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Preparing for Common Core

As states prepare to adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and administer computer-based assessments in the 2014-2015 school year, many school districts have yet to begin preparations for implementing digital learning strategies required by these initiatives.

In an effort to help school districts get ready for CCSS and online assessments, the Alliance for Excellent Education has released a report, "The Nation's Schools Are Stepping Up to Higher Standards," which identifies the four major challenges facing public school districts and outlines the seven essential elements of any comprehensive digital strategy for overcoming these challenges.

According to the report, there are four major challenges facing school districts:

  • Increasing needs for higher student achievement;
  • Shrinking budgets;
  • The future of teaching; and
  • Growing technology needs of students and society.

Student Achievement
The report provided an number of concerning statistics regarding student achievement. Only 72 percent of all students graduate from high school, and the graduation rate for minority students is only 50 percent. Of the 72 percent of kids who do graduate, only a quarter of them are actually ready for college-level work. A significant number of students require remedial work when they begin higher education studies. However, those students are far less likely to graduate from college than their better-prepared counterparts. According to the report, these low rates of high school graduation and college readiness are becoming an increasing concern as more and more jobs require post-secondary education and the number of jobs accessible to high school dropouts dwindles.

Budgets
While standards for education are increasing, schools are simultaneously having to do more with less. Education budgets are shrinking because of low property tax revenue, little prospect of new federal funding, and cuts to state education funds. According to the report, per-student funding has decreased in most states since 2008.

Teaching
While school budgets are feeling the pinch, so are teaching staff. According to the report, nearly 300,000 teaching jobs have been lost since 2008, and turnover rates for teachers are high, with 50 percent leaving the profession within their first five years. In 1987, the average teacher had 15 years of experience; today most have only one or two years. Today's teachers, with less experience and fewer resources, are finding it more difficult to meet the diverse needs of their students, and many are being asked to teach subjects about which they lack expertise, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Technology
Technology is the icing on top of this layer-cake of challenges. It can help schools address the challenges of student achievement, budget shortfalls, and teacher strain, but the technology itself presents a challenge. As stated in the report, "simply slapping a netbook on top of a textbook will not lead to improvements. Effective educational technology strategies must link the 'three Ts'--teaching, technology, and use of time--with overall whole-school reform strategies and proven pedagogical practices to accelerate the pace of improvement and ensure that all students benefit from the opportunity that digital learning offers."

According to the report, there are seven interconnected aspects of education where technology and digital learning can affect student achievement:

  • Teaching and professional learning;
  • Use of time;
  • Budgeting and resources;
  • Data systems and online assessment;
  • Curriculum and instruction;
  • Technology and infrastructure; and
  • Academic support and resources.

Teaching and Professional Learning
The adoption of the Common Core State Standards and computer-based assessments puts significant demands on teachers. According to the report, they need professional development to ensure they're prepared to teach to the new standards, and they need time to bring their lesson plans and instructional materials into alignment with the new standards. They also need training in new instructional practices that use technology to teach 21st century skills to students. And technology can help them get that training, through online professional development programs and online collaboration with colleagues.

Use of Time
Technology enables learning to take place anywhere, anytime, according to the report. Schools can embrace new educational approaches, such as online and blended learning, flipping the classroom, project-based learning, and community-based internships. Technology also enables students to learn at their own pace, so education can become more individualized to the needs of students.

Budget and Resources
While school budgets are shrinking, the report offered numerous suggestions for integrating technology, such as adopting technologies that increase efficiency and save costs and ensuring that technology expenditures are aligned with the overall vision and mission of digital learning initiatives. The report also suggested working digital learning costs into annual maintenance and operations budgets rather than relying on fleeting sources of funding, such as grants.

Data Systems and Online Assessment
Technology provides an opportunity to collect data and use if effectively, according to the report. Schools can use it to track student progress and identify those who are at risk of failure, identify areas for instructional improvement, and identify professional development priorities. But to use the data effectively, schools need to have the appropriate tools and skills in place, which requires staff training, adaptive learning systems, and an attitude that supports evidence-based decision making.

Curriculum and Instruction
The Common Core State Standards require higher levels of achievement for all students. According to the report, digital learning and technology can help students meet those standards by providing more opportunities for personalized learning and integrating 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, innovation, and self-direction, into the curriculum. To accomplish these goals, educators will need the skills to implement these types of strategies in a way that adds value to the learning process.

Technology and Infrastructure
"Technology and infrastructure provide a wide spectrum of options for education, including the power to conduct online and formative assessments; access to digital content; learning and communication platforms; blended learning options; and online teacher professional development," according to the report. But the technology itself must be up to the tasks. Schools need enough suitable devices for everybody, an adequate network and support system, and a formal review and replacement cycle.

Academic Support and Resources
The report also pointed out the importance of support services and resources, such as social services, after-school programs, and enrichment opportunities, both inside and outside of schools and school hours, requiring parental and community involvement, among other things.

The complete report, "The Nation's Schools Are Stepping Up to Higher Standards," is available on the Alliance for Excellent Education site.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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