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Conquer the Core

Check these 4 main areas to see how your district’s Core readiness stacks up.

In just over a year, your students will be taking Common Core-aligned assessments. Are you ready?

If you answered "Probably not," don't panic. "Common Core preparedness is a fluid thing," says Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense. "We have no definition for it, and there's no endpoint. States will continue to improve their efforts for years, if not indefinitely."

The bottom line: No one can really tell you where you "should" be with Common Core implementation, because no one knows for sure what successful implementation will look like, or what steps it will take to get there. But, according to experts, there are a few clear signposts you can use to measure, mark, and improve your efforts.

1 | Curricula
Aligning your language arts and math curricula to the Common Core standards is definitely a challenge, but it's "probably the easiest to solve because there is so much access to curriculum," says Peha, "and because our system has become inured, over the years, to swapping curriculum in and out."

No one expects your school to be using 100 percent Common Core-aligned textbooks in all classes, at all grade levels, starting this fall. (In fact, it may not be necessary to buy any new texts.) But by now, teachers should have a basic understanding of the Common Core standards and what they mean for instruction. They should understand that they'll need to increase the depth and rigor of their instruction, and they should be considering ways to do so.

Digital literacy skills are necessary in the Common Core era, so they should be integrated across the curriculum. All students should use computers, keyboards, and tablets on a regular basis.

Quick Catch-Up. Share curriculum ideas. Many teachers have already designed Core-aligned lessons. Sharemylesson.com has a wealth of such material for all grade levels in math and language arts.

Long-Term Planning. Analyze your current curriculum. "Look at your current resources and curriculum," says Sherida Britt, director of Tools for Teachers at ASCD. "A lot of people are using the same resources they taught from last year but teaching them differently." Have teachers work in teams to design innovative and robust lessons.

Compare your curriculum to the new standards. Use the American Federation of Teachers' curriculum review tools (available for Math and Language Arts) to evaluate new texts and materials.

Evaluate students' digital literacy and tailor instruction accordingly. You don't want a lack of digital literacy skills to keep students from adequately expressing their knowledge on the upcoming Common Core-aligned assessments. EasyTech's 21st Century Skills Assessment will help you figure out what students already know, and what they still need to learn.

2 | Professional Development
Teachers need time to adjust to a new way of teaching. "I could give you the best possible curriculum out there, but it's worthless unless you have a teacher who can deliver that instruction for students to digest it," Britt says.

Peha estimates that it may take "several hundred hours of PD, most of it job-embedded," for teachers to be adequately prepared to teach the Common Core. Your teachers probably haven't put in that much time yet. So start scheduling some time for teachers to meet regularly with other educators to discuss the Core and to define teaching strategies.

Quick Catch-Up. Utilize online opportunities. Time-strapped teachers and budget-limited administrators may not be able to attend full- or multi-day professional development sessions. Online courses, e-mentoring, webinars, and professional networking can help meet teachers' professional development needs. Learn more with Learning Forward's Meet the Promise of Content Standards: Tapping Technology to Enhance Professional Learning.

Achievethecore.org also has some great PD options .

Long-Term Planning. Schedule PD time. "As an administrator, I'd fight for professional development time for teachers," Britt says. "They need time during the day to get together and look at assessments, to design curriculum, and to look at student work."

Divide and conquer. Identify teachers' areas of expertise and have them share those strengths with the team. "If you have a group of teachers who are really good at using technology, you can task them with finding online resources and bringing to the forefront those that are aligned with Common Core," Britt says. Other teachers could work together to design curriculum and analyze current texts.

Call a consultant. Britt recommends bringing in "some people with expertise" to see if your district's professional development plan is on target. You don't necessarily need a high-priced consultant; ask your fellow administrators to recommend educators from their districts.

3 | Assessment
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) are both in the midst of developing Core-aligned assessments. Educators should be familiar with the prototypes and sample assessment items, available at bit.ly/sbac_tech and bit.ly/parcc_tech.

Teachers should also be learning about formative assessments. "Unfortunately, we tend to think in terms of short-cycle formative assessments, like smiley sheets and thumbs-up, thumbs-down assessments," says Britt. "But a real formative assessment, for example, that would align to mathematical practices requires teachers to take a great deal of time to design good math resources."

Quick Catch-Up. Have teachers view and discuss the sample items. The prototypes give teachers a good idea of the depth, scope, and types of questions that will appear on the new assessments. These discussions will allow teachers to brainstorm ways to adapt their current assignments and assessments to better prepare their students.

Long-Term Planning. Learn from Kentucky. Its students took tests aligned to the Common Core during the 2011-12 school year, and the results weren't pretty. The state DoE offers a wealth of free resources, including assessment literacy resources. The Kentucky experience is also featured in Learning Forward's Guiding District Implementation of Common Core Standards: Innovation Configuration Maps, which recommends building work teams to develop standards-based, common interim assessments.

Communicate with parents. Share sample assessment items with parents so that they will better understand what kinds of questions their children will be expected to answer.

Use tech tools. Pencil-and-paper tests are out. The new assessments will be administered online, via computer or tablet, and students will be expected to efficiently use technology to demonstrate their knowledge. Have teaching teams work together to determine ways to use technology to assess students' knowledge.

4 | Technology
"One of the many challenges of preparing for Common Core is that all the assessments will be technology-based tests," says Cheryl S. Williams, Learning First Alliance's executive director. "Right now, there are a huge number of schools that don't have the infrastructure to do that."

Burying your head in the sand is not an option. By now, you (or someone else) should know how many computers/laptops/tablets and keyboards your district has, what your district's bandwidth capability is, and what hardware your district needs to purchase before 2014-15.

Quick Catch-Up. Check the tech-readiness tools for the Common Core. Both Smarter Balanced and PARCC offer them on their websites. (See bit.ly/sbac_tech and bit.ly/parcc_tech.) These tools allow you to enter information such as the number of students and computers in the district, and will give you actionable info on how much bandwidth and time you'll need to administer the assessments. That can help you plan future purchases. You can also use the tech-readiness tools to track your progress.

Long-Term Planning. Bump up your bandwidth. While no one knows quite how much bandwidth schools will need to effectively administer the Core-aligned assessments, it's not a bad idea to invest in more. If the assessments include video clips, schools may need substantially more. (All computers have to connect to the Internet.) Mary Knight, director of technology at Arizona's Flagstaff USD recommends E-Rate, a federal program that allows schools to purchase bandwidth economically.

Keep an eye on tech specs. As the two consortia's assessments evolve and change, so do the technological specifications. PARCC, for example, allows Bluetooth-enabled wireless keyboards, but may require each keyboard to be configured to a specific tablet. Assign one person (or a team) to monitor the tech specs on a regular basis and to compare the district's capabilities against the requirements.

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A Grace period for High-Stakes Tests
Test scores are expected to drop dramatically when students take the first round of Core-aligned tests-and teachers are asking administrators and lawmakers to hold off on laying the blame at their feet.

In "An Open Letter to Education Stakeholders" Cheryl S. Williams, executive director of Learning First Alliance, wrote: Rushing to make high-stakes decisions such as student advancement or graduation, teacher evaluation, school performance designation, or state funding awards based on assessments of the Common Core standards before the standards have been fully and properly implemented is unwise."

"What we're asking for is a transition period," Williams says. "We're not saying, ‘Don't assess.' We're saying that every school district is going to be at a different place in their adoption of new curriculum and professional learning. The assessments of 2014-15 should not be used for scorekeeping, or to hold teachers ‘accountable.' We want to use that information from the first set of assessments to (a) evaluate the effectiveness of the assessments and (b) to show us where we, as professionals, need to put our attention so we can be more effective in working with the students."

 

—Back to School 2013—

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