By Ash Vasudeva and Amy Slamp

Common Core and Literacy Design Collaborative tools provide the foundation for strengthening teaching and learning.

MC_CC1604_VasudevaWith states and districts implementing new academic standards based on the Common Core State Standards, teachers have more opportunities than ever to collaborate around the shared goals of strengthening curriculum design, classroom practices, and student learning. Building from this premise, the Colorado Education Initiative and The Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, launched the three-year Common Assignment Study (CAS) in 2013. This project involves 45 English language arts (ELA), history, and science teachers from Colorado and Kentucky who collaborate in person and virtually to design and teach two common assignments — instructional units that promote college-ready academic standards and contain common performance tasks for students — each year.

The project aims to answer these questions:

  • How do teachers working in different states and districts successfully design, revise, and implement common units that meet their respective state and district standards?
  • Can these codesigned units serve as evidence of academic growth and capture knowledge and skills not demonstrated on a typical test?
  • How does student performance on the CAS units compare within and across schools, districts, and states?
  • How can different patterns of performance among students lead to conversations among teachers and administrators about instructional strategies and resources?
  • Can the CAS units potentially be used in conjunction with state educator effectiveness systems?

In the first two years of the project, the CAS units have been taught to more than 9,600 students in 12 districts, and the study has yielded valuable lessons, research findings, and insights from teachers. As other states and districts look to design units that meet new standards, the CAS project can help inform efforts to improve teaching and learning across the country.

Alignment to standards — without standardization

The Common Core standards allow teachers from different states to start from the same place: the standards they want students to learn. With this common foundation, teachers proceed in the unit design process by discussing and deciding on the content and essential questions they want students to explore. These choices help them construct common assignments and activities and determine the texts, unit assessments, and rubrics they will use.

The cross-state teams involved in the study met for the first time at an in-person convening in summer 2013, where they embarked on the unit development process. Teachers spent time looking at their respective state standards and comparing areas of focus in their curricula. For example, the 7th-grade science team from one school had usually focused on life science, while another school’s team focused on physical science. After parsing out these differences — and a fair amount of compromising — each cross-state team decided on a unit focus and began building out their unit plans. This process is replicated at each semiannual in-person convening, and teachers report that the collaboration becomes smoother each time they meet.

A key tool the teachers draw upon while developing their units is the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) approach. LDC is a collection of flexible formative assessments and performance tasks that allow teachers to foster college-ready literacy skills across multiple subject areas. All LDC modules are aligned to the Common Core, but they can be adapted to different texts and strategies as well as to local standards. “[LDC] gives you not just a framework, but it gives you all kinds of resources, and then you still have that flexibility,” said Jessica May, an ELA teacher at Bill Reed Middle School in Loveland, Colo.

CAS teachers said the LDC framework and resources have helped them teach stronger, more targeted lessons that support core standards. “If it didn’t address the standards or the unit’s focus, then it belonged somewhere else,” said Jennifer McDermid, English department chair at Colorado’s Thompson Valley High School, of the CAS design process. “You just need to focus on what the standards you’ve picked really say and what it will take for you to get to these standards.” Many of the CAS teachers agree with McDermid: More than 90% of them said their spring 2014 unit aligned well with both the Common Core and their school’s curriculum.

While the units offer alignment to standards, they do not force standardization. Teachers said they still have flexibility to make their own choices to meet the needs of their students. “If your students need this, but our students need this, you can do that,” said Rosalind Koop, a middle school ELA teacher at Woodland Middle School in the Kenton County School District in Kentucky. “Let’s get to the common goal with one another, but how you get there — trust yourself.” For example, Koop and her co-teacher, Melissa Henderson, adapted their CAS unit to spend more time up front giving students extra practice on specific components of the writing process, such as developing a thesis statement and organizing an introduction. Similarly, Robin Reid, who teaches history at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky., chose to use unabridged primary source texts, rather than excerpts, to make the CAS unit more rigorous for her Advanced Placement students.

Flexibility to engage students and meet their needs

The flexible yet standards-based nature of the CAS units has had a positive effect on student work as well. In a survey, 92% of CAS teachers said the spring 2014 unit was flexible enough to meet the needs of all their students. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of teachers said their students were engaged in the spring 2014 CAS unit and that CAS has positively influenced student learning.

“Students are gaining stronger instruction, they are exposed to units that go deeper and are more rigorous, and they are getting to have experiences that their teachers haven’t tried before,” said Amy Spicer, director of professional learning for the Colorado Education Initiative.

Henderson and Koop have seen a higher level of performance from students than in previous years. “What we were doing was helping the students really grasp the skills and understand how to analyze a piece of text and how to use it,” Koop said. And it’s not just ELA teachers who are seeing students strengthen their literacy skills. Lafayette High School social studies teacher Brison Harvey said the LDC tasks encourage his students “to look into the primary source documents with an investigative eye.” And Lisa Adams, a biology teacher at Thompson Valley High School in Loveland, Colo., sees an improvement in students’ writing, even among lower-performing students. She appreciates how the LDC helps her students better understand the role that writing plays in science, saying that now “they know how to apply what they’ve learned.”

Districts saw promising trends on their 2015 state assessment results. For example, in Thompson County, Colo., 41% of students participating in CAS met or exceeded the 10th-grade ELA standards, compared to 28% of students in non-CAS schools. Similarly, in Kenton County 68% of CAS students met or exceeded standards for 10th-grade ELA compared to the district average of 63%.

In focus groups, students back up these perspectives from teachers and report that they enjoy the CAS units’ hands-on aspects, which improve their understanding of the content. Students also have expressed interest in the cross-state collaboration aspect of their teachers’ project. Renee Boss of the Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky notes that “they will sometimes ask, ‘What are the students in Colorado doing? What do they think of this?’”

At the Center for Assessment, a partner on the project, researchers are beginning to analyze whether student work demonstrates that students learned what the units were designed to teach. The center is also focusing on the potential of CAS units in nontested grades and subjects to become part of states’ teacher effectiveness systems. Because high-quality assessments and multiple measures of student learning are built into the units, they are connected to the work teachers do every day in the classroom. Therefore, they could replace the need for additional accountability assessments that are often disconnected from teachers’ practice. According to the center’s brief ( Assignment Study and Teacher Effectiveness in Colorado SM15.pdf) on the work, these common assignments “offer considerable opportunities for providing evidence in support of both student learning outcomes and teaching practices.”

CAS collaboration catching on

The CAS project demonstrates that when teachers get together and have time and space to collaborate, great things happen. “The cool thing about CAS is that we had such different tools and resources to contribute,” explained Kaitlin Newlin, another ELA teacher at Bill Reed Middle School in Loveland. “By yourself, there’s no way to bring such a powerful unit together.” Henderson agrees, saying, “I learned things I could implement in my classroom that I never would have found.” Other CAS teachers back this up, with 90% reporting that CAS has helped them find effective strategies for teaching their subject matter.

Collaboration among the CAS teachers takes many forms. They ask questions of their team, share resources and additional materials, discuss what works in their classrooms to help others prepare, and work together to revise activities or prompts. Similarly, by scoring student work together — using a common protocol developed for the project — CAS teachers are able to calibrate their goals and expectations for students and share instructional insights with one another.

Although most CAS teachers have found face-to-face collaboration to be the most productive way to work together, the teams use other methods to keep in touch in between their semiannual, in-person meetings. Many of the teachers frequently check in with each other through email, conference calls, cloud-based documents, webinars, and social media. Newlin recounts how closely she and her Kentucky team members corresponded during one CAS unit: “We would teach one class and then, in between, in those four minutes, we would run to our computer, and we would literally have 40 emails . . . ‘I just tried this. I can’t find this resource.’ And it was constant.”

Still, collaboration is not an easy, clear-cut process, especially when teachers come from different places and have different styles of teaching and communicating. Some team members are less active online and therefore less involved in the virtual collaboration that occurs between in-person meetings. Facilitators or teacher team members sometimes reach out to bring less active members into the conversation. On the other hand, some team members can have a tendency to dominate the unit development and collaboration process. “There are several voices that need to be heard, and some voices are much stronger than others,” said Henderson. Yet Newlin points out that these voices often offer support, explaining that CAS is about “. . . always having somebody — whether it’s next door, in your same classroom, down the street, across the country — to throw ideas with, to say, ‘This isn’t working, I need help.’”

“These teachers are gaining a collaborative community that goes beyond anything they’ve ever been exposed to before,” Spicer said. “They’re learning new techniques, they’re working with content experts, and they’re developing a community of practice that can be sustained.”

Many CAS teachers also have developed new leadership skills, and administrators report seeing growth in the participating teachers. By summer 2014, teachers were largely facilitating the unit-planning sessions. And according to a study of the participants, almost three-quarters of CAS teachers have shared CAS units with colleagues who aren’t part of the study. “If they want to add something to the units they can,” said May. “There’s plenty of flexibility in CAS for people to bring their own ideas.”

Many CAS teachers also are taking initiative by reworking other units they teach so that they mirror the CAS units by beginning with the standards and essential questions they want students to explore. Harvey, for example, plans to use a strategy for analyzing political cartoons — which he learned through CAS — throughout the curriculum. And Tara Sides, principal at Woodland Middle, said the strategies Koop and Henderson are using to analyze student writing can be applied across the curriculum as well.

Some district leaders also report that they want to apply what their teachers have learned through CAS more broadly. “We have this vision that we want to create common assignments across the district — sort of as benchmarks,” said Elizabeth Tronoski, a learning and innovation specialist for Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky. Similarly, the pilot effort that took place in Thompson County, Colo., is being expanded across the district. There, teachers are using the CAS approach to highlight evidence of student learning tied to the Colorado Academic Standards.

And CAS is beginning to grow beyond the pilot districts. In a joint meeting in summer 2015, participants from Colorado and Kentucky as well as researchers on the project provided guidance to new districts joining the study. Key takeaways and recommendations included the following:

  • Allow teachers the time to “unpack differences in state and district standards” and discuss how to manage those differences.
  • Give teachers time to collaborate while they are actually implementing the units, either virtually or at the school or district level.
  • Document and share the strategies that teachers are using to differentiate the units to meet student needs.
  • Provide clear communication about the links between CAS and teacher effectiveness systems.
  • Involve administrators in CAS so they can provide instructional support, and involve leaders at the schools in “broadening and deepening” implementation.
  • Find leadership roles for teachers through CAS.

With teachers around the country sharing more common ground — thanks to the Common Core — teachers have more opportunities to share knowledge and resources as well. By collaborating and learning from each other, teachers can strengthen their practice and ultimately help students succeed at higher levels.


Notably, the project’s 11th-grade history unit, The Cold War (, and 10th-grade English language arts unit, Words Matter (, received exemplary ratings from EQuIP (, a nationwide peer-review initiative. The 8th-grade English language arts unit, U.S. Westward Expansion, also received an exemplary rating.

Note: Research for Action conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups with study participants in the summer of 2014. This article draws on findings from that research.

ASH VASUDEVA and AMY SLAMP are senior program officers at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, Wash.

© 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International