Thursday, September 27, 2012

Common Core and Teacher Evaluations: The Beginning of the End?

The Common Core Standards are finally sinking into the depths of education, for better or for worse. Upon the heels of another wave of controversial standards comes legislation passed throughout the US that went largely unnoticed in the brouhaha surrounding the Common Core but has now burst into the spotlight in full operatic tenor with the Chicago Teacher Union strikes.

Here are some of the opinions swirling around:

1. Educators already know how to handle education—and everyone else can leave the same way they came in, please.

It’s a strong argument. You certainly don’t see as much legislation around how doctors perform their work (though there are certainly plenty of laws, rules, and regulations to account for); at least, there have yet to be surgeon strikes on how their surgeries are evaluated.

Now the Common Core Standards dictate what students need to be able to do. It is a departure from simply what they should be able to know (read: regurgitate) to what skills students can demonstrate, the latter implying a change in how the information is maintained. Followed on the heels of the Common Core Standards are the new InTASC Standards, aligned to the Common Core. The InTASC Standards are for teachers what the Common Core is for students, with one great exception: if students fail to meet the Common Core Standards, teachers are worried that they will be fired, and if teachers fail to meet the InTASC Standards, teachers still worry that they will be fired.

So it’s hardly a wonder that educators want to take education back, so to speak. Everywhere we look, there are sticks to beat us into compliance with few carrots in sight.

2. Educators aren’t cutting it, so legislation has to step in.

At the risk of sounding biased, I’m going to say that this very opposite opinion is tenuous at best. The definitions of “success” and “cutting it” vary, and simply being better than the rest of the world is actually (in my opinion) a poor measure of performance. Being better than someone else has little to do with how well your personal best may be; by the same argument, the only thing we need to do to improve our current “success” rate is wait for Finland to dumb down their curriculum. Of course that won’t happen, but the target should be greater than simply beating out the next guy.

Besides, I know of a few senators and representatives that I would love to evaluate and list as “subpar.” So why should their largely uninformed (and potentially well funded) opinions on education hold sway on my job?

Here’s the good news: legislators may not be on our side, but the Common Core Standards are—or can be.

The media (liberal and conservative alike) has done a curious job with the Common Core Standards, first by adoring our president and then by smearing the Common Core Standards as government overreach and pointing the finger at Mr. Obama. But the Common Core Standards offer us another shot at our classroom. We need to help students create skills—however we choose to do that. There are recommendations to aid our lesson planning, but these are standards, not curricula.

Evaluations, many based on the Common Core Standards, are also prominently displayed as a means to thin the ranks, so to speak. But when evaluations are done correctly, we use them as classrooms to help teachers learn rather than courtrooms where teachers must stand trial. The funny thing about an evaluation is that we are too often looking for faults. And we always find what we’re looking for.

If the Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations are handled the right way, then this could be the beginning of the end: the end of low teacher support, the end of untrained educators, the end of poor education. And it could be the start of something much, much greater for every teacher in America.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Failure’s Role in the Learning Process

Today in America, there is a large negative stigma around the act of failing. We spend every moment of every day making sure we do things “right,” avoiding failure at all cost. And it makes sense. Nobody wants to fail, and let’s face it, nobody really wants to be wrong. But are we shortchanging ourselves by not allowing for failure, and are we shortchanging our kids to teach them in school that “failing” is unacceptable?

In 2010, Diana Laufenberg gave a TEDX talk titled, “How to learn? From mistakes.” In it, she made the indisputable point that asking kids to always have the right answer doesn’t allow them to learn. In her own words:
“We deal right now in the educational landscape with an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled on the average multiple choice test. I am here to share with you, it is not learning.” 
In the video, Diana describes activities and lessons she experimented with to foster learning through creativity and allowing for mistakes. Watch the TEDX talk below.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Common Core Webinars with Teachers and Their Lessons

Tuesday’s webinar was incredibly informative. Dressed down and informal, this webinar gave teachers the chance to get the skinny on teaching according to Common Core Standards directly from Barbara Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck is a fourth grade teacher who took Common Core ELA Standards and applied them to her science/biology lesson.

Teachers across the country had the chance to pose these and other questions:
  • How did you select the standards that were referenced in your video?
  • Was this taught during your reading workshop or during a content area block of time?
  • Do you use Responsive Classroom practices in your class or school?
  • Did you find any opposition at first to work in certain groups and how did you help them overcome that?
  • What is the role of a group leader in your lessons?
  • Can you elaborate on a lesson extension?
You can watch the Common Core 360 video of Mrs. Hollenbeck for free on the Weekly Video Blog.

What are you up to next Tuesday at 2:00 PM ET? You might want to consider participating in a webinar with Kimberly Snowball from Kentucky as she guides her students through finding the volume of cylinders, cones, and spheres. Her video is available now for free, and you can register today for her free webinar.

We’ll see you at the webinar!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Crickets in the Common Core Standards

Barbara Hollenbeck is a fourth grade teacher who has already begun to implement the Common Core Standards. In the following video, newly released from the Common Core 360 library, Hollenbeck demonstrates Common Core ELA Standards SL.4.1, W.4.8, W.4.10.

Click here to watch the video on the Weekly Video Blog.

In this segment, Barbara Hollenbeck, a fourth grade teacher at Kerrick Elementary in Louisville, Kentucky, facilitates a science lesson in which her students classify crickets as insects. Barbara aligns her lesson with Common Core ELA Standards Speaking and Listening 4.1, Writing 4.8, and Writing 4.10.

Hollenbeck explains, "We are beginning to do the food chain. We have explored soil. We have explored plants and seeds, and we’re creating our own terrarium."

Barbara’s morning message invites students to review and discuss the life science concepts they have learned. Today, the students explore new concepts as they add crickets to their terrariums.

Save your seat at the free webinar and Q&A session featuring Barbara Hollenbeck on Sept 25!

Hollenbeck continues, "Through their discussion in groups and as a class, Barbara’s students progress towards Speaking and Listening standard 4.1 by building on others’ ideas and clearly expressing their own. They now move to the hypothesis-­‐testing phase of the activity by gathering and recording evidence of the crickets’ anatomy."

Now you’ve told me that this is an insect and you told me why. You told me that it had three body parts. What was one of the body parts that you noticed? Skylar, can you identify another body part that we haven’t mentioned? We’ve said the head and the thorax, we’ve said the wings and the antenna.

Their observations of the crickets have prepared students for two simple experiments. One involves gently touching the antennae eye with a pencil eraser and recording the cricket’s response. In the second experiment, students place a tent-­‐shaped piece of paper in the container with the cricket. The students predict how the cricket will respond to the tent, then observe and compare their predictions to its behavior.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Master Teacher Speaks Out on Common Core

Deia Sanders is a master teacher in Mendenhall, Mississippi. In this blog post, Deia talks about her experience with the Common Core Standards as both a master teacher and a member of PARCC Educator Leader Cadre.

common core standards continuous learning
When I was in college I decided to take physics classes as my electives so that I could find out exactly what a black hole was. I took space science for an entire semester in anticipation of finding the answer. The last chapter, the final week of class, covered black holes. After learning more than I ever anticipated about physics and space I only felt as if there was so much more to learn. For every answer I now had, I also had even more follow-up questions. It began a cycle of learning, finding more I wanted to learn about, and feeling as if it was impossible to know it all… but the cycle lead to growth and knowledge that were previously outside my reach.

This scenario parallels my current status in the search for knowledge and best practice as it relates to Common Core. I am currently questioning practices I didn’t previously know existed, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn, and I am caught in a cycle of growth and knowledge as I reach for what is so much bigger than myself.

I am currently writing units for both language and math, and I am serving on PARCC’s Educator Leader Cadre. From being in the fortunate position of liaison between administration and what is happening in the classroom, I feel like I can see what the future holds in terms of disconnects between administration and the common core classrooms. Administrators, please heed my warnings.

Obviously, you have to know the Common Core State Standards. You’ve got to know the progressions from grade level to grade level. Bill McCallum, lead writer to CCSS Math, said that looking at a standard at a particular grade level wasn’t that valuable. You have to look at the standards in the grade level below and above to know at what level you should engage your students with the standard. For an administrator this is valuable because we are reprogramming our teachers to not re-teach previous standards, and to let go of standards no longer in their grade level. An administrator will need to know what this looks like at all levels to know its appropriate performance and appearance in each grade level and classroom.

We are a PARCC State, thus we have the Model Content Frameworks to use as a guide to the CCSS and assessment. It’s long, less than exciting, and probably wasn’t on anyone’s “beach reading list” this summer. I’ve read it several times, and like space, when I finish I have more questions than answers. One question I had for a long time was where exactly the value in a document that’s so large. It wasn’t until we were writing units and deep in to the CCSS that I began to find value in the materials put out as “guides.” It’s not that the guiding documents weren’t valuable before, but to have a document as a guide when you’re not sure where you’re going, made it difficult for me personally to find value in it. I see this in administration as they read these documents with little impact or meaning because there is a strong disconnect between the document and the process… if you’re not knee deep in the process.

We are seeing that the curriculum directors and teachers are the ones with the true knowledge of the changes CCSS are bringing, and because principals aren’t typically in the planning and writing phases, they are now the least knowledgeable about the changes to come. From my unique perspective I can see that administrators are going to have to go deeper in to the journey of Common Core to remain true academic leaders. As an administrator, of course you have to be familiar with all things Common Core. But as with studying astronomy, it was great information, it left me with growth and questions, but I bet if I traveled to space my knowledge would bring clarity.

The questions that developed from that journey would be deeper than the ones developed from simply reading and studying. To know the Common Core, to find the value in everything that supports it you are going to have to take part in all parts of the journey. If there is a group of teachers meeting to write a unit, you need to be there asking questions. If there is a presentation on classroom practices, you need to be involved. Join your staff in ALL parts of the journey, or else they will reach the destination without you. The more involved in the journey, they more clarity you will find in the process.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When 350,000 Students Have No Teacher

chicago teacher strikes
No matter which side of the fence you’re on, the Chicago teacher strikes are serious business. It is bringing to national attention what many of us take for granted: when parents go to work, what do they do now with their children?

For the moment, many parents are dropping their children off at Sheridan Park and other locations where kickball abounds.

The Chicago Teachers Union is demanding, among other things, higher pay scales and at least 16% raises in response to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s plan to lengthen the school day. On the union’s side of the argument, more work should equal more pay. On the mayor’s part, he agrees—he just doesn’t agree up to 16%. And while they duke it out behind closed doors, students are enjoy some recreational time.

Chicago teachers are second only to New York City in pay. reports, “Chicago teachers make an average of between $69,470 and $76,000 per year, second-highest to New York City. The deal Chicago Public Schools put on the table includes a 16 percent average salary increase….”

This brings to mind another blog post where we examined the effect of a higher pay scale on teacher effectiveness (which was followed up by this post). While we can easily say that higher pay will increase competition and therefore help us pick the best and brightest teachers, it is just as easy to say that teachers who are motivated primarily by money are not as invested in their students ‘growth.

There are a few possible benefits to students’ education as these strikes occur, if teachers play it right. Consider the following:
  • Negotiations
    • Few Chicago students will ever think of the word “negotiations” in the same light after this week. But will students see it as an opportunity to have their voices heard, or will the word come to be synonymous with “incessant arguing”?
  • Politics
    • There is an excellent history lesson at work here. Unions began as a means to protect workers’ rights. Is that still the case? Where does protection end when the proceedings could be detrimental to student education? Has Chicago’s government become out of touch with the people it serves, or has the union forgotten its truer purpose?
  • Learning Styles
    • Children will learn. No matter what they are doing, they are going to develop a worldview based on their interactions. Playing kickball in a park while Mom is at work and Teacher is shouting hackneyed chants will have an effect on every child. So what are students learning without formal instruction? How are they learning it? Why is that what they chose to learn?
How do you feel about the strikes? What would you like to see happen?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Math, Science, and History Standards in the Common Core

Join us on Tuesday, September 11, at 2:00 p.m. EDT for a special webinar Q&A session with Yvonne Copprue-McLeod, a 5th grade teacher at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Newark, NJ. During this session, Copprue-McLeod will answer your questions about the Common Core Standards as she details her experience with the Common Core ELA Standards Writing and Speaking & Listening.

Unbelievably poor reporting abounds vis-à-vis the Common Core Standards. But you’re a highly intelligent individual, and you can spot the differences, I’m sure.

Something that has not been reported about the Common Core is the standards clearly spelled out for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Have you heard about these yet? It’s nothing new at all—this image is from the eighth page of the PDF I downloaded will all of the Common Core Standards inside:

math, science, and history standards in the Common Core

Probably never heard of those, have you? It makes you start to wonder what else is in these standards that you haven't heard of--like how they could help you and your students.

Of course these are standards that relate to English language arts, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that clear communication is not essential in absolutely everything that we do. Take it from someone who gets paid for his knowledge of the English language—everyone, from teachers to executives, has to have a better understanding of the most basic principles of grammar. There is no field, no career, and (if I may wax poetic) no life that does not stand to be enriched by stronger skills in the English language arts.

When I was in high school (or really at any grade), I had a very difficult time understanding directions in my math class. I’m not unintelligent—I just don’t mix the numbers the right way. Reading a math problem is much different than reading East of Eden, but we still call it “reading.” Though highly skilled at discerning plot, character development, and literary themes and criticism, I was woefully behind in working through those accursed word problems.

The Common Core Standards help us—I repeat, they help us—to guide students toward building their skills and defining their lives by what they can achieve rather than what they can’t seem to hack. Common Core 360 is full of teacher and classroom videos that show how educators have been able to build capacity and confidence in their students through these standards. Education is no longer about being weeded out, sorted, and graded—it’s about learning.

Have you been able to read through the Common Core Standards? Have you put any to the test here at the beginning of the school year? What was your experience? Let’s sound off in the comments.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Part 2: The Common Core Grinding Stone

Now that you know what the Common Core Standards are, let's take a look at what they are not. Mind you, there are a lot of voices out there saying a lot of different things. I'm not trying to sell you a bag of beans, so to speak. I'm not even interested in selling you anything at this point. The only thing I want you buy into is accurate information, and we at School Improvement Network have devoted an enormous amount of time and resources to give you the skinny on the Common Core.

And so, with no further ado, I give you what the Common Core Standards are:

What the Common Core Standards Are

1) Performance standards

The Common Core Standards require students to demonstrate proficiency in grade appropriate math and ELA related skills. The skills that students gain from grade to grade build upon one another, becoming more complex over time.

For example, a third grade reading standard requires students to answer questions from a text, citing the text specifically as they answer. A related standard in grade four becomes more complex, requiring students to continue answering questions citing the text, but to draw inferences as well.

2) Important to every educator in a school and district

The Common Core outlines literacy standards in subjects other than ELA and math: specifically, history, social studies, science, and technical subjects.

Apart from literacy standards, it is important that everyone in a school—administrators, teachers, staff, and students alike—possess an understanding of the Common Core. Just as it takes a team of doctors with different specialties to treat the whole patient, the Common Core gives educators the opportunity to collaborate in the same way, gathering teachers from different subject areas to treat the whole student. This can’t happen if half of the school teaches the Common Core Standards, and the other half has little idea what the Standards even are.

3) A state-by-state initiative

Unlike No Child Left Behind, the Common Core Standards are a grassroots initiative. They were developed by teachers, administrators, professors, and legislators from all over the country, under the leadership of The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and were then adopted on a state-by-state basis by local education leaders and state legislators.

4) Making cross-state alignment possible

One of the most exciting and widely publicized features of the Common Core Standards is the way that they will make cross-state alignment possible. Under the Common Core, as students move from one state to another, educators will have a much easier time determining specific skill levels and providing new students with appropriate instruction.

The Common Core also breaks down interstate barriers for educators. Using the Standards, administrators and teachers will find it much easier to collaborate across state lines, creating truly effective national professional learning communities.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Part 1: The Common Core Grinding Stone

Republican politicians are erroneously pointing the finger at Obama, claiming that the Common Core Standards are a covert means to take over an already socialized education system. Democrat talking heads are equally appalling in their wolf-crying of corporations funding the insidious program behind the Common Core. It seems that everyone has an axe to grind, and the Common Core Standards have more myths surrounding them than they do Standards inside of them—and that’s a lot.

Let’s take two blog posts to set the record straight--today, we're looking at what the Common Core Standards are not. Tomorrow, we'll look at what they are.

What the Common Core Standards Are Not

1) Curriculum

While the Common Core Standards may impact the type of curriculum taught in schools, it will rarely do so directly. The Common Core contains performance standards that are actually designed to provide educators more freedom in their curriculum decisions.

This is because the Common Core only specifies which skills a child must be able to perform, and leaves the rest in the hands of educators. The methods instructors employ to teach skills, and the curriculum they use, is by and large left up to states, districts, schools, and teachers.

2) Just for math and English teachers

Though the bulk of the Common Core Standards apply to mathematics and ELA teachers, the Standards are not the exclusive domain of math and English. The Common Core outlines literacy standards for nearly everyone who uses instructional texts to teach, including history, social studies, science, and technical subjects.

3) A federal program

There is a common misconception that the Common Core State Standards are a federal program, developed and passed by Congress or the Department of Education. This is not the case. The misconception may stem from the fact that the federal government requires states to adopt the Common Core in order to qualify for Race to the Top funding.

Though the Common Core is tied to Race to the Top funding, the Common Core is not currently required as requisite to any other federal education initiative (Title 1, NCLB waivers, etc.).

4) Going to be exactly the same in every state

Many worry that adopting the Common Core Standards amounts to giving up state control over what is taught in schools. This concern is understandable, given that official Common Core compliance requires that states adopt 100 percent of the Standards—nothing altered, nothing discarded.

However, while they cannot change the content of the existing Standards, every state has the right to add to them. Compliant states are required to adhere to a 85/15 rule in which 85 percent of a state’s standards consist all of the Common Core, but as much as 15 percent can be new standards written by the state. Currently, 11 of the 45 Common Core compliant states have added new, unique standards, while a number of other states have reserved the right to add standards in the future.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On-Demand Professional Development for Every School

On-Demand PD Is Smarter

On-demand professional development is more than fun apps and the “internet-ization” of our world. On-demand PD is the only way—I say again, the only way—for educators to get the kind of personalized training that can be the difference between graduation and dropping out for a student. Here are the three ways that on-demand professional development can make educators more effective, no matter what their circumstances may be:

It’s Cheaper.

Either you can pay a speaker $5,000 to $10,000 (or more), or you could pay the same amount for 120 speakers and experts who are available every day of the year.

I’ll be the first to say that it’s not perfect—those experts and master practitioners have the right idea, but they can’t consult with your teachers on individual classrooms. But your speakers could never do that for an entire school, district, or state, anyway. On-demand professional development has a very low delivery cost, and it’s completely scalable. That being the case, you get all of the experts for all of your teachers in a school or in a state, and your teachers get the principles and training that applies to them. No other professional learning system can do that.

Customization. Personalization. Do-Their-Job-Better-ization.

All of those speakers and experts make for incredibly effective training on a host of topics. Did you know that PD 360 offers over 2,000 training segments that feature experts, master teachers, administrators, and classroom examples?

Look, you know all about differentiated instruction—you probably lectured to your entire faculty about it one afternoon. (And I’m sure you caught the irony in that statement.) On-demand professional development is the most effective way to provide differentiation in a format that teachers want, administrators can afford, and instructional coaches can implement.

Always-On Availability

Let’s take a step back for a moment: your students attend class every day (theoretically), and they have the opportunity to grow every day. With the always-on availability—including those cell phone apps and web-based platforms I mentioned earlier—teachers have time every day to learn something new and apply the knowledge. The traditional format of generalized training a few times a year is simply insignificant. And right now, PD 360 is the only on-demand platform that gives educators the freedom and flexibility they need.

I’m just one voice, however, and I clearly enjoy on-demand professional development. What is your perspective on online training and learning? Have you used PD 360? What did you find useful?