Special Report

Common Core Accelerates Interest in Online PD

By Katie Ash — October 24, 2011 6 min read
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Now that all but five states have adopted the common-core state standards, education leaders are working to create and distribute high-quality professional development to guide teachers through the transition.

Those leaders cite the Internet as a powerful tool for sharing resources and materials across state and district lines.

“We’ve always had the ability to share resources, but now those resources are aligned with the same student expectations,” said Greta Bornemann, the project director for the implementation of the common standards for the office of public instruction in Washington state. “Especially during the fiscal crisis that we’re in, we can really tap into the power of working together [as a nation] around professional development.”

But many states have not begun to take the essential steps toward putting in place the work of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, including providing face-to-face or online professional development for teachers and other education stakeholders, according to a survey released in September by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy.

In fact, more than half the 315 districts surveyed indicated they had not provided professional development for teachers of mathematics or English/language arts—the two common-core subject areas—and were not planning to provide PD for implementing common core for those teachers during the 2011-12 school year.

Inadequate funding and a lack of state guidance on the new standards were cited as two top challenges in their implementation, the survey found.

Regardless, professional development is critical to the overall success of the common standards, said Timothy Kanold, the past president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, a Denver-based leadership network that provides professional development for math teachers.

“To help the stakeholders—teachers, counselors, administrators, paraprofessionals—in order for them to be confident in the common core and teaching deeper into the standards, they need meaningful and supportive professional development,” he said.

For most states, shifting to the common standards will require a shift in instruction.

There are as few as 28 standards for math for some grade levels, “which is fewer standards than ever before, but you now have to teach them and drill much deeper into them,” Mr. Kanold said. “Students are expected to conjecture and reason and problem-solve. That’s a new day in math. That’s a shift for everyone; therefore, we have real professional development that needs to get done.”

And PD should not be confined to a one-time conference or class, said Mr. Kanold, but rather become an ongoing process for teachers.

Online professional development, in particular, may help teachers embed those PD opportunities into their daily schedules more naturally because it is so easily accessed, he said.

“It’s instantaneous,” said Mr. Kanold. “I don’t have to wait for the conference.”

Evaluating Quality

Tanya Baker, the director of national programs for the National Writing Project, the Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit organization with multiple sites throughout the country that provides resources and professional development to writing teachers, said the writing portion of the standards also represents a shift to a richer and more rigorous understanding of writing.

“Teachers with a significant amount of experience might not have very much experience with the kind of teaching that would lead kids to be successful with these standards,” she said.

And although the common standards provide an opportunity to share resources between states, education leaders need to keep in mind that all teachers will come to those resources and professional-development opportunities with different backgrounds.

“My worry about online professional development around common-core standards is that it’ll be one-size-fits-all,” Ms. Baker said. “Even as we’re thinking nationally, we need to be aware locally” of teachers’ specific backgrounds and instructional methods.

Another issue for online PD around the common core is identifying high-quality resources, said Ms. Bornemann, from Washington state.

“One of the challenges is that everybody, at least in their claims, appears to be aligned to the common core with professional development and instructional supports,” she said. Looking at those resources with a critical eye and making sure they are high-quality before distributing them to teachers is essential, Ms. Bornemann said.

Those concerns were echoed by Mary Jane Tappen, the deputy chancellor for K-12 curriculum and instruction and student services for the Florida Department of Education.

States need to be “patiently aggressive” in developing and distributing professional development for teachers around the new common standards, she said.

“If we move too quickly, [the resources] won’t be what we need them to be,” she said. Making progress in providing those supports to teachers is also critical, however.

“We have to move forward because the students need to be prepared for success,” said Ms. Tappen. “If we wait for the assessments [due out in 2014-15], they will not have had the instruction necessary. We have to patiently but aggressively prepare professional-development resources, and the teachers need to know what the standards are.”

Ms. Tappen is focusing now on providing professional development around the common core to kindergarten teachers, since this year’s group of kindergarteners will be the first to be tested on the common standards. Using the Internet is the only way to distribute those resources efficiently, she said.

“Given the size of our state, we know the only way to reach all our teachers is through the use of online tools,” Ms. Tappen said. “You have rural areas all over the nation where you might be the only [trigonometry] teacher in high school. The only way you can participate [in PD] is online.”

Having access to support resources is essential, she added. “We have got to have tools for [teachers] every day that they can access and network with different teachers.”

Tuning In to YouTube

The James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, an affiliate center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in Durham, N.C., is one of the providers of online resources on the common core. The organization has created a series of videos, posted on YouTube, that describe various aspects of the common core, such as how the standards were developed, what the key changes are in the subject areas involved, and the reasoning behind those changes.

“This is intended to spark a conversation,” said Lucille E. Davy, a senior adviser for the institute. The videos are designed not only for teachers, but also for school board members, policymakers, administrators, and even the PTA.

“Everyone needs to understand this—not just the teacher in the classroom,” Ms. Davy said.

As schools and educators get a better grasp on what the standards mean for students and teachers, more online and print resources will become available, said Ms. Davy. “Right now, I think you’re seeing the development of a lot of [curricular] materials,” she said, “and then the professional development to actually use those materials and teach the standards is the next frontier.”

And while providing much professional development for teachers on the scale that’s needed may seem overwhelming, Ms. Davy is hopeful that the common core will provide the economies of scale, especially with online professional development, needed to overcome some of the most persistent problems in K-12 education.

“The need to close the achievement gap was already here,” she said. “Implementing common core together gives us our best shot for achieving. We can work together, share best practices, and share the burden of doing the work so [states] are not doing it all alone.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Prepping for Common Core


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