Policy & Advocacy | July 2013 Digital Edition

How Tech Directors Must Really Prepare for Common Core

Readiness for the new standards is about more than devices and networks.

This article appears in THE Journal's July 2013 digital edition, focused entirely on getting ready for the Common Core.

group meeting, woodpecker outside window

I was sitting on my deck the other day with a cold beverage, watching a pileated woodpecker pound a dying fir tree with its beak looking for insects. While I chuckled at the bird's frat-boy cry, I was reminded of an article I read recently noting the incredibly sophisticated padding that woodpeckers' skulls have. I also learned that their hearing that is so acute that they can hear bugs moving inside trees when they fly by. I wondered, like I wondered years ago as a kid when considering Superman's abnormal hearing ability, "How do they figure out what to listen to, to pay attention to?"

I am not sure about Superman, but for the woodpeckers, I imagine they pay attention to the bugs moving inside trees, because their lives depend upon finding them to eat.

Similarly, school districts and states are (finally) paying attention to their life-critical mission: what it will take to be technology ready to administer the Common Core assessments being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which will be delivered online in the 2014-15 school year. (The federal government is noticeably absent from this discussion, but that is a topic for another time.) I fear, however, that tech directors right now are focused only on the "bugs" in the trees that typically supply their lifeblood--especially the devices and networks needed to get ready for the new assessments--and may not be looking at other vital aspects of implementing the new standards and their evaluation.

Tech Readiness Tools
To be sure, tech directors need to pay attention to devices and bandwidth. To help schools, districts, states, and the consortia understand technology readiness, PARCC and Smarter Balanced have developed the Technology Readiness Tool (TRT), which is now the largest database of devices in the country, with more than 7.5 million devices registered. The tool also catalogs schools' and districts' estimates of their bandwidth and network capabilities. These devices and estimates are all aligned against the consortia's minimum and recommended technology specifications, thus providing a quick read of the extent to which schools, districts, and states are "ready." There are numerous caveats around this data, but it does provide meaningful information to all levels of decision-makers.

The TRT and other materials will go a long way toward determining technology readiness and helping educational leaders to plan. For example, a helpful tool provided by Education Superhighway tests internet speed. SETDA has provided additional information about speed tests by commissioning a paper describing why the outcomes of different internet speed tests may vary.

In addition, PARCC offers a Capacity Planning Tool, and Smarter Balanced also provides information specific to its system's requirements. This information is intended to help schools and districts look at different variables within the system such as number of devices, testing window, and time for a test, in order to get a closer take on "readiness." In addition, it could inform a school's approach to administering the tests. For example, a district might say, "If we expand the testing window from seven to 10 days, we will be able to get by with taking fewer computers from instruction."

All of this attention and work is important and necessary, and for a tech director, it is a lot to keep up with. However, this kind of planning is nowhere near sufficient for true "readiness" because it is too narrowly focused on the technology. While it is true that we can't administer the assessments online without technology readiness, success with the online assessments is more complex than one singular focus. It is like woodpeckers only paying attention to the bugs in trees: If all they did was bang their heads against trees all day, they wouldn't survive very long.

Reaching Beyond Technology
The looming online assessments are a clear example of the adage that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and tech directors need to be in on most, if not all, of the parts in order to ensure that their part--the technology--works on behalf of the whole. I know that there is more than enough to do in ensuring that districts have sufficient devices to meet the assessment requirements and that networks and overall bandwidth are adequate, but if that's all you focus on, your technological readiness may be for naught. Here are two examples of where tech directors need to be reaching out to other areas or departments.

On the content and curriculum side, most states that have adopted the Common Core have plans or are implementing plans to train their teachers about the new standards. North Carolina, for example, is using a "train the trainers" model, coupled with online access to exemplary materials. State personnel provide professional development at each of the eight regions in the state three times a year. Each district brings a team to the training, and the team returns to the district to replicate the training and/or adapt it to meet the needs of their educators. In addition, all materials are made available online on a wiki site that is updated regularly.

My supposition is that, while the training at the regional level may be too much in the curriculum weeds for tech directors, they probably would want to talk to regional team members to find out what part of the training they should attend at the local level. At a minimum, tech directors should be reviewing the materials from the training that relate to instruction with technology.

The rationale is simple: Tech directors need to know what instructional approaches teachers are going to be using, how technology may be used in those settings (and possibly how often) in order to ensure that there is enough bandwidth and network capacity. Moreover, in sections of the standards and curriculum where there may not be much technology, instructionally leaning tech directors may have some suggestions as to how technology could be used to advance learning.

On the assessment side, each consortium also is in the process of creating content and training related to the Common Core State Standards. This training includes information to help educators fully understand the CCSS instructional approaches as well as how assessments will work. An extremely important first step has been the release of sample items from the consortia illustrating what students will be doing on their assessments. While some may decry this as "teaching to the test," I see it as a crucial step in sending a message to educators that instruction needs to include approaches that are congruent with CCSS evaluation methods. You can see the PARCC prototypes here and the Smarter Balanced prototypes here.

But who is looking at the sample items? I imagine that teachers and curriculum and assessment directors are. I fervently hope that technology directors are looking at them as well, but not so much for planning what will happen when the assessments are administered in 2014. That is important, but what is more important is what will happen to the devices and the network when the vast majority of teachers and students in the building are engaged in activities every day--not just on the test days--that embrace a new approach to instruction that reflects the core values of the new standards.

As a tech director, it may be easier and more comfortable for you to pound trees for bugs, but it is crucially important to listen for other life-essential elements in your district that require your attention as well.