Surprising Strengths and Substantial Needs

Rural District Implementation of Common Core State Standards
Thomas Timar
University of California, Davis
Allison Carter
Pivot Learning


In August 2010, the California State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Three years later, the president of the State Board, Dr. Michael Kirst, noted that CCSS “changes almost everything,” including what teachers teach, how they teach, and what students are expected to learn (Kirst, 2013). Echoing his sentiments, Dr. Milbrey McLaughlin argued that “the practices and activities that faithful implementation of the CCSS would require are a long stretch for most California educators, and run contrary in many respects to deep-rooted features of teaching and learning in the United States” (McLaughlin, 2014). The adoption of ambitious new standards marked a dramatic change after many years of stability in state education policy.

With over six million students, California is the nation’s largest education system. The sheer number of districts (1,000) and schools (10,000) militates against one-size-fits-all policy implementation strategies. In addition, standards implementation is invariably influenced by a long list of community-, district-, and school-level contextual factors including geography, history, demographics, location, local politics, teacher capacity, human resources, and wealth. In California, moreover, implementation of the CCSS has been further complicated by the recent adoption of two other major policy initiatives—the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The simultaneous implementation of CCSS, LCFF, and LCAP continues to pose significant capacity challenges to local educational agencies (LEAs). These reforms demand major changes in districts, schools, and classrooms, while shifting the primary responsibility for decision-making and resource allocation to local actors. This is a radical change in a governance system that was previously highly centralized, and it is clear that not all LEAs are fully prepared to meet their new responsibilities.

The successful implementation of CCSS needs to be anchored in mutually agreed norms as well as in common practices, purposes, methods, and language. Establishing this level of shared understanding and uniform practice within and across districts requires a complex and demanding skill set—one that neither County Offices of Education (COEs) nor school and district practitioners have had to possess prior to the implementation of these ambitious state initiatives. Not surprisingly, therefore, several studies of CCSS implementation have found a great deal of variation in access to the ongoing district, school, and classroom supports necessary to enable changes in instruction. In a 2016 WestEd survey, all groups of educators—teachers, administrators, and support personnel—complained of a lack of high-quality CCSS-aligned instructional materials, especially for English Language Arts (ELA). Teachers also confirmed a need for more consistent and coherent job-embedded professional development to assist them in their implementation efforts. In the absence of these supports, teachers often relied on their peers as a primary source of support for curriculum development (Makkonen & Sheffield, 2016).

Suggested citationTimar, T., & Carter, A. (2017, June). Surprising strengths and substantial needs: Rural district implementation of Common Core State Standards [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.