standards and expects every student to learn Algebra 2, which is also higher than most states now.  It is also not true that the new standards will crowd out classical literature, since reading and writing will be done across the subject areas.  It is true that the new standards do not require cursive writing, but schools can still teach it.

It is crucial for school boards to make sure the district provides professional development for staff, aligned instructional material and supports for students and parents. There is lots of research on line to look at the standards; NSBA’s Center for Public Education’s website is a good source (http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/).  Each state education department also has many resources.  In New York you can look at engageny.org, the New York State Education Department’s website on the Common Core.

PSI: Collaboration is a critical part of school climate and is often an essential component for success. With the new standards posed to have a significant impact on all levels of a school building, from teaching and learning, to testing administration and evaluation, collaboration and trust among building staff will help ensure a smoother transition.  What steps and actions can local school boards take to facilitate greater district level collaboration at this particularly stressful and anxious juncture in time?

Byrne: The Iowa Lighthouse Inquiry was a 10-year study on whether school boards made a difference in student achievement, and the answer was, yes they did.  Starting with that premise, effective boards must set clear and high expectations for student learning, create the conditions for success, be accountable for results, create the public will to succeed, and learn as a team.  Since boards are the policy makers in a district, they should have written policies on student achievement and maintain a collaborative relationship with staff and the community.  Communications, both internal and external, are key to helping staff and the public understand what is happening and relieving some of the stress associated with the new standards. I think it helps if everyone is on the same page and staff and community feel they are listened to and kept apprised of any new developments. 

Generally speaking, it seems that the school districts that are having a smoother transition to the Common Core Learning Standards tend to be those districts that valued and practiced collaboration prior to adoption and implementation of the Standards.  It is part of their everyday work and mission.  According to the Center for Public Education’s report, “Eight Characteristics of Effective Boards,” effective school boards tend to have a cohesive and reciprocal relationship with school personnel and the community.  They value collaboration and effective communication, and it is embedded in their school district’s strategic vision and policy development.

PSI: As President of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), would you mind taking a moment to discuss the national landscape with regards to implementation? Do you see particular districts that are doing an outstanding job in this work? What types of support from different entities or levels of government would be particularly useful over the next year or two?

Byrne: Local school boards are responsible for the implementation of any new academic standards such as Common Core standards, which include locally approved instruction and materials in a manner that reflects community needs. Therefore, NSBA urges states to provide financial and technical support to enable school districts to implement, in an effective and timely manner, voluntarily adopted rigorous standards, including the Common Core standards.

NSBA supports high academic standards, including Common Core, that are voluntarily adopted by states with local school board input and free from federal direction, federal mandates, funding conditions or coercion.

It is apparent that every state is in a different place with implementation.  Kentucky was the first state to start the implementation process, and they have done a good job, taking the time to communicate with all their stakeholders and making sure staff has good professional development opportunities.  Massachusetts is also going about implementation at a thoughtful and steady pace, examining the gaps with their current standards, piloting in some districts and implementing the changes needed.  I am sure there are other states that are far along in the process and others who need more time and help.

As far as help from any level of government, it would be refreshing if our elected state and federal representatives were more visionary.  It takes looking down the road 10 years and saying, “Where do I want public education to be, and what do I need to do to make that happen?” 

Of course more resources are vitally important, since public education is a labor intensive enterprise.  But just as important is relief from onerous regulations and rules.  Think about all the resources needed now to run a state or federal government.  If we educated every child well, most of the money we spend now would be decreased.  We would need fewer jails and less social service benefits, and we would be more productive as an economy. 

PSI: Are there any additional thoughts you’d like to share with us that haven’t been covered above?

Byrne: The bottom line is that raising our standards is absolutely necessary so each child can succeed. One of my favorite quotes comes from Michelangelo, who said, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we will miss it, but it is too low and we will make it.”

Until every child is given the chance to be successful, we cannot rest.  America is a great country, and public education is the cornerstone of our democracy.  It is crucial for the future of our democracy and the future of public schools that all children have the opportunity to be successful. 


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