By Amy Illingworth

South Bay Union School District in southern California takes a comprehensive approach to implementing Common Core standards by supporting teachers and coaches with professional development and district support and alignment.


I’ve just entered a 5th-grade classroom with two site-based academic coaches. Each school in South Bay Union School District (SBUSD) has an academic coach. This is a typical site visit for me — discussing instructional practices aligned to the Common Core State Standards. We’ve been here before; we’ve been working together to support implementation of the English language arts standards. The teacher is open and welcoming; coaches are eager to coach and to be coached. In fact, the coaches invited me to visit today.

The teacher’s lesson is focused on the 5th-grade reading standard on informational text that calls for students to analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent. As the lesson progresses, I see that the teacher is moving in a direction that is not aligned to the standard, and I coach the coaches into this same realization. As we discuss how to support the teacher in this teachable moment, the teacher begins to direct students into practice that will further their misunderstanding. I look to the coaches — they share my understanding that this is a pivotal opportunity to support the teacher’s instruction. They know her well, and, with that knowledge, they encourage me to offer immediate side-by-side modeling. I’m able to talk to the teacher and model a quick direct instruction example with students that redirects the focus to align with the standards.

As a district, SBUSD created systemwide support for Common Core English language arts (ELA) implementation through professional development, coaching, and support. Every leader and coach in our district participated in over 40 hours of professional development during the 2012-13 school year to prepare for the Common Core rollout. We frontloaded leadership staff with learning and then supported them as they facilitated that learning at their sites. Each teacher participated in at least eight hours of professional development over the summer. During the first year of full ELA implementation (2013-14), we continued to provide professional development at the district level for leaders and coaches, with site-based support as needed. Our board goals were rewritten to focus on Common Core alignment in classrooms. This system was designed to support the instructional shifts necessary to meet the Common Core’s expectations.

As a district administrator, I work closely with our instructional coaches. We fund at least one coach position at each school to support teaching and learning. Coaches and principals participate in professional development through our leadership work. In addition, we meet monthly for our own professional learning as coaches, participating in book studies, professional readings, Twitter chats (#SBCOACHES), blog writing, and content learning. We spend much of our time discussing research-based instructional strategies and how to support teachers to incorporate these strategies into their daily practice. During my site visits, we enter classrooms armed with Common Core apps open on our phones, ready to analyze alignment within each lesson we observe.

Guiding my work each day is the belief that “to be productive and to accomplish organizational goals, schools need cohesive and cooperative relationships. Trust is essential to fostering these relationships” (Tschannen-Moran, 2004, p.16).

During site visits to work directly with coaches, we observe classroom instruction, discuss instructional strengths, and determine coaching messages that will enhance or improve instructional practices. Through multiple site visits a year, personal conversations with coaches, and individual feedback to coaches and teachers, I have developed collaborative, trusting relationships that let me support instructional shifts through on-the-spot coaching.

Changing instruction

Instruction doesn’t change overnight. Fully aligned Common Core instruction doesn’t happen by accident. Intentional professional development with ongoing coaching and support is critical. Research shows that on average it takes 20 separate instances of practice for a teacher to master a new skill, and this number may increase if a skill is exceptionally complex (Gulamhussein, 2013). The skills required for teachers to align their instruction to the complex expectations of the Common Core demand multiple practice opportunities for teachers and coaches. Coaching to support Common Core-aligned instruction requires in-depth knowledge of the standards as well as the instructional shifts necessary to meet the expectations of the standards.

Let’s return to the earlier classroom example. The Common Core calls for major shifts in instructional practices, greater focus on text complexity, deeper levels of student cognition, and more analytical reading and writing. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Reading Standard Six calls for students to assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text (NGA & CCSSO,

2010). There are many misconceptions about this standard. Teachers familiar with the idea of first-person versus third-person narration are teaching a limited version of their grade level’s expectation. As students progress out of the primary grades, this standard, especially in informational texts, requires students to understand point of view in relation to the author’s perspective, an unfamiliar concept to many teachers.

The 5th-grade classroom we entered that day was struggling with this concept. The teacher, while dedicated and embracing new learning, was still developing her understanding of this standard. She was directing her class to identify the author’s point of view, but students interpreted that to mean that they should state the opinion of the author. Students were initially using a text that wasn’t complex enough to do the thinking or analysis required of the standard. As we coached the teacher, she gave students a much richer, more complex text. I modeled for the teacher and students a connection between point of view and perspective, asking students to read the blurb about the author — who happened to be a holistic doctor — before reading the article. Students had been studying the use, or overuse, of personal devices. I asked them to think for a moment about what point of view or perspective this particular author might bring to the topic. This slight shift reframed the purpose of the standard for the teacher and gave students a more authentic purpose for reading the article.

We can affect this instructional shift only through direct contact with the teacher in the act of teaching. While professional development opportunities, supported planning time, and ongoing, site-level support provided the structure for this lesson, that one-on-one teachable moment truly turned the tide. From there, the teacher and coaches were able to share their new learning with the entire 5th-grade team during their professional learning community (PLC) meeting later that same day, affecting a larger instructional shift at the school. In fact, I received separate emails from each academic coach as well as the teacher after this visit. In each, they shared their new understandings of the standard in question as well as the instructional shifts necessary to meet the standard.

SBUSD’S initial professional learning centered on the instructional shifts necessary to meet the rigorous expectations of the Common Core. Personalized instructional coaching can address these shifts in action. Fisher and colleagues (2013) define five shifts in literacy instruction with full alignment to Common Core:

  • Focus on reading and writing to inform, persuade, and convey experiences;
  • Focus on increasing text complexity;
  • Focus on speaking and listening;
  • Focus on text-based evidence for argumentation; and
  • Focus on academic vocabulary and language.

In addition, the authors highlight the critical importance of PLCs as teachers begin to examine current practices and prepare for the instructional shifts necessary to meet the demands of the Common Core. In our district, we created ELA units of study at the district level. These units of study were written by teams of teachers to provide a scope and sequence for all teachers in our district. The units of study serve as the outline of our district’s guaranteed and viable curriculum, while allowing teachers the freedom to choose the particular texts that would meet their students’ needs within units. We left the day-to-day planning for instruction at the site level, to be done in PLCs. The process we introduced in our professional development highlighted the importance of PLCs to ensure that no teacher was working in isolation and that teachers were unpacking the new standards as a team. The more we know about Common Core expectations, the better we can align instruction to the standards and student needs.

Throughout our first year of Common Core ELA implementation, we learned a lot about standards, assessment, and expectations. We repeated the process of bringing teams of teachers together to write units of study for mathematics for our 2014-15 math implementation as well. Our site-based academic coaches supported daily instruction through demonstration lessons, classroom observations, and feedback to teachers. In addition, these critical staff members provided ongoing support to teams of teachers through PLCs and staff development opportunities.

The job of school leaders and everyday practitioners is to translate these theories into meaningful practice in the classroom. Ongoing, job-embedded professional development — through coaching, instructional rounds, lesson study, and high-functioning PLCs — is the structure we’ve created to support our district on this journey.


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Uline, C.L. (2013). Common Core English language arts in a PLC at work: Leader’s guide. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Gulamhussein, A. (2013). Effective professional development in the era of high-stakes accountability. Arlington, VA: Center for Public Education.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers (NGA & CCSSO). (2010). Common core state standards: College- and career-readiness anchor standards for reading. Washington, DC: Authors.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

AMY ILLINGWORTH ( was director of educational services for the South Bay Union School District in San Diego, Calif., until recently. Currently she is director of professional growth for Sweetwater Union High School District, Chula Vista, Calif.

© 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. Phi Delta Kappan 97 (6), 57-59