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The Education Issue

Are teachers really ready for the Common Core?

The controversial standards are about to be tested for the first time, yet questions remain if educators have been adequately trained.

Chris Gash

THE SPRAWLING SECOND FLOOR of the Sheraton Boston Hotel is swarming with teachers. They’ve traveled from 17 states for the Common Core Now Institute, a two-day conference held by Solution Tree, a for-profit company that specializes in training teachers. The institute is designed to get educators ready to teach the new and contentious Common Core State Standards, which will be tested in dozens of states, including Massachusetts, for the first time this school year.

Around 10 a.m., about 30 teachers file into a large, too-cold hall for a session on teaching and testing the sorts of complex, multi-step math problems emphasized by the Common Core. One by one, seats are filled, and presenter Timothy Kanold, a former superintendent from Illinois who has coauthored math textbooks, speaks into a tiny wireless microphone clipped to his collar. Some teachers type notes into laptops or scribble on large legal notepads. Others fiddle with cellphones hidden in their laps. Kanold lectures on, recommending that they ditch the “I do, we do, you do” model, where teachers spend most of their time lecturing in the front of the classroom. He suggests they let students struggle and stumble through linear and quadratic equations in small groups, without much guidance. More important than revealing the correct answer at the end of class, he says, is letting them ask questions.

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Forty-five minutes into this July lecture, Anne Brown, a math coach at Dartmouth Middle School in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, interrupts Kanold to ask him a question about how to group students. She is the only teacher to ask a question in the entire 90-minute session.

The Common Core marks a stark change in what American public schools will expect students — and teachers — to do in the classroom. The standards are meant to reduce the time students spend memorizing formulas and filling in multiple-choice quizzes. They’ll need to use critical thinking to solve problems and rationalize their answers. And no longer will educators teach students that there’s one right answer or one right path to that answer. This means that teachers will be held to new expectations in the way they instruct students.

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But for the most part, on-the-job teacher training, which has long been criticized for its ineffectiveness, hasn’t changed much in response to the demands of the Common Core. In Massachusetts, some individual schools and districts are trying innovative methods, but teachers say much of the training offered by the state has been the traditional lecture format, which most experts agree doesn’t work. At sessions like the Solution Tree event in Boston, “we sit down and we do everything that we’re not supposed to do as teachers,” Brown tells me. Kanold had recommended that successful Common Core math classrooms be 65 percent student-led and just 35 percent teacher-led, but Brown estimates that Kanold’s own workshop was 95 percent presenter-led.

Much is at stake. Schools in more than 40 states will evaluate students on the new, more challenging standards for the first time this academic year. But political support has also teetered this summer, as a string of states, most recently Ohio and Louisiana, has threatened to back out of commitments to Common Core and the associated standardized tests. “The fact is, it’s teachers through which those standards end up being implemented. How that translates into teaching practice is absolutely essential to whether or not these reforms are going to change American classrooms,” says Allison Gulamhussein, a former teacher and author of a 2013 Center for Public Education report that looked at teacher professional development and found it largely ineffective.

Despite research that says one-time workshops and short-term training sessions have poor track records for changing teacher practices, they continue to be the most common form of professional development — even now that the Common Core is supposed to be upending the old way of doing things, says Gulamhussein. While 90 percent of teachers participated in short-term training, just 22 percent observed classrooms in other schools, according to a 2009 study published by Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council), an international organization focused on increasing effective teacher training. Furthermore, the same study found that fewer than half of teachers who participated in training considered it useful. Still, districts shell out money on professional development, as much as 5 percent of the total budget in some places before the recession. Districts also get financial help for this purpose from the federal government and spent more than $1 billion in federal funds on such training in the 2012-2013 school year. Boston’s education department spent about $5.5 million on professional development in fiscal 2014, up nearly $500,000 from the previous year, according to documents the district publishes online. Officials say additional money is allocated for teacher training from other areas of the budget.

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Experts argue that this much is clear: If the Common Core is going to live up to expectations, teacher training needs to change, and fast.

THE COMMON CORE State Standards, created in response to American students’ poor standing on international academic tests and applicable to public schools only, are a set of rigorous math and English Language Arts benchmarks that spell out what skills students should be able to perform every year from kindergarten through 12th grade. The goals do not tell teachers what materials to teach, but seek to make sure that kids leave every grade able to perform the same skills across district and state lines.

More than 40 states, Washington, D.C., and four territories voluntarily adopted the standards, which were created by education experts with assistance from teachers. Massachusetts already had high standards after major bipartisan school reforms in 1993. Nearly half of the state’s fourth-graders are proficient on National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests, and 55 percent of eighth-graders earn proficient scores on math tests — the highest rates in the country. But because teachers here are still no closer to closing the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students than educators elsewhere, the state adopted the Common Core standards in 2010.

While the Obama administration did not have a hand in creating the Common Core standards, it has endorsed them and linked federal Race to the Top aid to “college- and career-ready” standards, which most states have interpreted as Common Core. To keep receiving aid, Common Core states must test students on the new standards beginning this school year. States were allowed to choose between two exams, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced, or they could alter their own tests to meet college and career readiness standards. In Massachusetts, districts can choose between PARCC’s test and the old Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which has been aligned with the Common Core.

In 2012, the state created standards for high-quality professional development for teachers that cater to adult learning styles and recommend that sessions be connected and build on each other. Access to Common Core training for teachers in Massachusetts varies from district to district. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education offered 11 training sessions specific to Common Core this summer, most ranging from two to four days.

The Boston Public Schools take the approach of training leaders, like directors of academics, who then provide instruction at school sites. Kavita Venkatesh, executive director of instructional research and development for the Boston district, says both her team and outside experts lead the workshops. “The lecture style isn’t the go-to, by any means, as to how we deliver professional development within the district,” she says.

Despite the state’s push for better quality, most Common Core training mimics Solution Tree’s format, says Karen Babbitt, Dartmouth Middle School’s literacy coach, who attended the July event with her colleague Anne Brown. A keynote lecture followed by smaller breakout workshops is “a format we believe works in the classroom, and it works well also at the conference level,” says Babbitt. “The breakouts are typically designed to follow what we know are best practices. There’s the mini lesson, where they introduce new information, a chance to practice that and work in small groups, and then we report back.”

Babbitt was happy with Solution Tree’s training — she said it was the right combination of motivation and strategies. But Brown thought many of the sessions missed a valuable opportunity to allow teachers to collaborate. “We sat there and there were educators from all over the country in that room, and we never got an opportunity to talk to each other or to process what he put out there as an idea,” says Brown, referring to presenter Kanold.

Not all of Solution Tree sessions were the “sit-and-get” lectures often derided by teachers. One class Brown attended, taught by University of Central Florida math professor Juli Dixon, allowed for more interaction between teachers. And another on Common Core reading strategies mimicked an actual classroom. Author and former teacher LeAnn Nickelson gave demonstrations of strategies like a think-aloud, where the teacher narrates how to read, process, and annotate a text before students tackle it on their own. By the end of the session, teachers had participated in at least five reading and vocabulary activities that they could take back to their classrooms. Teachers asked questions and were given time to talk with one another throughout the workshop, in much the same way experts say students should do under the new Common Core standards.

William Trammell, principal of Callaway High School in Jackson, Mississippi, liked that Nickelson’s strategies get kids up and moving, and said they’ll be good for high school classrooms, which tend to be “a little more rigid.” Still, he is skeptical about relying on companies like Solution Tree to teach educators how to implement Common Core. “With it being so new, who are the experts? The ‘experts’ don’t have the background of implementing,” says Trammell. “You don’t know how effective your practices are. Everything that’s been said here could be contradictory to the results from tests. If we’re doing the right thing, that has yet to be seen.”

Solution Tree realizes the limitations in its summer conference. “We don’t think going to a conference by itself will have the impact that everybody needs,” says content specialist Claudia Wheatley. “They’re going to have to have time.” The Common Core training, set over two days, included four 90-minute keynote lectures given by consultants and industry experts, all former teachers. Most have written books published and available for sale by Solution Tree and have tested their practices using research, according to Wheatley. She says conferences like the one in Boston are a way to get teachers to pay attention to the Common Core. In addition to summer workshops, Solution Tree also works with districts during the school year, offering long-term training and coaching specific to the Common Core.

Gulamhussein says teachers who work with coaches after workshop training see more permanent changes to their teaching practices than teachers who don’t. Teachers, Brown adds, “come out and they’re excited, and then they go back and it doesn’t work. They’re not going to try it again. That’s the idea behind coaches, to help continue professional development in the building.”

The Learning Forward study found that an average of 49 hours of teacher training per year boosted student scores by 21 percentile points. But teachers typically spend much less time than that in training. At Dartmouth Middle School, teachers get that extra time, say Brown and Babbitt. Typically, teachers attend mandatory training before school starts and once per month for a few hours after school throughout the year, according to Brown. Some teachers also attend half-day workshops and conferences. Then, the school gives teachers and coaches time every week to meet, review new practices, and troubleshoot them after everyone has a chance to try them out in the classroom. Brown and Babbitt were able to attend the conference and take new strategies back to their teachers, who will spend time practicing and refining them all school year.

Not every school has that luxury, though. “We feel really lucky in Dartmouth that the role of the coaches was developed. We get to meet with teachers to continue our dialogue,” says Babbitt. “We don’t believe that sending people to workshops is exclusively going to help them change their practice.”

Gulamhussein says models of professional development tend not to morph, because the additional time is hard to fit into already packed school schedules. And allowing teachers to attend training outside of the classroom is expensive — when teachers leave their classrooms, schools have to pay someone else to cover for them.

“It’s going to be hit or miss by district,” says Brown. “There is nothing to ensure that every teacher is going to get the same quality training on Common Core.”

 

William Trammell, principal at Callaway High School in Jackson, Mississippi practices a "super sleuth" activity with Linda Nardo, a teacher at Bergen County Technical High School in New Jersey at Solution Tree's Common Core Now Institute workshop, held in July in Boston. The "super sleuth" game helps teachers gauge what students already know before starting a new unit.

Alexandria Neason

Educators from around the country, such as New Jersey teacher Linda Nardo and Mississippi principal William Trammell, attended Solution Tree’s Common Core conference in Boston in July.

IN LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA, long considered a national model for strong teacher training, administrators decided that pushing teachers to study the standards too closely, too quickly, was a mistake. In 2012, the Long Beach Unified School District started introducing teachers to the Common Core by releasing them from class three times yearly for all-day training that focused on instructional shifts needed to satisfy the Common Core. “We felt that if we changed what was happening in the classroom, it would be fertile ground for what was happening with the standards,” says Pamela Seki, assistant superintendent at the district’s curriculum office.

But the district didn’t rely only on daylong workshops. Teachers who attended full-day training hosted by the district then had to bring back what they’d learned to their colleagues. The idea was that teachers need help from experts, but new ideas stick when teachers can also learn from one another and have room to tailor training to meet the specific needs of their schools and classrooms.

Most teachers in other countries spend between 15 and 20 hours every week lesson planning and collaborating with colleagues, according to the Learning Forward report. In the United States, though, teachers typically work in isolation and spend less than 10 hours per week on those tasks. This lack of collaboration time drove Teach Plus, a national nonprofit that educates teachers, to develop a Common Core training program taught by other teachers. Though professional development is often taught by district officials or outside consultants, Celine Coggins, chief executive officer of Teach Plus, says teachers leading other teachers is a better model. “What you hear so often from teachers is ‘I am good at teaching, and I would like to be a leader without leaving my classroom,’ ” says Coggins. “Teachers love the notion of working with other teacher leaders.”

The program, piloted last year in Boston and Washington, D.C., pairs teachers with mentors who are still in the classroom. Before being selected, mentor teachers are interviewed, asked to share a strong Common Core lesson plan, and must prove that they’re effective in the classroom. Once the mentors are chosen, they are trained in facilitation and how to teach adults.

Participants attend six workshops over one semester. Last year, Teach Plus mentors trained teachers from 47 school districts of the 408 in Massachusetts. Groups studied the Common Core standards, worked together to make lesson plans, tested them in their classrooms, and then gave one another feedback. Student data, like quizzes and test scores, helped them adjust lessons. By the close of the semester, Coggins says, teachers had “an arsenal of lessons” and specific teaching strategies to use in their classrooms.

Before the program began, teachers were surveyed about their confidence implementing the new standards. Sixty-three percent said they were confident in their ability to teach them. By the end, that number had risen to 95 percent. Nearly all of the teachers reported that the training had led to changes in their classrooms. But Coggins says they hope to use more concrete data, like student test scores, to tell whether their program is working. “It’s one step to say, ‘Yes, teachers are changing their practice.’ It’s another to say, ‘And that really helped improve their students’ learning,’ ” she notes.

Rob Powers, a social studies teacher at Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville, Massachusetts, participated in the Teach Plus program last year because, he says, the Common Core puts the responsibility of teaching literacy on everyone, not just English teachers. “The only training I had received in Common Core prior to this was a one-day in-house professional development in my district two years ago,” says Powers. “We teach so much around nonfiction text in history that I thought there was a lot of opportunity to get somewhere with Common Core if we had the chance to work with it.” 

Powers, who was paired with six other local teachers, says that by the end of the sessions, the group had been able to pinpoint exactly what the standards wanted them to do. They made Common Core-aligned unit and lesson plans and studied PARCC exams.

Powers says the facilitators were well versed in the standards and that their classroom experience using them made the facilitators better suited to lead workshops. One of those facilitators is Catherine Tighe, a former kindergarten teacher who’s now a coach for the early childhood initiative in Somerville.  Tighe says that it wasn’t clear to many of the teachers in her group what made the Common Core standards different from the old Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. “People just kept saying, ‘What is it?’ They really needed to know more of the content. That sounds very simplistic, but I think the majority of teachers were just handed a book and [told to] go teach,” she says.

Enlisting the help of experienced teachers helps narrow that learning curve. But despite Teach Plus’s efforts, which reached a total of 300 teachers last year, Coggins says the education field is only “nominally supportive” of the idea that teacher training is in need of drastic changes. Making sure that the entire teaching force in Massachusetts — and nationally — has access to effective training is the Common Core’s foremost challenge. “Education is a resource-scarce environment. What do we stop paying for so that we can create more time in the teacher’s calendar for professional development?” says Coggins.

Better training doesn’t necessarily have to cost a lot, however. In Massachusetts, teachers working with a policy advocacy program at Teach Plus created a list of characteristics of high-quality professional development. At the top of the list? Ongoing training and more teacher-led workshops.

Lindsay Sobel, executive director of Teach Plus’s Massachusetts office, says putting master teachers in charge of training others more often is a step many schools can take right away. “We owe it to the students,” she says. “The [post-school] demands on students are increasingly high, and we need to raise our game as teachers in order to meet those needs.”

WHAT THE COMMON CORE MEANS TO PRIVATE SCHOOLS

Private schools aren’t required to use the voluntary “college- and career-ready” benchmarks, but many use state standardized tests and so must pay attention to the Common Core. “For many schools, it’s not going to drive any monumental shift in what they’re doing. There are lots of private schools that have rigorous college prep curricula to which Common Core is compatible,” says Kathleen Porter-Magee, a Thomas B. Fordham Institute fellow and superintendent of a network of six Catholic schools in New York. But in schools that don’t have a rigorous curriculum, she says, changes might need to happen even if they don’t adopt the standards. Private schools will also likely have to make sure students can meet evolving Common Core-aligned college admissions standards, even if their students don’t take state tests.

TEST TIME

Beginning this school year, students will be evaluated to see how well they’re learning the skills emphasized in the Common Core. Here are sample questions from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, tests:

From Grade 3 English language arts/literacy test:

You have read two texts about famous people in American history who solved a problem by working to make a change. Write an article for your school newspaper describing how Eliza and Carver faced challenges to change something in America. In your article, be sure to describe in detail why some solutions they tried worked and others did not work. Tell how the challenges each one faced were the same and how they were different.

From Grade 8 math test:

A right circular cone is shown in the figure. Point A is the vertex of the cone and point B lies on the circumference of the base of the cone.

The cone has a height of 24 units and a diameter of 20 units. What is the distance from point A to point B?

____ units

See the math test answer on the PARCC website.

More coverage:

- MCAS results are in. Are our students learning?

- Interactive: 2014 MCAS score results

- How parents make teachers miserable

- Joanna Weiss: Will Pioneer Institute knock out Common Core?

- Edward L. Glaeser: Unfounded fear of Common Core

- More from the Magazine

Alexandria Neason is a writer for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news website focused on inequality in education. Hechinger produced this story for the Globe Magazine. Find out more about the Common Core at hechingerreport.org. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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