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In Maryland, Thousands of Teachers Getting Schooled on Common Standards

By Sean Cavanagh — June 27, 2011 4 min read
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Frostburg, Md.

Teachers from across northwestern Maryland arrived here Monday on buses and in carpools, many of them lugging thick binders containing the “common standards” recently adopted by their state.

Their mission: to make sense of those standards, figure out how to apply them in their classrooms, and bring those lessons back to their schools.

They had gathered for one of 11 “educator effectiveness academies” being staged across Maryland this summer, the largest professional development program for teachers ever held in the state, officials say. Every school in Maryland—1,500 in all—has been asked to send a team of educators to one 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 $4.35 billion effort backed by the Obama administration with the aim of fostering academic improvements and school innovation. Along with more than 40 other states, Maryland, which won $250 million through the competition, agreed to adopt common academic standards in math and language arts, a decision that earned the state extra points in the competition.

About $12.5 million of Maryland’s award is being used to pay for the academies, said Scott Pfeifer, director of instructional assessment and teacher effectiveness for the state’s department of education.

Each school is sending a team consisting of three teachers and one principal to the seminars. The state’s goal is explain the standards in detail to those educators, who Maryland officials hope will then take a lead role in building understanding among their colleagues back home. They also say they want the team members’ input on the crafting of curriculum frameworks--more detailed guides explaining the knowledge and skills students are supposed to acquire, in keeping with the broad goals of the standards.

The Frostburg academy, held at Mountain Ridge High School, drew about 350 attendees from the rural counties near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders.

One attendee was Eric VanSlyke, a physics and chemistry teacher from Fort Hill High School in nearby Cumberland. He has seen new students arrive from other districts and states whose skills don’t match what’s being taught at the grade level at Fort Hill High. VanSlyke believes the common standards could bring more consistency to the expectations across schools and entire regions.

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 periodicaly changing their minds about what they want.

“In education, there are so many different efforts like this, and sometimes they change every 10 years,” VanSlyke said. Making the standards work “is not going to be up to the someone at the state level. It’s going to be up to the teachers.”

His colleague, English teacher Matthew Marsh, said he worries that the common standards may de-emphasize a rich study of literature in favor of focusing on students’ ability to interpret nonfiction.

But Marsh also predicts that the standards will result in students arriving in his class with a better set of skills acquired at earlier grades.

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

The Fort Hill teachers spent much of their first day at the academy working in small groups, in sessions led by “master teachers,” who explained the purpose, structure, and content of the standards.

The first day was meant to provide an overview of the standards. Teachers from English, math, and other math- and science-related subjects were grouped together. State officials wanted them to understand how many of the core goals in the standards, such as reading texts closely and thinking critically, can be applied across subjects, said Judy Jenkins, the state’s department of education’s director of curriculum.

“The ability to persevere in any subject is important across all content areas,” Jenkins said.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, teachers in math and language arts will spend more time delving into specific content in those subjects, she said.

In addition to implementing common standards, Maryland is using its Race to the Top money to push for other ambitious changes in its education system. Those include the creation of a new model for evaluating teachers and administrators based on performance, as judged by their ability to raise student test scores and other measures. That process has not been easy, and some teachers around the state have voiced deep reservations about the plan.

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

During an opening question-and-answer session, one audience member asked Jenkins how the state could be developing a system for evaluating teachers using student test scores, when it still has so much work still to do on standards and tests. The standards that the state is attempting to explain to teachers at the academy, he noted, are expected to eventually serve as the basis for new state exams.

“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?”

Jenkins acknowledged that many things were in flux.

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

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.