Interview | Straight Talk About Common Core

Driving through North America in a motorhome may sound like a dream vacation for some, but for Blanch and John Linton, it was a humble beginning to one of the world’s largest and most successful on-demand professional development tools for educators everywhere. What began in the 1990s as the Video Journal of Education is now School Improvement Network. Chet Linton, eldest son and now CEO, worked over the years to place their ever-growing library of helpful and catchy training videos for educators and school administrators online. Now one of the world’s largest online professional learning communities, the still family-owned and educator-operated company offers an entire suite of products including Common Core training, classroom walkthroughs and successful strategies for educators. Curtis Linton (pictured) is the company’s Executive Producer and a co-owner, passionate about helping teachers, and it’s no wonder. PD 360, the company’s online professional development platform, has a membership of more than 800,000 verified educators, 1,800 videos, 120 experts, 3,500 real classroom examples and provides Common Core 360—a comprehensive training on the Common Core State Standards Initiative. In one introductory video on the subject, “A Vision for the Common Core State Standards Initiative,” Curtis offers one of the most lucid descriptions of Common Core available anywhere. In the interview that follows, he provides some answers to questions that frustrated educators may be looking for—and you won’t need to traverse the country to find them.

Victor: The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a hot issue these days. Why’s that? Why now?

Curtis: American students continue to fall behind their international counterparts. As other nations moved towards rigorous study of fewer standards, the U.S. maintained “a mile wide and an inch deep” curriculum. Likewise, international school improvement efforts have focused on empowering teachers with the necessary skills and flexibility to succeed with every student. Meanwhile, the U.S. debates who controls the schools and who is responsible for student success. Having lagged behind global education reform efforts, the U.S. is left with a less capable workforce, and high school graduates are unprepared for the academic and professional rigor that lies ahead.

The goal of the Common Core Standards movement is college and career readiness for every student. In English Language Arts, there are 32 “Anchor Standards” clearly aligned in a K-12 progression that allows students to deepen rigor and build proficiency in the same language skills year-after-year. In Mathematics, there are eight practice standards that span K-12, and grade-level content standards organized in clusters and domains that collectively build one upon another so that students become ready for advanced mathematical understanding and application. Performing proficiently in these standards upon high school graduation, students are prepared in in ELA and Mathematics for post-secondary efforts.

When successfully implemented, the Common Core Standards drive each individual student equitably towards college and career readiness so that the student can choose for him- or herself what he or she may do upon high school graduation, rather than the educational institution inequitably preparing some and not others.

Victor: You’ve visited schools across North America and the world. What’s the most surprising commonality you’ve seen?  

Curtis: The most successful schools have a few common characteristics that we see time and again:

• Ownership: The teachers and administrators own their improvement efforts and take deep responsibility for innovation, change, and every single student’s success.

• Innovation: This local and institutional ownership leads to very creative innovation and successful implementation of high impact practices like teachers writing their own curriculum, strong parent & community relationships, and empowered teacher collaboration.

• Equity: The school focuses on individually supporting each and every student to a guaranteed standard of high achievement, regardless of race, socio-economics, and other demographic factors—there is no other option but total student success.

Victor: In what ways does technology enter the Common Core Standards equation? 

Curtis: Full implementation of the Common Core Standards will lead to individualizing teaching and learning based on a students need. Likewise, students will not be measured based on age or seat time, but rather on skill proficiency. Assessments enabled by technology integrated with interactive mapping and curriculum tools is the only way that teachers can effectively support individualized standards-based learning. Soon we will see teachers regularly basing day-by-day teaching on the immediate learning needs of individual students and students thus accelerating their learning because they are learning at an optimal level.

Victor: National standards are more common in other countries; the U.S. has prided itself on local control of education and eschewed a federal mandate; how can the NGA get away with pushing forward what was once a controversial area? Is this question full of holes?

Curtis: No, the Common Core Standards are designed to be controlled at the state and local levels, rather than at the national level. The standards of performance and expectation are established at the national level, empowered by collaboration between the states, and then designed and implemented at the state and local levels. If the Common Core Standards are implemented with fidelity, it will actually empower teachers rather than remove their professional discretion because the Common Core informs the teacher of what is expected in terms of student performance, but then allows the teacher to decide and control what happens on a day by day/unit by unit basis.

Victor: Take our readers on a brief tour of our problems and our hopes for implementing Common Core.

Curtis: The Common Core State Standards initiative begins with the premise of college and career readiness for all students. The National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) worked to define a clear and equitable goal for every student in public education: college and career readiness. This goal shifts the educational paradigm from group test scores to individual performance standards that demonstrate the developing skills and proficiencies students need for post-secondary success. Fully adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, the Common Core creates a framework that is re-engineering public education.

At the School Improvement Network, we are documenting Common Core implementation efforts at the state, district and school level. We have engaged with teachers, administrators, and policy makers across the nation in a rigorous discussion about what works and does not work when trying to implement these standards. Through Common Core 360, we demonstrate how these educators are integrating the standards into their practice, classrooms and schools.

This significant effort to re-engineer public education, however, faces an inherent challenge: the likelihood of being yet another well-meaning but poorly-implemented school improvement effort. Successful implementation of these standards occurs when the Why, the What, and the How of the Common Core are systematically addressed.

Victor: Great video with the spiral staircase and so on (“A Vision for the Common Core State Standards Initiative“). Very clear. Seems so easy, makes so much sense, but one educator quoted in the video mentions it could be rocky at first, then smooth out. What are those rocky parts? How do they smooth out? 

Curtis: The rocky part of implementing the Common Core is two-fold: 1. Moving past traditional practice—we are almost 120 years into our current models of schooling with minor rather than radical modification to what happens in the classroom—for example: 180 day school year; instruction designed according to age-based grades rather than student readiness; focus on group data and group instruction rather than individualizing data and instruction; seniority rather than effectiveness as the basis of promotion; fixed institutionalized curriculum rather than teacher designed curriculum; etc.  2. Getting buy-in to the vision of the Common Core, what it means to students, and even what it means to teachers—hence, the video. If Common Core is approached with a “this too shall pass” attitude, it will not succeed. It is up to today’s educators to buy in to the promised reforms for the sake of the students.

Victor: What’s the biggest negative kickback you’re hearing about Common Core, and how do you address that? 

Curtis: Simple: what are the assessments? If educators have learned anything through No Child Left Behind, it is the necessity of teaching a curriculum aligned with the assessments. But the Common Core assessments have not yet been released.  The answer to this, however, is that the Common Core Standards are already aligned with what the assessments will be—the assessments are based on the standards, not the other way around. So, if teachers begin teaching the Common Core now, their students will be prepared for the Common Core assessments to come.

Victor: The standards are seemingly brilliantly designed. Why did it take so long to put these in place? Why now?

Curtis: Standards have traditionally been written as a revision of past standards. The Common Core were designed from the ground up. The first thing to establish was the necessary skill set to determine “college and career readiness.” Next, these skills—or standards—had to be backwards designed K-12 with a clear learning progression. This is no small task, heavily dependent on research, and requires significant collaborative buy-in. Why now? The U.S.’s decades of educational stagnation finally became apparent—and appears as a decline on the international stage, rather than a maintenance of the status quo. Governors and Chief State Officers finally moved past false pride and isolation to recognize that a collective effort was the only way U.S. education could be radically reformed.

Victor: Let’s talk more about technology and for-profit technology companies in the education sector. What do you have to say about edtech firms, and edtech startups, in today’s education marketplace?

Curtis: Whether for-profit or non-profit, what matters is the quality of the educational tools the organization is providing. Education is in need of fast and effective development of technological tools to facilitate the necessary changes.  Traditional institutions, such as state DOEs and educational associations have not always nor typically innovated in technology with great success. Private enterprise often innovates in the most rapid and successful ways. The most successful innovation has been when educational agencies, associations, and companies partner together to develop highly effective tools that are precisely designed to support the needs of schools and educators—that is our focus right now at School Improvement Network.

Likewise, there are plenty of companies and associations right now advertising old methods and tools rebranded as “Common Core Aligned.” If Common Core’s goal is to re-engineer education, then the tools and methods likewise need to be re-engineered, rather than just re-branded.

Victor: What are the value and benefits to SINET Common Core 360? 

Curtis: School Improvement Network’s new tool Common Core 360 has been designed from the ground up to support educators in successfully implementing the Common Core Standards. Common Core 360 offers the following benefits to schools:

• The Vision of the Common Core: clear explanation and illustrations through video and other media of what the Common Core is and how it came to be.  This is critical in successfully implementing the Common Core—if educators do not understand its purpose, they are not likely to buy in to the effort and changes inherent within the Common Core.

• Common Core Learning Progressions: Interactive tools to explore and utilize the Common Core Standards that allow teachers to study, understand, and apply the Standards in a K-12 learning progression.  At each grade level, the standards increase in rigor. Understanding the subtle progression in rigor from grade to grade allows teachers to use the standards to modify and teach the standards according to student readiness and level.  Our Common Core Learning Progression tool is ideal for RTI and IEP application.

• Teaching the Common Core Standards: SINET is currently videotaping hundreds of classrooms in order to authentically illustrate what the Common Core looks like when taught in the classroom. Over the next 2-3 years, we will build a video library of ever Common Core standard being taught at every grade level K-12. Through Common Core 360, teachers can learn from other teachers how to effectively teach the Common Core.

• The power of PD 360: Common Core 360 is delivered through the highly effective and very popular PD 360 on-demand professional development platform. With over 800,000 educators accessing PD 360, it has become the world-leading online platform for teacher and administrator professional learning. Furthermore, when fully utilized in a school, PD 360 is research proven to increase student achievement at 3-5 times the rate of neighboring schools.

Victor: Any story that tells the tale of the mission of either Common Core Standards or Common Core 360?

Curtis: Racing Forward with College and Career Readiness: the state of Kentucky is leading the U.S. in implementing the Common Core Standards. The State DOE, Governor, Legislature, Business Community, Parents, and Educators bought in to the vision of the goal of education being college and career readiness for all students. Recognizing that 2 years ago, only 35 percent of Kentucky’s high school graduates were college and career ready, Kentucky set a statewide goal fully supported by the legislature and all stakeholders of 65 percent of high school graduates being college and career ready by 2015. Kentucky recognizes that this is the best competitive edge they can have in the global economy. Kentucky is also proof that politicians, policy makers, and the community can collaborate successfully towards significant educational change and improvement when the right goal and message is identified. School Improvement Network is proud to be a primary partner with the state of Kentucky in implementing the Common Core Standards.

As for the School Improvement Network’s decision to invest millions of dollars into developing Common Core 360, it has turned out to be much more complex—and rewarding—than originally envisioned. We initially thought that we could film each standard being taught in one lesson or unit, and quickly check off all the standards. Then, as we researched in depth and came to fully understand the purpose and nature of the Common Core Standards, we recognized that we would need to spend as much as a year with a teacher in their classroom to fully document the teaching of a standard. Our Common Core 360 project quickly ballooned to much larger than we had ever imagined, but we also recognized that this was necessary to successfully support our client districts across the country. This Common Core 360 project is intense and intimidating, but is the most rewarding professional development project we have ever embarked upon.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:


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