Nearly every state in the country has adopted a new set of common academic standards in mathematics and English/language arts. The new guidelines lay out fundamental changes in the skills students are expected to have. But there is a long road from understanding the standards to putting them into practice in the classroom. In August, 2011, Education Week hosted Bringing Common Standards Into the Classroom, a webinar to inform participants about the approaches that two districts — Hillsborough County, Fla. and Cleveland, Ohio — are taking as they work to educate teachers about the standards and turn them into new types of teaching and learning.
Colorín Colorado subsequently invited Mark Baumgartner, one of the participants in the webinar and the director of professional issues for the Cleveland Teachers Union, to share his experiences and lessons learned in Cleveland. Mark's article follows, and the webinar is also available as an archived event.
When Ohio adopted the Common Core State Standards, the state decided to implement the standards gradually over a period of four years. The statewide plan included three years of field testing and a fourth year for full implementation in grades K-12 by the 2013-2014 school year.
In Cleveland, however, we felt that it was better to get the new standards into the classroom as soon as possible. This would help us better understand what support would be needed for our teachers and schools as we made the transition to the Common Core. The Cleveland Teachers Union and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District began discussing what that transition and implementation might look like, which ultimately led to a district-wide Common Core State Standards Project. This initiative has been funded in part by the Gates Foundation and Race to the Top. (It's worth noting that we originally applied for an i3 grant, which we didn't receive. However, we were able to use that same plan we laid out in our application for the Race to the Top funds, which also led to an invitation from the Gates Foundation to apply for additional funding along with five other urban districts. In our case, persistence and preparation definitely paid off!)
We decided that a grade-band strategy (rolling out the standards in one grade-band each year for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12) would serve our needs of getting teachers working with the new standards in front of students. One reason we felt that this timeline would be effective is that we have a "safety net:" in Ohio, the state tests reading and math in grades 3-8, so the first year of implementation for K-2 during the 2011-12 school year would be a "no-fault" year.
In addition, we decided to create a district-wide, centrally located Common Core Training Center. Because of declining enrollment in Cleveland, we have closed a number of buildings. One of those buildings is now being used as our training center. Teachers are being trained in a real classroom and school, and the cohorts can leave items on the walls and in the classrooms until their next sessions.
Areas of Focus
In doing the planning, we decided to focus on three key areas: awareness, training, and support. Below are some of the professional development activities the school district and union organized together as part of each area.
The first thing that we decided to do is to introduce our professional staff to the new Common Core State Standards and what they look like. We knew that this was an important first step as the standards are quite different than what our educators are used to. For one thing, the terminology used is different. Where the earlier Ohio standards talked about "benchmarks" and "indicators," the Common Core State Standards are organized by "strands" and "clusters." For another, the learning objectives are more rigorous than our previous state standards. We decided that the best way to determine what our staff needed was to ask the staff themselves and to ask them where we were strong and where we needed more support.
Common Core Symposia: In order to launch these discussions, we held four district-wide Common Core Symposia on Saturdays and put out an open call to teachers and principals to attend. The Symposia were held from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in a hotel ballroom, and we paid our teachers for attending and also provided lunch. We felt this was important component in the planning as they would be working during the sessions. More than 200 educators attended each symposia and one had more than 300 attendees. Some buildings sent teams of teachers and administrators; some teachers attended alone. Regular classroom teachers spanning the grade levels came; special educators came; and English language learner teachers came. All voices were at the table and valued.
The most important accomplishments of the Symposia were:
- Familiarizing our staff with the Common Core and teaching them the language of the new standards
- Receiving feedback from the staff on areas where our district, our schools, and our classrooms were or were not ready for the new standards with regard to materials, professional development, and curriculum. (The teachers provided this feedback by filling out charts during the Symposia. This feedback subsequently helped us plan the professional development sessions for our K-2 teachers, who would be rolling out the standards first.)
The next stage of our implementation strategy was the professional development sessions for the K-2. During the Spring of 2011, the teachers attended to two six-hour professional development sessions to "unpack" the new standards and were organized into 4 cohorts of 60 teachers each. Their goals were to:
- Review the kinds of resources and materials available to the district around the Common Core. (We had ordered a wide range of materials from publishers for the teachers to examine and discuss.)
- Discuss formative assessments with regards to the new standards focused on the question, "How are we going to know that students have learned the content?"
The planning for these sessions was done by a group of 135 outstanding teachers, who are part of our Promoting Educator Advancement in Cleveland (PEAC) program. These teachers are identified through a year-long process, and then serve as teacher leaders throughout the district. The training was provided by our math and literacy coaches, who are also teachers released from the classroom to coach their colleagues. We found that having the planning and training done by fellow teachers was a positive step in helping increase teacher buy-in of the new standards.
Since we are just starting out in this process, one lesson we have learned is that it is important to offering support and scaffolding for the teachers who are unpacking the standards, planning the training, and implementing the standards. One of the most important ways we are doing this by building upon our existing professional development model with the following programs:
- Scope & Sequence: For the past four years, our district has brought teachers together during a week in June after the end of the school year to write, review, and/or revise our district's Scope & Sequence. The Scope & Sequence is a planning guide that we created where we chunked out the year into five-week blocks (early 1st quarter, late 3rd quarter, etc.) and agreed on what state standards would be taught when. We did this because our district has a 33% mobility rate, and we felt it was critical to make sure our students were being exposed to the same standards at the same time, no matter which school they were attending. We didn't tell teachers which materials to use or how to teach the materials, but we guided them to the standards that were to be covered. This June, we again brought teachers together to do the yearly revisions for Scope & Sequence, and our K-2 teachers rewrote their guide using the Common Core Standards. As with the Symposia and the unpacking, any teacher was welcomed to participate, including regular education, special education, or ELL teachers.
- Embedded professional development: In addition, during the past four years we have had job-embedded professional development for our grades 3-10 math and English teachers. We divided them up into cohorts of 20 schools and the four times a year PD was led by the same math or literacy coach for each cohort. Each cohort has become a professional learning community for the year. As the new standards are being introduced in K-2 classrooms, we have added the K-2 teachers to professional development cohorts.
By building upon these two programs, we are creating a process in which each of the grade bands will go through this same training with a spring unpacking professional development, summer rewriting of their grade level Scope & Sequence, and fall implementation and support with job-embedded professional development. As we roll this out to more of the teachers, we will better refine the supports we can offer classrooms and schools throughout the district. This support must occur for all grade levels throughout the phase-in of the new standards into our classrooms because our professional staff may not be ready for the rigor that is expected of their students or of their teaching.
We have also found some other ways to offer district-wide support:
- Common Core Champion: In each of our 80 K-8 buildings, there will be a teacher identified as a "Common Core Champion". This person will get additional training and be a resource for their building and lead some building level PD around the new standards. The champion will receive a stipend of $1,000.
- Teachers who have already gone through the training: We have found that teachers who have gone through the Common Core training are a valuable asset to the implementation process. For example, as we are starting to look at the grades 3-5 standards, we are finding that those teachers are struggling with the same areas that our K-2 teachers struggled with. We recently brought some of the K-2 teachers back to help get the new teachers started and smooth out the bumps in the road, which has been very effective — so effective, in fact, that from now on, our implementation plans will include working with a few teachers who went through the training the year before assist with planning and challenges.
The most important lesson we have learned in Cleveland that we can share with other districts wrestling with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards is to build upon what you already do in your district. What is working at the district level and at the union? What do you have in place? What is working for your teachers? We never tried to separate this initiative from the work we were already doing, and as a result, the planning has been smoother than it would have been if we had been trying to implement new standards with a new professional development model.
In addition, we learned that keeping proposals and plans up-to-date and easily available can pay off! You never know when a new opportunity may present itself, especially if you have put together a solid, thoughtful proposal that reflects a district-wide vision.
Finally, as a Union and District working together on the implementation of the new standards, we are reminded that we must continue to collaborate in providing high-quality, intensive professional development around the new standards. By doing so, we can support teachers' transitions to working with the new standards and transforming their classrooms to better fit into the Common Core.