Professional Development | July 2013 Digital Edition

How Are Teachers Getting Ready for the Common Core?

Educators uncertain about implementing the new standards and assessments can learn from two districts that are ahead of the game.

This article, with an exclusive video interview, appears in THE Journal's July 2013 digital edition, focused entirely on preparing for the Common Core.

students working on computers

As districts across the country transition their curriculum to align with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the big question remains: What will the Common Core Online Assessments look like? Kathleen Porter-Magee, senior director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says, "Most districts I speak with are focused on the unwrapping and mapping the content and curriculum side, because in a lot of ways what these assessments are going to look like on the computer is still a little bit of a black box."

Even with the release of sample test items, the situation is unnerving to teachers and administrators who have accountability systems tied to these assessments. Geoffrey Fletcher, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (and a member of T.H.E. Journal's Advisory Board), says that districts should focus on how best to teach content with the depth and rigor set forth in the Common Core Standards, rather than trying to "figure out the game" of teaching to the online assessment itself.

"Ever since the RFT has come out to create these online assessments, we at SETDA have said that the technology is going to be the easy part of getting ready for these tests," Fletcher says. "The hard part is going to be getting teachers to fully understand how to teach to the Common Core--because it's a fundamentally different way of teaching for most teachers."

So what can schools do to ensure that their teachers are as prepared as possible for the Common Core Online Assessments? These two case studies offer some guidance.

Getting a Head Start With a 1-to-1 Initiative
Irving Elementary School Principal Mary Havis also serves as the assessment administrator for South Berwyn School District 100 (IL). The district is in the first year of a full K-8 1-to-1 implementation. Students have MacBooks in the grade levels where the Common Core is being assessed and iPads in all other grades.

Collaboration within the district and beyond has been a key element of professional development as the district's teachers make the transition to the Common Core. "There are a lot of states that have units and lesson planning arranged and laid out online," explains Havis. "We look at a lot of those resources, and explore how we can adjust the resources and the goals to meet what we need to do at our district." Teachers in the district use eChalk, a learning platform for managing education and instruction, to share resources with one another as they explore best practices for teaching the new standards.

"We're trying to use the resources that we have to make sure that our teachers have a strong understanding not only of the standards, but also of how best to teach those standards," says Havis. "For example, we want them to be able to see videos of how a fully transitioned Common Core classroom is structured. Although we always think with the end result of the online assessments in mind, right now our focus is specifically on standards and instruction, since we don't know exactly what the assessment portion is going to look like."

The district's teachers are ahead of the curve when it comes to incorporating technology into Common Core instruction because of the three-year rollout of their 1-to-1 initiative. "We're now at the point that our 1-to-1 professional development is focused beyond the substitution level with technology, and onto the level where teachers are learning how to use different tools in the classroom to help students get a more rigorous understanding of the curriculum. The technology just supports everything that we're working towards as we raise the expectations for our students."

Building a Professional Learning Team
While his district's teachers worked in professional learning teams to unwrap the CCSS, Tony DeMonte, coordinator of instructional technology at Zion Elementary School District 6 (IL), had the challenge of unwrapping the technology standards of the Common Core curriculum for the district's five elementary schools and one middle school. DeMonte and his technology professional learning team looked to the consortia, the state, and other districts for direction, but found a lack of tech-specific resources. "There had been a lot of communication from our local technology centers regarding hardware and network needs for the PARCC assessment, but nothing curricular," says DeMonte.

In response, DeMonte assembled a professional learning team made up of tech aides who run the computer labs in the district's five elementary buildings; the middle school tech ed teacher; and the districts' technology facilitator, who helps teachers across the district integrate technology into their instruction. He then identified any language that referred to technology skills from the Common Core State Standards and built a curriculum plan for each grade--aligned also with ISTE standards--that was designed to prepare students for the PARCC assessment.

"We opted to not put the technology piece on our classroom teachers," explains DeMonte. "Our classroom teachers are already very overwhelmed with the Common Core State Standards and other initiatives that came out around the same time. We want them to focus on what they do best, which is that core curricular instruction. And then as kids go to the computer lab as a normal part of their schedule, we're ensuring that their lab time is well spent and targeted on the skills they need to succeed as 21st century learners."

Aides overseeing the computer labs at the district's five elementary schools are now following the same technology curriculum calendar for each grade level. Students are all learning their computer fundamentals via standardized lessons through EasyTech software, whose lessons have been sorted to match where various technology skills are mentioned in the CCSS. "We have a high mobility rate in our district," says DeMonte, "so as kids transfer in and out of the district, or between schools within the district, we need to make sure that they aren't missing important skills that they need. We're very conscious that every minute in the computer lab needs to be spent teaching a skill, extending a skill or practicing a skill."

Along with the EasyTech lessons, students use Type to Learn 4 to hone their keyboarding skills. They are also introduced to various word processing platforms (Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, and Google Docs); presentation-building software; and online safety skills through a free online curriculum from NetSmartz. When possible, aides work with classroom teachers to link the technology curriculum to the classroom curriculum.

"The ideal situation is always to link into a topic that is being covered in the classroom so that students have a natural connection for why they'd use that skill," explains DeMonte. "However, the consistency of our curriculum is incredibly important, so the lack of a classroom connection is not going to preclude us from teaching, say, presentations. If the classroom connection is not naturally there, our tech aides will come up with a high-interest topic for kids to use in their lesson."

DeMonte says that collaboration with his PL team and teachers throughout the district was key in building a consistent, districtwide technology curriculum for the CCSS. "We had a shared understanding, a shared work, and a shared vision of what we needed to accomplish through our labs as an extension of the learning that's taking place in the classroom," he says. "For anybody who hasn't gone through this process yet, they need to understand that it very much needs to be a collaborative effort."

As for preparing the students for the assessments themselves, DeMonte says the clues are right there in the CCSS: "As we find out that our kids are expected to record an audio clip at a certain grade level, or they're expected to type a one-page paper at a certain grade level, I would pay very close attention to that. Those benchmarks were created with thought and purpose, and as such, they're probably going to be assessed."

Expert Advice
Geoff Fletcher, deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association; and Kathleen Porter-Magee, senior director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, offer schools and districts implementing Common Core some guidance on how best to prepare for the new standards and their assessments.

1) Don't focus on the assessments, focus on the standards. 
Fletcher says that schools should strive to reach a point where the assessment, the standard, and the actual instruction that goes around the standard are all of a piece, so that teacher can say, "Here's my instructional approach, and here's the assessment that I'm going to incorporate at the end of the lesson, and that assessment should be based on the fact that the standards are clearly calling for more writing and more ways of understanding the depth of a student's knowledge and critical thinking skills."

Fletcher says that teachers will have to think differently about how they assess instruction in their own classroom, adding, "I think that approach can go a long way to helping educators understand how to teach the Common Core and how the Common Core is going to be assessed."

2) Find a way to authentically integrate technology into lessons.
According to Porter-Magee, "You want the assessment to be administered seamlessly, so it's preferable for schools to make use of the assessment on a device that students are already familiar with. It's tricky, though, because you want the lion's share of instructional time to be devoted to teaching actual content." On one hand, she notes that every minute that's taken away from instructional time and put toward test prep is lost instructional time. On the other hand, though, "Finding a way to thoughtfully integrate technology into lessons so that students are not intimidated by whatever device they are using is so important. You don't want the first time they're sitting at a laptop to be when they sit down for the statewide formative assessment."

3) Stay tuned in to the larger Common Core community. 
Fletcher says, "I think people have this free-floating anxiety, and it's making it hard for them to focus on specific steps to take to implement these changes." Simply using technology to reach out beyond the walls of your school or your district can help ease the tension by providing opportunities for professional learning. "With this glorious thing we call the internet, we can actually have states sharing resources on how the standards translate into actual pedagogy and instruction with other states, and districts sharing online videos of sample lessons with other districts. Look to states that have established repositories to see how they're constructed, or to districts like Vail in Arizona who've created their own curriculum repository, which is now the largest distributor of content in the state," he says.