Educators Need Training to Understand Common Standards, Experts Warn

By Catherine Gewertz — June 30, 2011 4 min read
Susan Nolan, center, an English teacher at Mountain Ridge High School, in Frostburg, Md., takes part in a workshop on June 28 aimed at teaching principals and teachers how to implement "common standards" recently adopted by the state. Flanking Nolan are fellow English language arts teachers Matt Marsh, left, and JoAnne Nane, from Washington County Technical High School.

States should take advantage of the ways in which new common standards are different from the state standards already in place, leveraging them to provide better learning for students and a path to better practice for teachers, experts urged recently.

Delegations of top curriculum leaders and board of education members from 13 states gathered here last month to brainstorm about implementing the common-core standards, which have been adopted by all but four states, and to hear advice from experts. The meeting was one in a series of regional convenings organized by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

States are grappling with how to turn the new learning goals into good curricula, train tens of thousands of aspiring and in-service teachers to use them, and transition their accountability systems to reflect them.

In carrying that out, states should take the opportunity to break down age-old silos separating standards and curriculum work from policy areas such as professional development, higher education, and human-resources planning, said Susan Tave Zelman, a consultant who served previously as Ohio’s state superintendent of education.

“The real power in this work is the power of alignment,” said Ms. Zelman.

She warned states that intensive communications outreach is needed to help educators and administrators understand how the common standards are significantly different from previous state standards. The new math standards, for instance, emphasize understanding math concepts and applying them to real-world problems, rather than simply memorizing formulas.

“Make sure to make clear what is different between your current standards and common-core standards, because I’m telling you, out there people don’t see the differences,” Ms. Zelman said.

Fresh Perspective

The common standards represent such a big change that states shouldn’t even try to find commonalities between them and their old state standards, but view them “as something completely new,” said Ken Krehbiel, the associate executive director of communications for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

That way, he said, educators are more likely to find fresh ways to design lessons based on the “mathematical practices” that form the core of the standards, emphasizing skills such as problem-solving and mathematical modeling.

NCTM and others are working to build a library of sample tasks that reflect those practices and are making them available to educators as they are assembled, Mr. Krehbiel said.

The same goes for the English/language arts standards; the National Council of Teachers of English is helping teachers through virtual conferences and a new professional-development program, and in the fall will publish a set of guides, customized by grade-level spans, designed to help teachers understand the new standards and plan instruction to reflect them, said Anne R. Gere, NCTE’s director of policy research.

The common English/language arts standards, she noted, differ greatly from most existing state standards in placing more emphasis on informational texts, on cross-disciplinary literacy skills, and on building and defending arguments. But they’re also structured differently to reflect how students learn, she said.

“Remember, the common-core standards are not about coverage, but spiraling, learning something and taking it to the next level,” Ms. Gere told the gathering.

She suggested that states consider creating literacy teams to forge the “huge change” that’s necessary and using groups of teachers to help bring it about.

High Bar for ELLs

States also got advice from experts focused on English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Rachel Quenemoen, the project director for one of two state consortia designing tests for students with special needs, said advocates for such students still must contend with rampant misconceptions about their learning, which could serve as a barrier to higher achievement under the common standards. She urged the attendees to keep the bar high.

“Specially designed instruction does not mean working at a lower level or weakening the curriculum,” she said. “And there are still many educators who believe both.”

As English-learners try to conquer the expectations in the new standards, it will be especially important to find ways to help them understand academic language, said Margo Gottlieb, the lead developer of common assessments for English-learners for the World-class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium, or WIDA.

To help such students, she said, educators must identify the academic language demands of the common core in resulting curriculum frameworks and provide appropriate instructional supports.

States shared ideas about common-core implementation and its various challenges.

Mary Kay Finan, a state board member from Maryland, told the group that her state had recently begun to require new teachers of all subjects to take courses in the acquisition of reading skills and reading in the content areas. While that doesn’t reach teachers already in the field, she acknowledged, it sends a message to new ones that “all teachers are teachers of reading.”

Glenny Lee Buquet, a state board member from Louisiana, raised the question of whether certification grade-spans might have to change to accommodate the common core. Some topics will now be taught at lower grades, she noted, forcing a teacher with a K-3 certification, for instance, to teach topics previously taught in 4th or 5th grade.

In Ohio, the state has created a model curriculum with hundreds of units linked to clusters in the common-core standards, said Sasheen Phillips, the state’s interim associate superintendent. It is working on an “eye of integration” tool that will help teachers create interdisciplinary instruction, she said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Experts: Educators Can’t Separate Common Core, State Standards


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