Current State Initiatives and Policies in Context

The development and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) bridged two dramatically different administrations. This time of great change has posed many challenges for teachers, including understanding the philosophical underpinnings of ESSA and how they interact with various state policies and initiatives, as well as how to then best make use of the state- and district-level policies that are the most visible in the daily lives of teachers and guide learning experience for children. Let’s explore several state- level policies and initiatives that are most likely to play a role in a classroom teacher’s daily life.

The Common Core State Standards

In 2007, the Common Core State Standards for K—12 (CCSS) were under development to create a consistent national framework of what students are expected to learn in English language arts and mathematics subject areas. The idea of state education standards had been in existence since the 1990s, and by the early 2000s, every state had developed and adopted its own learning standards specifying what students should be able to do at certain grade levels. Every state also had its own definition of proficiency, which was generally defined as the level at which a student is determined to be sufficiently educated at each grade level and how prepared a student is upon graduation from high school. An acknowledgment of the lack of national agreement about graduation expectations for students and standardization at each prior grade level was one reason the CCSS were launched by most states in 2009 (National Governors Association, 2010).

The CCSS were conceived during the No Child Left Behind era, launched in 2009, and are still in use today. Federal policies generally have supported ways to adopt and use the CCSS at the state and local levels and are currently adopted at the state level in 41 of the 50 U.S. states (National Governors Association, 2010; Ravitch, 2014).

The CCSS development process was conceived and funded by governors and state school chiefs, along with the Pearson Publishing Company, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and various other public and private stakeholders (Ravitch, 2016; Saltman, 2016). The development process of the actual content of the standards was also guided in part by these stakeholders. The standards were initially chosen or derived from other state standards already in use and meant to provide a universal framework of consistent benchmarks for all students regardless of where they lived in the United States. A subsequent industry of CCSS-approved curricula and assessment tools was designed to support implementation of the CCSS (Ravitch, 2014; Saltman, 2016; Strauss, 2014).

Among the CCSS’ many goals were to have fewer, clearer, and consistent standards that were mapped through backward design from the outcome goal of each student having particular college- and work-readiness traits through the acquisition of progressive K—12 grade-level goals. The standards were designed to be relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that young students would eventually need for success in college, careers, and competition in a global economy (National Governors Association, 2010).

The standards were initially divided into two categories:

  • College- and career-readiness standards'. These standards address what students are expected to know and understand by the time they graduate from high school, according to the developers.
  • K—12 standards'. These standards address expectations for elementary school through high school, and would provide a clear map to college and career readiness.

The Common Core State Standards have drawn both support and criticism from those in educational leadership and from the general public. Let’s take a look at the CCSS through the lens of developmentally appropriate practice, applying some essential considerations for educators tasked to implement CCSS-related curriculum and assessments.

A Developmentally Informed Common Core State Standards Approach

Implementation of the CCSS aligns with developmentally appropriate practices in many ways. Teachers benefit from having guidance in the process of interpreting what is both challenging and attainable for young learners (NAEYC, 2015). Standards and developmentally appropriate practices can work well together in that standards provide a goal and developmentally appropriate practices bring the methods to scaffold learning experiences that will promote growth towards that goal (Goldstein, 2008).

For this reason, it is critical for teachers to develop the capacity to participate fully in an ongoing review process of the CCSS (NAEYC, 2015). Teachers are in the unique position of having direct contact with the standards and the ways in which they impact students’ learning experiences across multiple domains of development. The importance of professional development for teachers is explored later in this chapter.

An initial consideration is that the CCSS were conceived with standards in only two subject areas—mathematics and English language arts— which comprised the high-stakes standardized testing at play during NCLB (NAEYC, 2015). Having widely adopted and narrowly defined expectations for students can prove to be problematic in an era laden with standards created by many stakeholders with diverse perspectives on desired outcomes at the societal, institutional, and student levels. These stakeholders’ expectations may be held without a deeper understanding of the most recent developmental research. A focus on standards limited to only reading and math can be potentially concerning for educators who are committed to teaching with the whole child in mind, and who have a deep appreciation for the complex interaction among all domains of development within the context of the learning environment.

More specifically, standards have traditionally been aligned with accountability systems and have sometimes been used as part of program evaluations (Mathis, 2010). If local administrators do not have an understanding of developmentally appropriate practices, CCSS can be linked to assessment design in ways that do not support balanced instructional practices (NAETC, 2015). Additionally, what is chosen to be assessed can provide indications of importance and thus become the focus in educational settings, even formally or informally tied to teacher evaluations (McDaniel, Isaac, Brooks, & Hatch, 2005). A narrow emphasis on two subject matter standards can create overwhelming pressure for both teachers and students, leading to potentially problematic teaching practices in order to meet expectations (Mathis, 2010). Since the inception of CCSS, the challenge for policymakers has been to develop additional standards that provide a more holistic view of children’s needs (NAEYC, 2015). For instance, in recent years, some groups have worked to develop science and social-emotional learning standards and frameworks for state adoption, both explored later in this chapter.

When looking closely at the CCSS in English language arts and mathematics, it is possible to appreciate the degree to which they may tend to encourage (or discourage) developmentally appropriate practices. Though the standards focus on outcomes, not processes, there are several indications of flexibility in the standards language regarding the choice of instructional strategies in order to meet grade-level goals.

English language arts (ELA). The language used in CCSS for English language arts (ELA) leaves much room for interpretation at the teacher level regarding instructional decision-making. The ELA standards documents offer broad guidance at each grade level without dictating specific practices. The introduction to the standards states that the standards will define what students are expected to learn, not how teachers should teach (NAEYC, 2015; National Governors Association, 2010). The standards indicate that instruction should be differentiated for diverse learners and that teachers must offer guidance and support. Teachers may guard against a one-size-fits-all approach to reading instruction by aligning developmental theory with the CCSS. It is important to note that after kindergarten, less specific language in the CCSS is aligned with developmentally appropriate practices, and should be closely evaluated by educators attuned to the unique developmental needs of their students (Ivrendi & Johnson, 2002; NAEYC, 2015).

Mathematics. As with the ELA standards, the CCSS mathematics standards are organized around themes that provide some support for developmentally appropriate practices (NAEYC, 2015). The mathematics standards recognize that mathematical understanding follows a progression, and content builds from one grade level to the next (National Governors Association, 2010). The content standards are linked, however, to grade-level expectations and teachers may need to closely evaluate if research supports the age- grade alignment for each individual standard and each individual student. Expectations for children should be responsive to the needs of the whole child in context (NAEYC, 2015).

Ultimately, it is the teacher who takes responsibility for stimulating and supporting children’s development and learning by providing experiences each child needs. Ongoing professional development can help teachers connect assessment standards as a means of monitoring children’s progress and informing future teaching (NAEYC, 2015). By placing the CCSS in the larger context of an era of using standards-based student assessment data for high-stakes decisions, classroom teachers can remember that the issue of finding ways to ensure developmentally appropriate practices extends beyond the reach of the CCSS (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; NAEYC, 2015). Evaluating the nature of support that policy provides at the classroom level is an ongoing issue that is a part of the job.

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