Civil discourse on the Common Core

IStock_000017974549_SmallBeing an academic standards consultant was once a fairly anonymous, low-profile job. Relatively few people seemed to know or care about the importance of educational standards, and news stories about standards were rare. Just a year or two ago, when I talked with other parents at the neighborhood park about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they politely smiled and nodded, not really understanding what I meant.

But, as the CCSS slowly began to be implemented over the last couple of years, people who had never given a second thought to educational standards began to take notice and discuss what exactly it is that they thought our students should understand and be able to demonstrate. Now, everyone seems to have an opinion about the Common Core, and the discourse is often divisive and far from civil.

Recently, at an education policy meeting I attended at a university, a panel of education leaders was asked to provide their thoughts on the opposition to the CCSS and the related PARCC testing. On the panel were a representative from the state department of education, a CEO of several charter schools, a school district math coordinator, and a district chief academic officer. A member of the state board of education acted as moderator.

As a lead-in to the discussion, the audience and panel members were told that, invariably, in every meeting of the state board of education, people spoke passionately about their opposition to CCSS and PARCC. The question to the panel was: What causes that opposition? Is it true opposition to the CCSS and/or PARCC assessments, or is it merely a convenient speaking point for politicians and pundits?

The panelists and audience members brought up many points of conflict on the pros and cons of the standards and testing. Audience members were clearly frustrated with the feeling that parents have been left out of the conversation, because, in their view, policy makers and educators don’t believe parents are knowledgeable enough to participate in deep dialogue and debate about the issues. The conversation grew heated on all sides.

What is causing this divide? One of the panelists correctly pointed out that, when it comes to the standards and testing, many related-but-distinct issues have become conflated with one another, such as identifying the appropriate number of assessments; setting the right bar; teaching the right content; and who should control the setting of the bar and the measuring of results.

When we’re talking with one another about the CCSS or assessments, we need to be careful that we’re really talking about the same issues and not talking past each other in the heat of the moment. Without common definitions and understandings of what “it” is we’re debating, frustration levels on all sides will remain high.

Forging these common definitions will require every education advocate—federal, state, district, school, parent, community member—to take the time to listen to opponents’ perspectives, find points of agreement, and mutually identify the specific issues that are causing conflict and disagreement. That’s easier said than done, but if we can’t commit to civil discourse then neither side is going to get anything other than increasingly frustrated and disillusioned. And, without a joint effort to identify the issues causing opposition, we risk perpetuating the same negative cycle that will continue to shift as frequently as the political winds that drive it.


2008_SchwolsMcREL consultant Amitra Schwols is an expert in STEM curriculum who analyzes, evaluates, revises, and drafts new standards and benchmark documents related to K–12 classroom activities and resources. She is a co-author on McREL’s Common Core Standards Quick-Start Guides for grades K–5.


Our 10 (or 11) most popular blog posts of 2014

Educators face many challenges each day—large and small—that when addressed effectively have the ability to inspire better teaching, leading, and learning. Our staff continually ask themselves the same question you might ask yourself: As educators, how can we make a bigger, better difference in student engagement and knowledge? 

Our consultants (former teachers and leaders themselves), researchers, and evaluators address that question in our blog by combining professional experience with sound research to offer insight and practical ideas for building student resiliency, prioritizing improvement initiatives, increasing staff motivation, interpreting data, and cultivating a positive school climate.

Our top ten (actually 11 because of a tie for 2nd) most popular blog posts for 2014 address many of these concerns. In case you missed one or two, here’s the entire list (click on each title to view the post):

Number 10-1What's STEM got to do with it? 

by Whitney Cobb

Number 9 A "fresh eyes" perspective on school climate change

by Shelby Maier

Number 8 Supporting nontraditional education programs in traditional settings

         by Katie Andersen

Number 7 Filling the STEM teacher pipeline

by Matt Kuhn

Number 6  Some schools say no to homework: Is that a good idea?

 by Howard Pitler

Number 5  What does "You 2.0" look like in the classroom? 

  by Bryan Goodwin

Number 4  An AWSM way to increase middle schoolers' math  success

           by Kathleen Dempsey

Number 3  Is it struggle or is it effort? Maybe it's a cultural thing

  by Joshua Stewart

Number 2TIE  Student success is influenced by district leadership

  by Timothy Waters

Number 2 TIE The "innovator's mindset" 

  by Howard Pitler

Number 1  Jump-start school improvement with fewer, not more,  initiatives

            by Kay Frunzi

Posted by McREL International


Do school structures create obstacles for STEM learning?

Engineering groupSTEM is a hot education initiative these days, with numerous schools investing energy and resources to create more, and more robust, learning experiences for students in science, technology, engineering, and math, all with a goal of boosting student interest and readiness for post-secondary STEM education and careers.

Yet despite the investment and focus, research studies show that many of these efforts fall flat, producing few, if any, gains in student achievement and interest.

Why is this, and can STEM programs get better?

McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein recently dug into this question for a column in ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine. They found that how students are taught is an important factor for long-term interest, with successful STEM programs focusing on rich, hands-on research experiences and real-world applications. It also appears that out-of-school time programs, which are free from the constraints of our current accountability- and assessment-driven time in school, approach STEM more creatively and offer a way to rekindle student interest.  

You can read the full column on the ASCD Educational Leadership site.

Posted by McREL International.


Leveraging technology to focus on learning

IStock_000026052674_LargeMobile technologies are an integral part of our daily lives. Where is the closest gas station? Ask Siri. Which toaster is best for my needs? Check customer reviews on Amazon.com. Going out to dinner with friends? Ask Yelp for a good restaurant within five miles of your house, make reservations on OpenTable, and forward the reservation to your friends, complete with driving directions. Mobile technologies have made our lives easier and are transforming the way we work and get things done. It isn’t about the device, but what the devices allow us to do. How can we translate this savvy use of technology into classroom learning experiences?

Too often, there is little similarity between the very connected world we live in and the world inside of a school. What does it look like when a school’s technological experience does mirror the real world?

In Sue Scott’s 8th grade language arts class at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado, students work and create in ways that would be unlikely in a non-technology-infused environment. It is important to point out that students’ projects are not about technology; specific learning goals are accomplished around writing, researching, communicating, collaborating, and presenting. Technology is merely the enabling factor.

Recently, Mrs. Scott worked collaboratively with the district’s instructional technology trainer, Rhonda Summerlin, to develop what they dubbed the “Passion Project,” in which students focused on a topic or idea they were passionate about. Layers of technology were embedded in the project, but only as a means toward the end.

First, students brainstormed using Google Docs, reflecting on things they really wanted to learn, research, create, or discover. Students individually narrowed the topics down to three top choices and completed a free write on individual goals and how they would get there, any help they would need and how they would work on it weekly, what might be easy and what might be difficult about the project, and what would need to be done in class versus outside of school. They shared their writing with their teacher via their class assignment folder and added it to their digital portfolio.

Students used Blogger to post weekly about their chosen projects, including their successes, setbacks, valuable research, etc. They also enriched their blog posts with pictures, videos, and other media. In addition, they used Diigo to help them conduct their research, highlighting and annotating relevant articles in the cloud. Diigo also allowed them to create collaborative groups and share their research with their teachers.

Students reviewed goals every three weeks, looking at what they had accomplished and what they needed to do before the next checkpoint. They used a rubric in their class assignment folder for the checkpoints and conferenced with Mrs. Scott and Ms. Summerlin to show evidence of goal completion.

Each student created a two-minute digital presentation of their work to pitch their ideas to their peers, parents, and teachers. They created these presentations with no coaching, in order to measure growth in presentation skills as compared with their final presentations.

Using Blendspace, the students created digital portfolios of their passion projects, which included brainstorming and goal setting documents, valuable research, pitch time presentations, a link to their blogs, and pictures and videos of them in pursuit of their passion.

In preparation for final presentations, students watched exemplar presentations by kids their age, such as TED Talks and Ignite-style presentations. They used TodaysMeet to record the pros and cons of the presentations as well as other observations. They then collaborated on Google Docs as to what their final presentations should include and created rough outlines. The outlines became the bases for the presentation scripts, which they also created in Google Docs and shared with peers, who used the commenting feature to give feedback. They then revised their presentations.

The students developed rubrics for their final presentations via Google Docs with guidance from their teachers, using the rubrics to create their final digital presentations and practicing in rotations with different peer groups for feedback.

Ina culminating event, Preston Middle School invited the community to hear the students’ presentations in a TED Talk/Ignite-style event. Students had 3‒5 minutes to talk about their passion projects with their digital presentation playing in background. Later, students reflected on the experience on their blogs.

This is just one example, among many, in which technology enhanced students’ experiences of learning, creating, and producing in the classroom. The Framework for 21st Century Learning focuses on having students create, innovate, problem-solve, think critically, communicate, and collaborate. When we leverage the power of technology, as Mrs. Scott and Mrs. Summerlin did, we are truly preparing our kids well.


2014-PitlerHoward_7046_webA former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL's executive director of digital solutions. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.) and Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software. He can be reached at hpitler@mcrel.org  or followed on Twitter at @hpitler.


Taking some of the stress out of professional development

IStock_000021258674_LargeFor most occupations, routine continuing education is necessary to keep current with new and changing policies, procedures, and technologies and is critical to job expertise and career advancement. Why is it, then, that educators too often view professional development (PD) opportunities with a touch of dread and angst? From our conversations with teachers, we know these feelings are often rooted in concern about the relevancy of the PD and a lack of time to apply what’s been learned. In this post we offer a few suggestions for PD planners to address those challenges, based on our experiences working in schools and districts.

As mentioned in a previous blogpost, PD sessions ideally should be spread across the entire school year, giving teachers time to absorb the material and integrate what they are learning into their classrooms in a more meaningful way.

We also know that developing positive and open classroom environments helps students learn. Setting these same standards for teachers’ PD encourages a more meaningful and engaging adult learning experience, helping teachers feel more comfortable with sharing ideas, less anxious when struggling with new concepts, and at ease in acknowledging what they don’t know.

Building relationships and developing trust between the PD leader, teachers, and administrators is key, especially when multiple PD sessions will occur throughout the year. Begin developing those relationships prior to the first session by planning one-on-one meetings with each key stakeholder in the building or by scheduling an all-staff meeting. Encourage building administrators to attend the PD sessions to demonstrate that the learning is a priority and that teachers will be supported as they learn and apply their new skills in the classroom.

Consider these strategies for setting a positive tone in PD sessions:

  • Elicit teachers’ strengths and expertise by asking what they already know about the subject.
  • Encourage teachers to consider new ideas on the subject. Very few people know everything there is to know about a subject; keeping an open mind is essential to trying out new ideas and strategies.
  • Ask teachers what is important to them as learners and as program participants.
  • Ask teachers what concerns they have about the PD program. Even if there are factors out of a PD leaders’ control, at least teachers will know their concerns have been acknowledged.

We used these key strategies when piloting and field testing McREL’s mathematics formative assessment program, the Assessment Work Sample Method (AWSM). Middle school teachers attended twelve 45-minute sessions throughout the school year that were embedded in the school day. Over the course of the AWSM pilot, PD leaders developed a sense of trust and openness with teachers by taking time to build relationships and inviting administrators to attend sessions. Teachers shared their thoughts and concerns, related what they knew about formative assessment, shared strategies they used in their classrooms, and considered new ideas about formative assessment. 

Developing a positive learning environment does not happen in one session—making time for these conversations throughout the year will further strengthen the trust and openness that are key to an engaging and meaningful PD experience for teachers.

2012_Gopalani_WEB 2014-RaineyJesse_webSarah Gopalani and Jesse Rainey conduct quantitative and qualitative analyses in support of McREL’s research and evaluation projects.