Education Funding

Md. Teachers Get Training on Common Standards

By Sean Cavanagh — July 12, 2011 7 min read
Donna Watts, a Maryland education department official, joins her husband, Darrel Watts, for a lunch break outside Mountain Ridge High School, in Frostburg, Md., site of a regional training academy last month on how to implement common academic standards.
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Teachers and principals from across northwestern Maryland arrived here on buses and in carpools, many of them lugging thick binders containing the common standards adopted by their state and more than 40 others.

Their mission: to make sense of those broad academic expectations in English/language arts and math, figure out how to apply them in their classrooms, and bring those lessons back to their schools this fall.

The educators had gathered late last month for one of 11 “educator effectiveness academies” being staged across Maryland this summer, which officials have billed as the largest professional-development program for teachers ever held in the state. Every public school—1,450 in all—has been asked to send a team of educators to one of the academies, which are being supported with federal Race to the Top money.

Maryland was one of 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, to win an award through the Race to the Top competition, a $4 billion grant program—backed by the Obama administration and funded by the 2009 economic-stimulus package—that was meant to foster school improvement and innovation.

Along with 44 other states and the District of Columbia, Maryland, which won $250 million through the competition, agreed to adopt the common standards, a decision that earned it extra points in the scoring for the grants. The standards were developed through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort led by organizations representing the nation’s governors and schools chiefs. Since then, two consortia of states have begun crafting common assessments and curricular support to supplement the standards, with $360 million in Race to the Top money.

States could also earn points in the competition for proposing professional development in areas such as helping schools use data wisely and tailoring such training to needs identified in school employees’ evaluations.

One Teacher's Perspective on Common Standards

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Reporter Sean Cavanagh speaks with Matthew Marsh, an English teacher from Cumberland, Md., who discusses how common standards will benefit—and hinder—his curriculum.

Professional Development

Maryland appears to have taken an especially ambitious approach to setting up that training. The scope of its professional development underscores the challenges that the state and others face as they attempt to sell teachers and administrators on complex, and often controversial, policies in their Race to the Top plans, even as many of the details of those policies have yet to be worked out.

State officials chose to hold the academies at sites across Maryland so that no teacher or principal had to make more than an hour’s trip by car, said Scott Pfeifer, the director of instructional assessment and teacher effectiveness for the state department of education. The state expects to spend $12.5 million of its Race to the Top award on the academies over three years.

Each school is expected to send a team of three teachers and the principal to one of the three-day workshops, the first of which was held June 27-29 here in Frostburg. In addition to fostering school-level educators’ understanding of the K-12 standards and how to use them in math and language arts, the state wants their input in the crafting of curriculum frameworks, detailed guides that Maryland officials are now developing that spell out the specific knowledge and skills that students are supposed to acquire, based on the common standards.

The state will continue the academies over the next two summers. The focus will turn to topics such as helping schools’ use of formative assessments, typically defined as in-class tests, quizzes, and on-the-spot evaluations meant to help teachers refine and improve lessons in real time. Future academies will also introduce teachers and principals to new statewide tests, based on the common standards, that Maryland is developing in partnership with other states.

The Frostburg academy, held at Mountain Ridge High School, drew about 350 attendees from Maryland’s rural counties near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders. After an opening session held in the auditorium, teachers scattered to individual classrooms to work in small groups in sessions led by “master teachers” who had studied the standards extensively.

Regional Attendance

One of those teachers who made the trip was Eric VanSlyke, a physics and chemistry teacher from Fort Hill High School in nearby Cumberland. Mr. VanSlyke believes the common standards could bring more consistency to academic expectations across schools and entire regions. Too often, students arrive at his school from other districts and states with skills that don’t match what’s being taught at the school’s grade level, he said.

But he also predicted that schools’ adjustment to the standards would be difficult. Teachers who have labored to put together coherent lessons don’t want those plans upended, he said, and they’re especially wary because they’re used to policymakers’ periodic changes of mind about what they want.

Allegany High School chemistry teacher Kevin Wallace crunches numbers in an attempt to figure out the questions posed at the academy for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers.

Making the standards work “is not going to be up to someone at the state level,” Mr. VanSlyke said. “It’s going to be up to the teachers.”

His colleague Matthew Marsh, who teaches English, worries that the new standards will de-emphasize a rich study of literature in favor of focusing on students’ ability to interpret nonfiction. Yet he also predicts that the standards will result in students’ arriving in his class with a better set of skills acquired in earlier grades.

“A lot of students seem to have skipped some of the [steps in the] staircase,” he said. The standards “will make the transition into higher-level English much easier for some of these kids.”

On their first day in Frostburg, participants were given an overview of the standards, with teachers from English, math, and other math- and science-related subjects sitting through the same presentations together. The goal was to show the teachers that the standards, with their emphasis on areas such as reading texts closely and thinking critically, can be applied across subjects, said Judy Jenkins, the director of curriculum for the state education department.

On the second and third days, teachers in math and language arts gathered with educators from their subjects for a more in-depth tutorial on the content of the standards.

Following Up

Research does not point to one particular professional-development model that works in all settings, but the most successful efforts are typically not structured as one-time events, but rather as programs that follow up with participants and help them refine their work, said Laura M. Desimone, an associate professor of public policy and education at the University of Pennsylvania.

That’s especially true when introducing teachers to new standards, which usually take a lot of time to absorb, she said.

The question is whether the training “is going to help teachers build lessons differently,” said Ms. Desimone, who has studied professional development, standards, and instruction. “Teachers need continuous feedback,” she said, “like most professionals.”

Maryland officials say they will provide that support. School teams are required to complete “transition plans” describing how they will make their colleagues comfortable with the standards. The state will randomly audit schools’ use of those plans, Mr. Pfeifer said. In addition, the state plans to hold two online follow-up events, he said, and provide continued support to administrators in implementing the standards.

Other winning Race to the Top states set different goals for professional development in their plans.

New York, for example, pledged to provide professional development to 280,000 teachers and administrators on the common standards, as well as coaching for teachers and administrators on such topics as turning around struggling schools, using data, and providing instruction for Advanced Placement courses.

Delaware gave districts freedom to choose professional-development strategies that fit their academic goals, in areas such as special education and academic content, said Alison Kepner, a spokeswoman for the Delaware education department.

Maryland has also promised to use its Race to the Top money to create a new model for evaluating teachers and administrators based on their ability to raise student test scores and other measures. That process has not been easy, and some teachers have voiced skepticism that they will be judged fairly.

Those worries were evident among some of the educators in Frostburg.

During an opening question-and-answer session, one audience member asked Ms. Jenkins how Maryland could be developing a system for evaluating teachers using student test scores, when the state is still trying to explain its standards to teachers and hasn’t developed the exams that will be based on those standards.

“My job is going to depend on how well my students do, on these nebulous things?” the educator asked. “What’s the plan for that?”

The state official acknowledged that many things were in flux.

“I wish I had an answer for that,” Ms. Jenkins said, drawing chuckles from the crowd. The laughter continued when she quipped: “Can someone ask an easier one?”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teacher Training Gets High Priority in Md. Push on Common Standards

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