By Judy Jenkins and R. Scott Pfeifer

Printable pdf

Many principals around the country these days can sympathize with the frustration athletes feel when their coaches call play after play but never manage to call the play that will help the athletes get the ball into the end zone. Likewise, principals often are expected to make reform efforts work after the important decisions are made by curriculum “experts.”

Blow the whistle, throw the flag, and call a penalty. Education reform efforts that focus on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) may have seized the attention of the experts, but principals need to call the shots so that they can lead their schools to higher standards and increased rigor. It’s time for principals to assume the important role of curriculum leader.

Today’s reform landscape transcends instructional leadership and data-based decisionmaking skills. This is not to say that those behaviors aren’t essential to a principal’s success, but they no longer suffice. Principals don’t need to be curriculum experts, but they do need to lead their schools with full knowledge of the CCSS, the new assessments tied to those standards, and the rigor embedded in both.

A Unique Opportunity

The CCSS provide a roadmap for K–12 articulation that has never truly existed before in the United States. Making the transition to the new standards requires thoughtful and strategic planning. The CCSS are not a curriculum; they do not dictate instructional materials or teaching strategies. Rather, they provide the foundations on which many states and districts will construct their new curricula for mathematics and English language arts/literacy.

The math standards stress focus and coherence; the progressions are transparent from one grade to the next. The grade-level standards in English language arts are a staircase to mastering the college and career readiness anchor standards. Principals can convene and guide their school leadership teams in this initiative within their schools. More importantly, principals can work with their colleagues to facilitate vertical articulation so that the taught curriculum can be seamless in grades K–12.

Principals must help all faculty members develop an understanding of the CCSS and provide a timeline for transition. To implement and sustain the changes required by the CCSS, teachers must understand and embrace the college and career readiness standards in their instructional planning. Resources, such as the content frameworks, created by the assessment consortium, can support educators as they develop their transition plans.

A general charge to “study the standards and start teaching to them” will not help teachers, nor will it result in any significant change. Instead, leadership teams can do the heavy lifting required by the new standards by creating cogent, focused transition plans that identify specific steps, including timelines, professional development initiatives, and accountability structures. The principal and the leadership team also must consider key components of change management as they develop their transition plans. If one or more components are absent or misunderstood, then confusion, resistance, and frustration may result.

Key “Takeaways”

Although the curriculum structure in each state is unique, Maryland’s approach to creating a structure to help principals create transition plans is instructive. In October 2010, Maryland completed a gap analysis that compared its state curriculum with the CCSS. This analysis, along with current assessment requirements, informed transition decisions. Because student achievement would be measured on assessments aligned to the state curriculum only through 2014, specific topics emerged for transition activities in 2011–12.

In English language arts/literacy, teachers should provide a renewed focus on writing to source, especially the writing of argument and explanatory pieces. Evaluating text complexity is a key issue, and it is one of the most eye-opening shifts embedded in the CCSS. Finally, close reading of text must be a key focus area for teachers in this first transition year.

In mathematics, transition to the CCSS requires teachers to routinely integrate standards for mathematical practice in all lessons. Professional development to help teachers understand and incorporate the standards into their lessons is essential. In Maryland, the CCSS shifted topics into different grade levels from the current curriculum, especially at the middle school level. Planning for those grade-level shifts down the road will be very important.

Becoming Curriculum Leaders

Principal preparation initiatives rightfully focus attention upon instructional leadership skills. Transition to the CCSS, however, elevates curriculum leadership skills to a new status and principals need support to assume the mantle of curriculum leadership called for today. The description of the Educator Effectiveness Academies that follows outlines the strategy that Maryland used to support principals in becoming curriculum leaders by helping them understand the CCSS, laying the groundwork for the development of a curriculum leadership team in their school, and creating a template for them to use to provide the professional development necessary for taking the first steps in the transition.

Using funds from a Race to the Top grant, the state held three-day Educator Effectiveness Academies at 11 regional sites this past summer. Six thousand educators in four-member teams from all 1,500 public schools across the state attended those academies to learn about the mission and purpose of the new state curriculum, which is aligned with the CCSS, and the frameworks that Maryland educators had constructed over the year. Participants discussed the new curriculum and transition efforts with 150 master teachers—50 in English language arts; 50 in mathematics; and 50 in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Some key design features of the academies made success a likely outcome. First, and foremost, each school’s principal led its team, and each team spent a third of the academy in team-focused time to ensure that team members shared common ground. When teachers met with a master teacher to discuss English language arts, mathematics, or STEM content, principals joined them, following a rotation schedule that ensured engagement at sufficient depth to aid in future planning.

Second, in most academies, district-level administrators facilitated a K–12 focus. Principals did not construct their plans in a vacuum; the academy provided a unique opportunity for teams across the K–12 spectrum within a district to collaborate and ensure that transition plans were aligned.

Finally, principals led the final academy activity by working with their teams to craft school transition plans that focused on school-based, CCSS-focused professional development efforts for the next school year.

Developing a Plan

All principals can design a transition plan. The elements of Maryland’s plan are quite simple and encompass five outcomes:

  1. All faculty members will have an understanding of the state curriculum framework in reading and English language arts (standards, essential skills, and essential knowledge)
  2. All faculty members will have an understanding of the state curriculum framework in mathematics (standards, essential skills, and essential knowledge)
  3. Identified faculty members will include the state curriculum framework about argument, explanatory, and narrative writing products and processes in lesson development and implementation
  4. Identified faculty members will include the state curriculum framework practices for mathematics in lesson development and implementation
  5. Identified, cross-disciplinary faculty teams will develop and implement integrated STEM lessons.

Teams identified activities for staff members throughout the year, indicating who would be involved, what resources would be required, who was responsible for implementation, what time frame would apply, and how success would be assessed. School teams received a rubric to help them construct their plans. All the materials presented during the academies are posted at

Many principals applauded the academy design that placed them side by side with their teachers in the curriculum-focused sessions (although a few had difficulty adjusting to this new role). They relished developing the curriculum game plan for their schools and appreciated being in on the beginning of curriculum-implementation efforts. Principals in Maryland know that a slow, measured approach to implementing the CCSS is the way to proceed so that teachers are ready for new assessments in 2014–15. As a result of these academies, school teams—with the leadership of their principals—join state and district curriculum experts as full partners in curriculum implementation.

Experience Speaks

The experiences of educators in Maryland have generated the following advice.

Write Your Own Playbook
Partner with your staff members to map out a threeyear approach to preparing them to fully implement the CCSS, and construct a professional development plan for each year. Slow and steady will win this curriculum race. Fortunately, guidance is available. If your state belongs to an assessment consortium, bookmark the website so that you can revise your plan at any time as assessment information becomes available. Both the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers ( and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium ( provide member states with a wealth of resources that are useful for curriculum-implementation planning.

Your leadership team must be structured so that it is a collaborative work group. Ensure that leadership team meetings are long enough to discuss transition topics and professional development opportunities for those topics. Part of the initial discussions must include an understanding of change management. You must help the leadership team become experts in each aspect of change management, from embracing the vision to knowing the details of the action plan.

Practice What You Preach
Help members of your leadership team embrace the idea of incorporating transition planning into the instructional fabric. Just as master teachers were ambassadors for the content of the CCSS in Maryland, members of your leadership team must be ambassadors for making the transition to the new curriculum. Leaders must demonstrate that the changes identified in the transition plan are part of their instructional planning and implementation. You and the members of your leadership team must model the importance of this initiative by attending and participating in transition discussions.

Seek Opportunities for K–12 Articulation
One important step that you must consider as your school transitions to new standards is making the curriculum seamless from kindergarten through high school. To accomplish this, you must plan for and model vertical articulation within your school and through feeder systems. Resources from both assessment consortiums can help educators begin this conversation. For example, in both English language arts and mathematics, progressions are identified so that teachers can see how student knowledge and skill advances from one grade to the next and from one course to the next.

In Maryland’s larger districts, principals receive guidance from the top to facilitate effective K–12 articulation, but across the country, this is not always the case. But every principal, regardless of district size, must seize this moment of transition to the CCSS to focus on articulation opportunities with feeder schools in his or her system. One district in Maryland actually reserves an entire professional work day in the spring for K–12 articulation. Principals who don’t have this luxury can still devise a creative design to bring teachers within feeder patterns together to chew on this critical issue. When principals rally their troops to embrace K–12 collaboration and community building, students will benefit.

In Closing

Another thing to put on the already overflowing plate of principals! We almost feel guilty, but timing is everything. Four or five years from now, the CCSS and the new summative assessments that are designed to measure students’ college and career readiness will most likely seem old-hat to principals. Until then, however, principals must continually engage their school communities in transition planning and implementation, and become effective curriculum leaders now. PL

Judy Jenkins is the director of curriculum at the Maryland State Department of Education. She has been a middle school principal, director of middle schools, and acting assistant superintendent of instruction for Anne Arundel County (MD) Public Schools.

R. Scott Pfeifer is the director of instructional assessment and professional development at the Maryland State Department of Education. He served as a high school principal for 20 years for Howard County (MD) Public Schools and is a former member of the NASSP National Board of Directors.