Get It Right Podcasts: Terri Hodges, President, Delaware PTA

By Get It Right

Dr. Terri Hodges, the president of the Delaware PTA, discusses the importance of proper planning, a collaborative process and the need for the separation of the standards and the tests to ensure progress. In Delaware, parents played a key role in implementation, a process that has taken more than three years.

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Welcome to Get It Right, Common Sense on the Common Core, a podcast series for the Learning First Alliance. Across the nation, we've embraced the possibility of college and career ready standards and their potential to transform teaching and learning. In community after community, we see the potential such standards offer to provide all children with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the global community.

As these standards come online, we see teachers, administrators, parents and communities working together to align these standards with curriculum, instruction and assessment. We also see communities that are struggling to move these standards into practice, focused almost exclusively on testing and the high-stakes decisions tied to it….

To help those committed to the standards ensure the proper implementation, the Learning First Alliance is spotlighting those communities that are working hard to get Common Core implementation right. Joining us today is Dr. Terri Hodges, president of the Delaware PTA.

So, Dr. Hodges, where do college and career ready standards currently stand in Delaware?

Hodges: In Delaware, we've been working really hard with the implementation process for Common Core, and we're moving forward quite well. In terms of the implementation for college and career standards, everything is right on track. We're working collaboratively with our partners in higher education, as well as early childhood and within the school districts, to ensure that everyone's on the same page and that our processes are aligned so that we can ensure the best outcomes for our students.

Q: What does that collaborative process look like?

Hodges: We have several different groups that we work with. So for instance, Delaware PTA works collaboratively with the Delaware State Education Association, which is our teachers union, as well as the Delaware Department of Education and the Rodel Foundation, which supports policy changes in public education.

And we have several work groups. We pull stakeholders from our business community, from the higher education community. We pull parents into the mix, bring everyone to the table…Multiple different work groups to kind of look at the standards, take 'em apart, look at 'em to see how do they best fit here in Delaware, what would be the best practice for implementation. We're heavily engaged with our district leadership – all 19 superintendents here in the State of Delaware – as well as curriculum specialists from our districts and teachers, those who are right on the forefront, the ones that are in the classrooms that will be making changes. They're at the table; they also have a part of the conversation.

And we kind of come together to look at best practices, what's going on in other states. With our professional development, the teachers come to the table to talk about what they need to make the implementation successful in their classroom, what resources they need, what type of communication support they need to be able to communicate these changes to their students and to their parents. We really are encouraging open communication at the ground level, with the teachers, with the parents, because that's where it all starts.

Q: It sounds like quite a comprehensive process. How long have all these stakeholders been at it?

Hodges: We've actually been working on this process for a little over three years. When the Common Core first started to come about…Shortly after Delaware adopted the standards, Delaware PTA received funding from our national organization, National PTA, that allowed us to go throughout the state and do a series of train the trainer events and workshops, and to bring more awareness and education about the Common Core Standards.

At that time we really focused on what the standards were, why were we changing the standards and what does this mean for our students, what would this mean for our teachers, and how could our parents use this information to have open communication with our teachers?

During this timeframe we also worked with the Delaware Department of Education to develop an implementation timeline, and basically that timeline was made public for everybody, all of our community in Delaware, and it gave a visual of where we were going as a state with the standards.

We're working on communication and marketing; we're working on professional development. We're looking at what resources our schools need, because we recognize that our districts are uniquely different and that the resources that they're going to need are going to be different. We are working to see, how are these resources going to fit with the various pockets of the populations throughout the state? Taking into consideration the landscape of Delaware…We have an urban community, we have a rural community and everything in between. We have English language learners, our special education community…so there are a lot of different populations that we really have to take into consideration and look at the standards and our timeline and really try to figure out, how is this going to work best for each of these groups, yet still maintain a cohesive and concise process?

Q: How important has that implementation plan and implementation timeline been to making sure that you've made the progress that you've made to date?

Hodges: It's been extremely important. The implementation with the Common Core Standards is critical. If you don’t have a good implementation plan in process that you are able to follow and tweak as needed, the implementation's not going to be a success. The implementation is critical to getting the buy in from your larger community; it's critical to helping your families and your teachers understand the changes that are taking place and at what point the changes will happen and what they can expect during this process.

You've got to keep in mind that even though all states, including Delaware, have always had standards, our standards in Delaware haven't changed since the nineties, so this was a really big shift, a big change, not only for our educators but for our students, for our parents. And it was really important to get them to understand not only why we were making this change, but how we were going to make this change and how we were going to engage them along this process.

And there have been times during the last several years where we've had to, as a larger stakeholder group, look at our implementation plan and say, "Okay. Well, we need to tweak this a little bit here. Maybe we need to extend the timeline on this component," or, "We're ready to move forward in this area." It's important to have that flexibility to ensure that the process is done effectively and efficiently.

Q: Why did the Delaware PTA choose to get involved in this in such a significant way?

Hodges: Well, as an advocacy organization…[PTA is] the largest volunteer parent advocacy organization, I should say, and we have a very big presence here in the State of Delaware. Delaware's a small state, so it makes our job a lot easier in terms of being able to cultivate those relationships with our parents, but what we've found throughout the years through our work with PTA is that…We are volunteers, we're parents—I'm a volunteer, I'm a mom, as are the rest of my board members. I have mothers, fathers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles.

We can relate to our parents. It's easy to have that conversation. And not that they can't have the conversation with the other stakeholder groups, but I think that it's different when the message is coming from a group or an organization that is doing this purely on a volunteer basis. We're not getting any reimbursement for this; we don't get any kickbacks. This is strictly voluntary, and so it helps us, like I said, cultivate those relationships.

Our parent organization, National PTA, very early on in the process worked with governors and other major stakeholder groups throughout the country when they decided to get on board and support the Common Core Standards. So as an affiliate of National PTA, obviously, Delaware PTA followed in line, but we wanted to make sure that we gave our community, our families here in Delaware, the best possible start to this process by making sure that they were fully aware, that they were fully educated, and that they knew where to find the resources.

Q: What has surprised you the most with regard to standards implementation in your state?

Hodges: The one thing that's really surprised me the most is…In comparison to other states, we really have not had a large amount of resistance, but as with anything else, we do have small pockets of resistance, particularly in the southern portion of the state. And I think that one of the things that surprises me the most is that we are hearing a lot of conspiracy theories, that this is a federal takeover, that the government is trying to get access to your child's data and sell it to for-profit companies, that this is a nationalized curriculum, that we're trying to dumb down the standards.

And I think that, despite all the information and all the work that we're doing here in Delaware to put forth the facts, it's still sort of surprising that there are groups that haven't been able to make that connection between the standards, the intent of the standards, and how that relates to college and career readiness, how these standards will prepare our students to be more successful upon leaving high school.

I think that…You know, one of the things I often tell people when we're out talking about the standards, or just in conversation, is we all want the same thing for our children. I think that we all want our children to receive the best possible education. We all hope that our children succeed in school, that they graduate school, and that they succeed in life, whether that's because they choose to go on to college or because they choose to get involved in a career.

When we're looking at the landscape in Delaware, when you look at the availability of jobs and the types of jobs that are available – the markets that are available – and then look at our surrounding universities and the programs that are being offered, it's surprising that people aren't making the connection to see the importance of working with our institutions to make sure that their programs and what they're offering incorporate what's being done with Common Core Standards, and that the university and the K-12 education are working with the business sector to ensure that when our students are prepared to enter the job market, they're entering with the skills that they need. It's really a very cyclical approach, and there are still some gaps with some groups that they're just not picking up on that.

Q: When you think about that resistance, what impact has the Common Core Assessment played in your implementation process?

Hodges: Well, we recently started putting out a lot more information on the assessments. As you may know, Delaware is a Smarter Balanced state; we are one of the governing states with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. We have been very transparent with the assessment of…You know, we are very fortunate in that where other states are having issues with technology and training and learning how to use computers for assessments, we don't have that problem because our students have been using computers for the assessments, and we have the technology in place.

But one of the messages that we've been trying to get through—and I think that because the assessment is coming so close on the heels of Common Core, individuals…People are automatically lumping everything into one category, and we're trying to get people to understand is that they are two separate things. They're two very separate initiatives. We have the Common Core Standards, which, again, are standards that are in place that are designed to be more rigorous and to ensure that our students are college and career ready, and then we have an assessment. And the assessment is in place, and we're working to make sure that that assessment is aligned to the standards.

So we have to make sure that the assessment that the students are taking is actually assessing what they're being taught, so while there's some indirect connection there, it does definitely need to be looked at as two separate initiatives. And I think that the assessments have kind of impacted the implementation of Common Core because people haven't been able to look at those, too, so there's still a lot of uncertainty with the assessment right now.

We do get a lot of questions on it, in terms of the accountability piece, in terms of the actual growth model, how the assessment will apply to our special education populations. And those are all very valid concerns, and those are all issues that are being worked out at the state level, and also with the consortium. But what needs to be understood is that the implementation process for Common Core is still going to go through that’s still very separate. We will align the assessment, but in the meantime the expectation is that our children will still rise to the occasion to meet the standards that are in place.

Q: With that in mind, Delaware has been at implementation longer than just about any state. You were one of the earliest adopters in moving forward with this. Looking at those three years, do you believe that if there had been high-stakes consequences immediately attached to the test two or three years ago that it would have slowed this implementation process?

Hodges: Absolutely. We're trying to take this process very slowly; we're trying to go through a very thoughtful and efficient way of implementing not only the standards but making the shift to the new assessment. Had we tied the assessment to the standards at the outset three years ago, it definitely would have slowed the process. It would not have allowed the department of education, our teachers union and educators, our parents, our districts…They would not have had the time to react, to vet the process, to ensure proper alignment within the districts in terms of district resources, whether those be financial or human resources. It would've kind of been like putting the cart before the horse.

Q: Looking over your experiences, what would you say is the most important lesson that you've learned throughout this implementation process?

Hodges: I was actually just talking about this with one of my colleagues the other day, because, as you know, Delaware has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, so we are also in the works for implementation on that. And it's great because we have the ability to go back and look at our process with Common Core and see what worked, what didn’t work, where could we have changed things. If we were able to go back and do it differently, what would we have done differently?

And the one thing that I've said that I think is so important to this process, and has been and will continue to be regardless of what it is, is the communication piece. Everything that is done has to be completely transparent. I think that sometimes when attempting to put new processes in place or to develop new initiatives, there's a tendency to keep the information internally within the working groups or the steering committees, leadership teams, whoever's working on it, because you never want to go public with anything until you have what you believe to be a really strong product or a really strong proposal. But, again, Delaware's a small state, and Common Core is a very national thing, so everybody knows something's going on. So when you're working on these things internally but you're not communicating your processes, it creates a lot of breeding for rumors, for hesitancy, for a lot of unease. People start to feel like you're hiding something, "Okay. They're working, but they're not telling us…Something's wrong. There's something they don't want us to know."

And that couldn't be further from the truth, but again it just goes back to that concept that—you know, and I think this is within any organization, any industry, not just education. There's always hesitancy about coming forward and putting out a half-baked plan. You want to make sure you have all your ducks in a row before you put something forward to the public, and that you have the ability to answer the questions that you know are going to come with it.

But with that being said, I think that being as transparent as possible, even if you're saying, "This is the initiative we're working on. This is where we're at right now, and we realize that this process is not complete and that you will have a lot of questions, and we're working towards those."

And I think that it's also important to realize that it's okay to say, "That's a great question. We do not have the answer for you right now, but we're working on it." I think that is the most important piece of advice that I can give any organization or any individual, to realize that it is okay to say, "We're not sure yet," or, "That is something that we're working on." Acknowledge the questions, acknowledge the fears, acknowledge the doubt and deal with it head on. Don’t wait and let it brew and turn into something bigger than what it needs to be.

Q: Those are terrific lessons. I'm sort of curious…There are, obviously, a number of states that are facing challenges in implementation. Based on those lessons, what would be that one piece of advice you would offer to parents in those states?

Hodges: The one piece of advice that I would offer to parents in other states…Keep in mind I've had an opportunity over the last couple years, through my work with PTA and different travels, different events, to speak with parents and leaders in other states. And every time I'm around someone from another state, it's almost always one of the first questions I ask, "What are you guys doing with Common Core? How's it working? What are your concerns?," because I'm interested in knowing.

But what I would advise parents, regardless of what state they're in, is to ask the questions. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions…Don’t feel like you're uninformed or you're uneducated because you're asking a question. Because the process is very different in every state, and I think that, especially now in these times with social media and the way that the public and the press has gotten a hold of this, it's very easy to get wrong information. You can be online or on Facebook or on Twitter and you can read about something that's happening in New York and not realize that just because it's happening in New York doesn’t mean it’s happening in Delaware, or it doesn’t mean it's happening in Kentucky. We've got two separate consortiums; we've got PARCC and we've got Smarter Balanced, and the processes are different. The assessments are different.

We've got states, like you said, that are at different junctures in the implementation process, so I think that sometimes when people hear things, especially when it's something negative in regards to Common Core, regardless of what state it is, it automatically gets internalized and somehow deflected back on their own state. So it's really important for parents, if you have questions, go to your teacher. Go to your building principal. Go to your superintendent. You can always reach out to the department of education. I know in Delaware our department of education has a hotline; parents do call in. The teachers union…I think that sometimes, because it's a teachers union, maybe the parents feel they can't approach them or they can't ask them because they represent the teachers, but they can. You can contact your teachers union. There are lots of organizations in states, like there's PTA. We've got a PTA in every state. There are a lot of other community organizations that serve schools and do a lot of K-12 education initiatives and policies. It's okay to approach these organizations and ask these questions and hold your schools accountable.

I tell parents all the time. I tell parents in districts, "Hold your school accountable. Hold your district accountable. Ask them to have a town hall. Talk to your superintendent or your district leadership and, on behalf of your school or whatever parent group you have in place, say you need more information, you want more information. And do it publically. Get everybody together so that the information is being given at the same time and you're not getting bits and pieces that are trickling around. Work with your school leadership, your district leadership to ensure that the resources are available, whether they're on the school website or district website or through some other social media venue."

And another important piece is other informal groups, for instance like Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, sports venues. I was talking to a colleague the other day who is trying to make some contact with parents and is considering holding a town hall to go over some of these issues. And I think a lot of times we get tunnel vision, and we stick to our traditional methods of communications, distribution lists through the district or through our school. And I told him—I said, "You will never find the number of parents at a PTO meeting or a PTA meeting or a school event as you will on the soccer field, on the basketball court. Attend those sports events. Come with your information. Give it to the parents. They want it, but you've got to go to them." You've got to work with your community members, your churches, and try…Work with one another to spread the word. The more information, the better. Knowledge is power.

Q: Hodges, president of the Delaware PTA, thank you so much.

Hodges: Sure. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

*This transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and flow.

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