Common Core Raises Profile of Virtual PD

By Katie Ash — October 15, 2012 8 min read
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Teachers at Highlands Middle School in Kentucky’s Fort Thomas school district recently did something they’d never done before: They took professional-development classes online.

Spurred by a need to provide high-quality, comprehensive professional development to help teachers make the transition to the Common Core State Standards, Highlands Middle School Principal Mark Goetz discovered online courses from ASCD—a nonprofit membership-based professional-development group based in Alexandria, Va.—that addressed those very topics.

“There was no one I could bring in cost-effectively to do professional development in this specific area for what I thought we could get off the PD online,” says Goetz, although he is quick to point out that while saving money was a bonus, it cannot outweigh the need for high-quality PD for his 660-student school. “[The courses] really pinpointed laser-like focus on what we were trying to get done.”

Goetz is not the only administrator turning to the Internet for professional development for his staff members. Ongoing and effective professional development is critical to implementing the common standards, experts say, and technology holds the key to providing deep learning experiences for teachers that can be scaled across state borders.

“[Teachers] have been teaching a certain way and under certain kinds of standards and objectives for a long time,” says Barbara Treacy, the director of EdTech Leaders Online at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center. “To change, we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers. They need support, and we cannot short-shrift the PD that teachers need.”

Organizations providing professional-development resources, such as the EDC and ASCD, have been inundated with requests from schools for guidance on implementing common standards, officials from those organizations report.

“Everywhere we turn, we’re asked to help people with studying the common core,” says Treacy. “This has to start going on yesterday if students are really going to be able to show what they know on these tests [tied to the standards].”

As a result, those organizations are building robust online resources that can be used in all of the states that have adopted the common standards. All but four states have signed on to the initiative, as has the District of Columbia.

The EDC has about 40 online professional-development courses aligned to the common standards, says Treacy, and is in the process of creating two courses that will provide overviews of the standards—one for math and one for English/language arts.

“We’re working with teachers in a learning-community model,” she says. “It’s facilitated, and it’s delivered over time, and it’s got some kind of accountability. … It provides an opportunity for deep reflection that teachers are going to need.”

PD Demand Doubles

And by providing the courses online, not only can teachers all over the country participate, but teachers also can become familiar with the technology tools needed to implement the standards, Treacy points out.

Online PD Destinations

Created by: ASCD
For: Teachers, administrators, educators
Registration: Not required, but it allows special access to certain features
Features: Aggregates professional-development resources, lesson plans, and learning modules to help educators implement the common standards in their classrooms. Created and maintained by the Alexandria, Va.-based ASCD with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the website is divided into three categories: general common core, math tools, and literacy tools. Teachers will find videos, PDFs, websites, and other resources to help them prepare for the transition to the common standards. Those who register can bookmark items that will then appear in the “My Resources” tab. Registered participants will also be allowed to create journal entries, where they can jot down notes about the resources they find. Although the site does not have social-networking capabilities yet, allowing teachers to interact on the site and share ideas and best practices is a goal, according to ASCD.

Created by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
For: Teachers
Registration: Invitation only (for now)
Features: Aims to provide an online space where teachers can exchange ideas and best practices about integrating the common standards into their curricula. The website is currently being piloted with a small group of teachers but it will be rolled out to all teachers in the future. MyGroupGenius will host resources and tools created by the Literacy Design Collective and the Math Design Collective, both of which are also funded by the Gates Foundation. Both collaboratives are in the process of creating instructional tools, professional-development learning modules, and support services to help teachers implement the common standards.

Illustrative Mathematics
Created by: Institute of Mathematics and Education, University of Arizona
For: Teachers and other educators
Registration: Not required, but it allows special access to certain features
Features: Creates tasks for each common-core math standard that illustrate the central meaning of the standard and its connection to other standards, clarifies what is new about the standard, and provides instructional tools and lesson plans related to the standard. The tasks are written by teachers, mathematicians, and other educators and reviewed by both a math expert and a classroom expert before they are posted to the website. The standards are divided between the K-8 and high school levels, and are then broken down by grade. Registered users can comment on and rate tasks as well as submit tasks for review. The leaders of Illustrative Mathematics say they hope to increase the social-networking capabilities of the site, such as adding a feature that will automatically notify a user if a comment he or she posted has drawn a response. The project, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has about 500 tasks so far and aims to reach at least 2,000.

Created by: LearnZillion
For: Teachers
Registration: Required
Features: Hosts video lessons and assessments related to the common standards in math and literacy for grades 3-9. The website was created with content from teachers at the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, as well as teachers around the country, and is funded by the Next Generation Learning Challenge, the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Achievement Network, among others. Eric Westendorf, a former principal at E.L. Haynes, and Alix Guerrier, an education consultant, founded the company. The site currently hosts about 2,000 online lessons available to teachers for free, and teachers can create playlists of lessons, contributed from a variety of different teachers. Lessons include screencasts, videos, guided practice, commentary from the content creator, and PowerPoint slides. Creators of LearnZillion hope to add more functionality to the site that will allow users to contribute lessons and post resources as well as provide feedback on the already-posted lessons.

The Gates Foundation also helps fund Education Week’s coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.

“Media and technology is integral throughout the common core in both the math and English/language arts standards,” she says. “If you’re getting the professional development online, and using those tools and incorporating those tools into the way that the professional development is delivered, that’s going to help teachers.”

ASCD also provides numerous resources for teachers to help ensure a smooth transition to the common standards.

The organization has been creating online courses for teachers—requiring from 10 to 15 hours of work per course—around various aspects of putting the common core in place, says Ed Milliken, ASCD’s managing director of professional development.

The group plans to create at least six more courses in the next four months to keep up with the demand for high-quality online professional development.

“The utilization of [common-core-related courses] has more than doubled in the past month,” Milliken says.

In addition, the organization has a subscription-based online channel that houses videos and other resources for various aspects of professional development called PD in Focus, which includes a specific channel dedicated to common standards.

ASCD has also hosted a series of webinars about the common core that is archived on its website for educators to access.

The group’s latest offering is called EduCore. Part of a three-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, EduCore is a website that pulls together professional-development resources on common standards and allows teachers to search and bookmark lessons. (The Gates Foundation also helps fund Education Week’s coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation.)

EduCore has incorporated math resources from the Shell Centre, based in Nottingham, England, as well as modules created by the Literacy Design Collaborative, a loosely knit group of consultants working with the Gates Foundation.

But the website, which is free for anyone to use, is not just an aggregator of content, says Milliken. It divides each lesson into what the teacher needs to know before, during, and after the lesson, and it also allows teachers to save and print lessons as PDFs.

“What we have done is taken the information and made it very accessible,” Milliken says. The group is also working to incorporate social networking into the website to allow teachers to share best practices.

State Guidance

Schools and districts are also turning to their states for guidance to help find online professional-development resources for teachers that address the common core.

“Not all districts have the capacity to support this new vision,” says Greta Bornemann, the mathematics director for teaching and learning for the Washington office of superintendent of public instruction. Consequently, the state has pulled together resources online to help bridge the gap between large districts with more resources and smaller districts that may not have the manpower to come up with those tools alone.

The state offers an alignment analysis that compares the previous state standards with the common core in English/language arts and math, as well as an implementation timeline, a three-year transition plan, and webinars about the common standards.

The state also offers free face-to-face training sessions for teacher leaders to attend with the expectation that those leaders will return to their schools and share their knowledge with other teachers.

The ability to borrow materials and resources from other states to help teachers move to the common standards is key, says Bornemann.

“We don’t have the resources and capacity at the state level to produce large quantities of things, so taking advantage of what other states have created is really important,” she says. “This idea of states working together and collaborating is still something that is relatively new. … We’re clearly in a bigger sandbox now, and we’re certainly watching what other people are building.”

Building Flexible Options

Similarly, in Maine, Patsy Dunton, a specialist in English/language arts for the state department of education, and Lee Anne Larsen, a literacy specialist for the department, are pulling together resources for educators in that state. They hosted a three-day institute in August that convened teams of teachers from across the state to take part in professional development around the common standards.

“We’ve been trying to focus partly on those shifts that need to happen and partly on the standards themselves and what the content is,” says Larsen.

In addition to the institute, the state has hosted numerous webinars on common-core subject areas as well as smaller face-to-face seminars around the state.

Dunton and Larsen also put out a monthly electronic newsletter that covers an aspect of common standards; the newsletters are then archived on the Maine department of education website for future reference.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do is provide lots of different ways for educators to enter into the information,” Larsen says.

And in South Dakota, teachers go through blended professional-development workshops, where they meet in face-to-face seminars but bring laptops with them to complete activities during the face-to-face session, says Becky Nelson, the team leader in the office of learning and instruction in the state department of education.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, has set aside $8.4 million for teacher training in various areas, including the common core, allowing teachers to receive money for attending PD events. Some districts have submitted professional-development plans in hopes of receiving PD vouchers from the fund to host their own events for teachers.

“We want to keep the options flexible for the districts because every district need is not the same,” says Nelson. “We have very large and very small districts, and we wanted to make sure they could design a plan that would work for them.”

In addition to the blended learning opportunities available, the state has worked with the Rapid City, S.D.-based professional-development organization TIE, which stands for technology and innovation in education, to provide access to MyOER, a website that houses open educational resources aligned to the common core for teachers. (See related story, Page 42.)

Carrie Heath Phillips, the senior program associate for the Common Core State Standards for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups that led the standards initiative, says that “it’s all about making sure that high-quality professional development is able to reach teachers and principals and school leaders, and technology is obviously a very powerful way to do that.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Digital Directions as High-Priority Virtual PD


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