Systems Theory and Implementing the Common Core State Standards

08/21/2013  |  By STU ERVAY
Common Core

We have heard many explanations of how the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will affect America’s schools, from the need to radically modify curriculum around scope and sequence imperatives, to changes in instructional methods and assessment of student learning. For school administrators and classroom teachers, every new piece of information makes them realize how daunting CCSS implementation will actually be!

CCSS implementation is frightening to educational practitioners because it is like pounding a square peg into a round hole. Simply put, school districts are not ready for a process that is so alien to their comfort level and ways of doing things.

Current Decision-Making and Action-Taking Models are Not Aligned with CCSS

American public school districts are administrative units organized the way businesses and the military set up their decision-making and action-taking apparatus. They are created around line and staff processes, which is another way of saying they use top-down management techniques. Significant in this model are decision-making boards, executives that carry out board decisions, subordinate administrators who manage units within the larger organization, and workers who perform their tasks under policies and directives flowing downward through the hierarchy. In schools, we are clearly talking about boards of education, superintendents, principals and teachers.

CCSS calls for a much different kind of collaborative arrangement in which teams of professionals must work together both horizontally — each grade level and secondary department — AND vertically — among grade levels and units featuring integrated subject matter. Except for the professional learning community (PLC) initiative, which is only now addressing the vertical consideration, not much has been done to create that new kind of educational environment. Even new PLC processes do not typically provide the kind of governance structure that allows entire districts to focus on vertical considerations between and among all buildings, and the kind of integrated approach that provides for the inclusion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into existing content fields.

CCSS Emphasizes the Intellectual Engagement of Teachers and Students

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) process left schools with a multi-faceted legacy, the most significant of which is the emphasis on knowledge/skill bits that can be “unpacked” from standards, taught to mastery through narrow curricula, and easily measured using high stakes tests. While NCLB initially applied to mathematics and reading, many school districts incorporated that approach and mind set into all subjects and grade levels. Considering the fact many of today’s teachers received their college preparation during the NCLB era, they are often imbued with the kind of thinking that stresses mastery of knowledge/skills pieces, and an instructional process that emphasizes drill and test approaches akin to stimulus-response.

Unlike NCLB, CCSS is all about intellectual engagement around both scholastic and practical imperatives. In other words, an academically stimulating environment is required that causes both teachers and students to examine ways human beings become more cognitively effective in meeting real world challenges and opportunities. In order for that kind of environment to exist in schools and districts, teachers and students must work together as never before. The idea is as old as learning itself, that inquiry and reflection are the means through which we change our behaviors for the better, and that can only occur when we create collaborative environments.

CCSS is the Product of New Kinds of Thinking About an Emerging Interconnected Society

Just a brief perusal of recent literature written by the most popular theorists in organizational management tells us that the Common Core State Standards didn’t occur by happenstance. Change agents and authors like W. Edwards Deming (“The Deming Management Theory”) and Peter Senge (“The Fifth Discipline”) advocate a move away from the line and staff kind of organizational structure in all human organizations. More than a technique to improve vertical and horizontal communication alone, the interaction they call for is at its heart an intellectual creation; Senge refers to it as a learning organization.

The way we can fully understand the dynamic behind such a concept is to consider the times in our own lives when we were so fully immersed in a collaborative project that we could feel ourselves caught up in the magic of the moment. We could feel ourselves being changed somehow, and that change had much to do with insight, inspiration, clarity, and a feeling of almost euphoric comprehension. It might have happened in a sports activity, a situation that required creative energy or a classroom simulation. Whatever it was, it is something we can remember yet as being a kind of watershed period in our lives.

Our day-to-day world is becoming more like that because of electronic connectivity. While much of that connectivity is seemingly trivial and unproductive, it is obviously an important part of our young peoples’ lives. They seem to thrive on the ability to perceive the world through a collective lens, thereby feeling themselves change as a result. To some degree, the CCSS initiative is an attempt to take advantage of that phenomenon by asking schools to turn collective trivia into something more scholastically substantive. In that context it is a matter of teachers learning from teachers, administrators learning from teachers, teachers learning from administrators, students learning from educators, educators learning from students, and students learning from students. It is an academic cross-pollination that makes everyone participating in the learning organization better, thereby making the organization itself better!

Attaining the Learning Organization through use of the Systems Theory

School districts must find effective ways to change their academic programs in light of challenges associated with the Common Core State Standards. Instead of participating in, or sponsoring piecemeal improvement projects, a systems approach can be used that includes:

  1. State-of-the-art curriculum development, implementation and management techniques
  2. Creative instructional processes that are well aligned with the local curriculum
  3. Assessment techniques that are actually appropriate to learning targets
  4. An academic program governance model to manage collegial decision-making and action-taking.

In the school improvement model sponsored by the Curriculum Leadership Institute ( are systematic steps that allow a district’s lay and professional stakeholders to be an inherent part of everything the system does. Below are some brief examples that show how the CLI’s systemic model involves all key members of the school organization:

School board members play a well defined role in making decisions about critical matters associated with curriculum content and program improvement processes. In that sense,actions taken are internally managed and not something regulated by state or federal mandates alone. They appreciate step-by-step techniques being applied over time, realizing that the kind of improvements called for by implementation of the Common Core State Standards cannot be accomplished in a short time span. Finally, board members are continually “in the loop” with regard to all decisions made by the curriculum council — representative board members are also members of the council — and subject area committees through meeting minutes and reports, and are conversant with how student performance is improving over time.

The superintendent provides academic leadership in a setting that is guided by written policies, and thereby well understood by all stakeholders. While the process involves a sharing of leadership responsibility, it does not require the superintendent to work under a vague set of expectations. It also frees the superintendent to become a visionary leader, and allows other specified leaders in the district to review and possibly implement that vision through clearly established understandings. The superintendent is the agent of the board of education, and is responsible for implementing board decisions and keeping board members informed of all matters pertaining to both managerial concerns AND academic needs. Weighty managerial issues associated with budgets, personnel, facilities, legal matters, and governmental compliance can easily overshadow even more significant academic concerns, and this system gives the superintendent an opportunity to emphasize the importance of ensuring that student learning is always seen as the key purpose of the district. Most important, the superintendent in this system can be viewed as a kind of first teacher who interacts with teacher colleagues personally and in council meetings, largely because — as someone who studies curriculum, instructional practice, and quality assessment — he or she can be very conversant with what good teaching is.

The curriculum coordinator provides real academic leadership in partnership with the superintendent. Because student learning is the primary purpose behind everything the district does, the curriculum director is responsible for ensuring that the local curriculum is tied to instruction, assessment and learning throughout the district in all buildings, grade levels and subject areas. The coordinator creates and guides actions that lead to the formation of: academic program policy, a representative curriculum council, a long-range plan, and subject area committees. Under academic program policies, the curriculum director ensures that all decision-making bodies and the policies that guide them are dynamic and regularly used. The coordinator connects academic program needs to professional development, and ensures that curriculum, instruction, and quality assessment procedures are fully supported by state-of-the-art staff improvement programs and activities. Finally, the coordinator works with the curriculum council, subject area committees, superintendent, and board of education to ensure that acquired resources are aligned with and used to support a quality curriculum and instructional program.

The building principal is part of the district’s academic leadership team (member of the curriculum council), and also serves in a role similar to the historic origins of the title: principal (first) teacher. In that capacity the principal works with other academic leaders in the district to become conversant with the content and delivery of each subject’s curriculum, and creates processes to ensure that every teacher in the building is using adopted curricula effectively to cause quality student learning. Also, the building principal guides the development of building-level academic programs that stimulate improved student learning, including but not limited to special programs for students needing individualized attention, revised class scheduling, extended learning opportunities, use of technology and distance learning, instructional teaming, and cooperative programs with community resources.

Teachers in the district are seen as fully qualified professional educators expected to participate in decision-making and action-taking protocols at all levels, from representative curriculum council membership, through participation on subject area committees, to implementing and enhancing curriculum, instruction and assessment procedures via collegially adopted and applied instructional planning instruments. They participate collegially in the development of a curriculum linked to the Common Core State Standards. As teams of teachers they establish criteria for measuring student learning, processes for formative assessment, and procedures for creating and administering common assessments for instructional units. As individual classroom teachers they choose teaching methods, classroom activities, special resources, and techniques for differentiated instruction within the classroom — remediation and enrichment.

Not specifically mentioned in the explanations above are parents, community members and students. Those groups are represented in the overall decision-making and action-taking model, primarily through participation on the curriculum council as stipulated in the district’s academic policies.


School districts are not ready for implementing the Common Core State Standards because they are managed using line and staff techniques instead of organizational principles associated with the systems theory. CCSS can only be effectively implemented through use of an idea Peter Senge calls the learning organization, a comprehensive arrangement in which collaboration among all stakeholders is key. Unlike the No Child Left Behind era, implementing CCSS requires the kind of collaboration that focuses on an intellectual engagement of all stakeholders with what are known to be scholastic and practical imperatives. Among those critically important stakeholders are school board members, superintendent, curriculum coordinator, building principal and teachers.

Stu Ervay is Executive Director of the Curriculum Leadership Institute, a nonprofit research and consultant organization. He is also Professor of School Leadership at Emporia State University. For more about the Curriculum Leadership Institute, visit
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