Executive Summary

Chicago public school principals and their teacher teams are leading one of the biggest changes to teaching and learning in decades.

The adoption of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Chicago has changed the way students learn and the way teachers teach. The result is that learning more closely mimics real-world problem solving, even in the early grades.

Chicago principals are uniquely positioned to lead this work. Compared with other principals nationally, Chicago principals have wide-ranging flexibility to select and implement curriculum, purchase resources, develop scheduling supports and provide professional development for teachers.

It is worth noting that the implementation work done by Chicago’s principals and their teacher teams has occurred alongside increasing academic gains across the city. Since the beginning of implementation in the 2011-12 school year, the number of students on-track for and graduating from high school in CPS has increased at least 13 percentage points while reading and math attainment scores on the Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) assessment have increased by at least 10 percentage points. A continued focus on rigorous instruction can support further gains.

Based on discussions with principals whose schools are experiencing rapid improvement, The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund) identified four promising practices related to implementation of the higher standards in public schools:


Create a Common Vision

Create shared expectations of what good teaching and learning look like. Choose a quality curriculum that supports that vision and helps build a common language around teaching and learning across grade levels and content areas.

Jessica Reisner
Jessica Reisner Tarkington School of Excellence

Drives instruction using a CCSS-informed vision reinforced by common instructional expectations and curriculum.

See it in Practice


Build the Right Team

Establish structures for cultivating a strong, mission-driven team of educators that collaborate around meeting higher expectations for teaching and learning. Carefully fill instructional gaps on teams when hiring new teachers.

Konstantinos Patsiopoulos
Konstantinos Patsiopoulos Holden Elementary School

Leverages structures for teacher leadership, collaboration and hiring to build a staff committed to more rigorous instruction.

See it in Practice


Help the Team Grow

Develop a professional development system across grade levels and content areas. Create time for feedback, collaboration and planning around concepts like higher expectations, increased rigor and student ownership of learning.

Tiffany Phinn
Tiffany Phinn Whistler Elementary School

Used professional learning cycles across the school to build her team's capacity for higher standards.

See it in Practice


Use Data to Improve

Leverage existing or create new CCSS-aligned assessments to measure student progress over time. Use assessment data across grades and content areas to determine the success of the CCSS implementation and improve instruction.

Melissa Sweazy
Melissa Sweazy Acero - Santiago Elementary School

Creates CCSS-aligned, performance-based assessments with her team to inform instructional practice.

See it in Practice

Even with all the work that has been done, there is more to do. A 2017 report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium) found that administrators feel less prepared than teachers in their ability to support implementation of the CCSS.1 The Fund developed this report to highlight examples of strong CCSS transitions and to promote continued focus on higher standards for teaching and learning citywide.

Principals Continue to Lead with Support

In the 2016-17 school year, implementation of the CCSS continued across the city. Principals pushed their schools toward more rigorous standards and continued to look for and receive new resources to support this effort.

For example, The CPS Office of Teaching and Learning offered peer development opportunities like Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) targeting teachers, administrators and a combination of both to help implement higher standards in the classroom. With philanthropic support, CPS also maintained partnerships with DePaul University, the Erikson Institute and the University of Chicago, which provided instructional support and coaching for both math and English Language Arts (ELA) to networks of schools.

At the same time, nonprofit organizations like The Fund offered principals the opportunity to work together on this important change. The Fund's PLCs provided principals a chance to learn instructional strategies and change management techniques from principal leaders across the city.

Even with these additional supports, it is clear there is more to be done. Principals emphasize that such an instructional shift requires time, support and commitment from educators, Central Office leaders, parents and students.

“Common Core is application; learn the skills and apply them to the real world.”

“Before the Common Core, in the era of No Child Left Behind, we taught a lot of discrete skills, but students weren’t thinking about the why,” said Javier Arriola-Lopez, principal of Carson Elementary School in Gage Park, which has seen significant growth on NWEA MAP since beginning the CCSS implementation. “Common Core is application; learn the skills and apply them to the real world. The skills students master are aligned toward college, giving them the capital to be successful. Although CPS has a lot of initial helpful information on Common Core, this change has been difficult, and we still need more help to implement further.”

Javier is not alone. Administrators feel less prepared than teachers to support implementation of the CCSS, according to a UChicago Consortium study.6 Similarly, in The Fund’s 2015 Principal Engagement Survey, 58 percent of principals said they wanted support in implementing the CCSS. Subsequent surveys suggested coaching teachers in specific content areas and creating effective professional development related to the CCSS would be particularly valuable supports.

What's Next?

School leaders across Chicago can leverage the promising practices described in this report.

To help principals continue to meet that challenge of higher standards in a collaborative learning environment, CPS has grounded their new academic vision in the implementation of the CCSS.

With the belief that principals are the key levers to providing the support teachers need to make this change, The Fund is supporting CPS’ vision by creating a CCSS-focused PLC for the 2017-18 school year. The PLC will facilitate the sharing of promising practices across geographic boundaries and will enable principals to support their peers in implementing the CCSS with fidelity. Both charter and district principals will participate, with the goal of providing principals with the skills and resources to transform teaching and learning. We hope that this collaboration will help students across Chicago reach a new level of performance as educators embrace the higher standards for all.

While student achievement has improved dramatically in Chicago over the past decade – across multiple dimensions and multiple metrics – the city’s economic future depends on continued improvement. More students need to receive a rigorous education that prepares them to enroll in and graduate from college and to move on to successful, fulfilling careers. Academic expectations for students must remain high; the CCSS are an important tool. Through implementation of the CCSS, principals and school communities can support Chicago’s students to reach new levels of excellence.

Why Common Core?

Students in the United States are not yet ready for the economic future. In the 1970s, 72 percent of U.S. jobs were held by those with a high school degree or less.7 In 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require some post-secondary credential.8 However, only about a quarter of ACT test takers were considered college-ready in all four tested areas.9 Almost 60 percent of college students need remedial classes, costing time and money, and increasing the likelihood of dropping out.10

In 2015, data suggest that only 22% of U.S. ninth graders will graduate from a four-year college by the age of 25.11

data chart

Numbers like these suggest that students are not getting the preparation they need for college and career success. To help fix this problem, the CCSS offer a more rigorous set of learning goals in mathematics and ELA for grades K-12. Adopted in 42 states nationwide, the CCSS outline what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade if they hope to complete college.


A Higher Bar for Instruction in Chicago


CCSS developed


CCSS adopted by Illinois


CPS begins use of CCSS with early adopter schools


All CPS leaders begin planning for CCSS


All CPS K-12 ELA teachers use CCSS


All CPS K-12 math teachers use CCSS

Chicago principals and school communities have been on the forefront of the transition to the CCSS. CPS began early adoption efforts with 60 pilot schools in the 2011-12 school year and laid out a three-year plan for citywide implementation by the 2013-14 school year. To achieve this ambitious goal, CPS provided centralized training to support all schools in this transition. By the 2014-15 school year, the CCSS became the official ELA and math standards for the entire district and teachers used the CCSS to design lesson and unit plans, and to create instructional materials like homework, quizzes and unit tests. As a result, many teachers radically changed the way they teach. In turn, student learning in schools with strong CCSS implementation looks very different than learning in a more rote environment.

“Common Core emphasizes instructional shifts in ELA and math that prepare students for the work they will actually have to do in college and career,” said Kate Kane, now principal of Peterson Elementary School and a part of the Peterson team that adopted the CCSS early. “In ELA, this means a focus on articulating arguments and comprehending informational texts. In math, this means persisting in problem solving and critical thinking. The Common Core demands this because that’s what actual thinkers and doers have to do in the real world.”

In Chicago, principals have expansive autonomy over curriculum, professional development and budget to meet the more rigorous standards. Using this autonomy, principals built processes and structures to implement the CCSS successfully, including: replacing obsolete curriculum, unit plans and text books; developing professional development for their teams around CCSS instruction, unit plans and assessments; and redirecting school budgets and personnel to reinforce the new focus on CCSS.

Philanthropy and

Common Core in Chicago

For more than a decade, Chicago has cultivated a sustained, cross-sector focus on improving educator quality, fostering innovation, and creating strong learning environments – including helping schools transition to the CCSS. Since the first year of implementation in the 2011-12 school year, Chicago philanthropies, including The Chicago Community Trust, CME Group Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, have helped schools receive the resources they need in both ELA and math to make this immense instructional shift.

Building on the resources provided by these partners, CPS distributed content broadly. At the same time, partners such as DePaul University, the Erikson Institute and the University of Chicago offered Teacher Leadership Institutes, coaching and PLCs to select networks to provide teachers and administrators with professional development on the CCSS. As with any major instructional change, teachers and administrators benefited from examples of successful practices, explanation of new concepts and the opportunity to engage with their peers and experts on their practice.

In the 2017-18 school year, CME Group Foundation will continue to lead this work by supporting DePaul University and the University of Chicago’s work with Networks 9 and 11 on pre-K through fifth grade STEM instruction.

“Common Core emphasizes instructional shifts in ELA and math that prepare students for the work they will actually have to do in college and career.”

Kate KanePrincipal of Peterson Elementary School

As Standards Rise, Chicago Students Continue to Succeed

60 percent of Chicago elementary school teachers report they feel very familiar with and very prepared to teach the new standards, an indication that principals’ efforts around the CCSS implementation are already showing promising results in schools.12 In particular, individual teachers have a clear focus on the main shifts related to ELA and math. These shifts include using more complex and academic language for ELA and linking topics and thinking across grade levels in math.

As educators better understand the CCSS, teachers expect more from their students, and students are meeting those expectations. Since 2013, the percentage of students at or above the national average on NWEA MAP increased by almost 14 percentage points for reading, to 60 percent, and almost 10 percentage points for math, to 55 percent. The 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, also called the Nation’s Report Card, showed continued academic growth in both math and reading. Chicago’s gains in eighth grade math and fourth grade reading were among the nation’s largest.

Chicago Students Rise to Meet National Standards

Percentage of CPS Students at or Above the National Average Performance*
percentage chart percentage chart percentage chart

*As measured by the NWEA MAP Assessment for third through eighth graders

Chicago principals see these effects on a daily basis. “My school changed through the implementation of the Common Core State Standards,” said Principal Javier Arriola-Lopez. “Not only are students more engaged with the material, but the way teachers fundamentally teach has changed for the better.”

“Not only are students more engaged with the material, but the way teachers fundamentally teach has changed for the better.”

Javier Arriola-LopezPrincipal of Carson Elementary School

The Common Core State Standards

The CCSS stem from a long tradition of states moving toward better, more rigorous standards. Before the CCSS, many states adopted standards that prioritized specific knowledge rather than critical thinking or the application of skills. The shift to the CCSS reinforced skill building over time, allowing students to understand the why behind what they are learning.

Critically, the CCSS are not a curriculum, nor are they tests. They provide guidelines on what students should learn in each grade, not what students learn on a daily basis. Generally speaking, local educators and district leaders decide how best to meet the standards in their communities and schools. They choose materials, curriculum and assessments, and they modify pace and sequence to meet the needs of the students they serve.

Governors, state commissioners of education and other state officials developed the CCSS through membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.13 The cross-state nature of the work was designed to facilitate collaboration and to allow for states to benchmark their progress outside their own geographic region. By the 2016-17 school year, 42 states, four territories and the District of Columbia considered the CCSS as their state standards, catalyzing high-quality resource creation and collaboration across states.

CCSS versus old Illinois Standards in Fifth Grade Math

Old Learning Standard
Solve one- and two-step problems involving whole numbers, fractions, and decimals using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
[IL BM 6B2]
New Learning Standard
Explain why multiplying a given number by a fraction greater than 1 results in a product greater than the given number (recognizing multiplication by whole numbers greater than 1 as a familiar case); explaining why multiplying a given number by a fraction less than 1 results in a product smaller than the given number; and relating the principle to fraction equivalence a/b=(nxa)(nxb) to the effect of multiplying a/b by 1.
[5.NF – 5b]

As of 2017, 42 states, 4 territories and the District of Columbia have adopted CCSS.14

Map where CCSS has been adopted
About this report

In the 2014-15 school year, CPS K-12 teachers began using the CCSS in both math and ELA. Results of The Fund’s Principal Engagement Survey during that time period suggest that Chicago principals still want help making the transition. Based on this information, The Fund committed to working with principals to profile innovative practices around implementation of the CCSS.

Why Profile Principals?

No great school exists without great leadership, and principals are the leaders of Chicago’s public schools. Among school-related impacts on student learning, principal leadership is second only to teaching and accounts for 25 percent of the total school influence on a child’s academic performance. This is because – like the leaders in all industries – principals are a major contributor to the retention or turnover of their teachers. Our best principals keep great teachers, even through times of transition or resource reduction.

Great principals can achieve dramatic results – but it takes time. Our data show that Chicago principals reach their peak effectiveness around year four, which is about the length of a single Chicago principal contract. Therefore, this investment is not static. We must provide strategic supports to principals at different junctures in their development.

About The Chicago Public Education Fund

The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund) is a nonprofit organization working to increase the number of great public schools in Chicago by supporting talented principals and enabling effective educator teams to reinvent classroom learning. Our current efforts seek to more than double the number of top principals in Chicago’s public schools by 2018 and to enable the city’s best educators to redefine what’s possible for our schools and students.

Visit www.thefundchicago.org for more information.


We would like to thank Fund team members Ariela Abrevaya, Emily Boyce, Anne Filer, Nelson Gerew and Lauren B. Rapp for their contributions to this report. We are especially grateful to Javier Arriola-Lopez, Kate Kane, Jessica Reisner, Konstantinos Patsiopoulos, Tiffany Phinn and Melissa Sweazy who agreed to be profiled in our report.

Additionally, we would like to thank our partners at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), including the Office of Teaching & Learning, and leaders in the charter community for vital information on the CCSS. We also appreciate the input of our Educator Advisory Committee (EAC) and other school leaders who contributed to this report.