Things I Know 192 of 365: There’s Opportunity to Empower Teachers in the Common Core

If we use these common standards as the foundation for better schools, we can give all kids a robust curriculum taught by well-prepared, well-supported teachers who can help prepare them for success in college, life and careers.

– Randi Weingarten

A thought that gets highlighted, underlined and annotated over and over again in its many iterations in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is the idea that we cannot expect creative business solutions or creative people if we maintain an education system designed around student compliance.

I’d add to that the idea we cannot expect to move away from a system built around student compliance if we don’t relinquish the idea of teacher compliance.

In a THE Journal interview with Westville, IL School Superintendent Jim Owens I found some hope:

One particularly effective training tool involved flip video cameras and a directive to create a project illustrating the impact that technology was having on the respective teacher’s classroom. This simple exercise frustrated a lot of our teachers, who didn’t know what we wanted from them or what the right answer was. We told them that there was no right answer, that we just wanted them to get creative and share how they were using technology in the classroom. Once they “got it,” the teachers really surprised us by coming up with some innovative ways of integrating technology into their lesson plans.

We did something similar this last year at SLA. Teachers formed their own PLC’s based on self-identified areas of interest for professional development. The areas ranged from understanding the Ethic of Care to exploring issues of education policy.

In the spirit of asking ourselves to do what we asked of our students, These groups were asked to develop a unit/project plan for the semester based on a set number of meeting times and the end goal of presenting to/teaching the rest of the staff.

While most groups took the task and ran with it, one or two groups of teachers experienced the same frustration Owens describes. They wanted the right answer.

We’d opened professional development to pure inquiry based on personal interest, basically said, “Learn what you’re curious about and then share with the rest of us.”

I was surprised by the response at first.

As I started to overlay the experience with what happened when 9th grade students entered SLA. The first few months (sometimes the first few years) are spent helping student to stop worrying about the right answer or worksheet withdrawal.

We had no reason to think teachers wouldn’t behave the same way.

Were I to do it again, I’d look more deeply into how or if the teachers saw their practice change and what possible increases of empathy they experienced.

It’s the kind of deeper analysis we’ll miss with the publication of the “publishers’ criteria” for the ELA section of the common core.

In an Ed Week post Friday, Catherine Gewertz wrote, “The impetus behind the criteria, Ms. Pimentel and Mr. Coleman said in a joint phone interview, was to respond to teachers’ requests for support by helping them focus on the cornerstones of the standards and understand how classroom work will have to change to reflect them.”

It’s the problem Owens and the Westville leadership ran into, it’s the problem we ran into when asking teachers to plot their own professional development.

The best possible answer here is simple, “I don’t know. What ideas do you have?”

In navigating the Common Core landscape, lies the opportunity to have teachers experience the kind of high-impact learning the standards are designed to engender.

Instead of guidelines, I’m curious as to the essential questions.

If the DOE can track grantees and how they’re studying the methods and outcomes of teaching American history around the country, surely we can design a program to track, study and better understand the implementation of the Common Core.

Create a transparent, open access clearinghouse of information and ideas. Design grant opportunities that create teacher researchers around the country.

Let the teachers own the process if you want them to own the practice. I know it’s a far cry from how the CC were created and adopted, but there’s a chance to put teaching back in the hands of teachers.

One of my favorite passages in Gewertz’s piece comes from Gates Foundation Common Core Lead Jamie McKee:

[McKee] said that while the foundation “cares deeply about the quality of the [instructional] materials that come from the common core,” it hasn’t yet decided whether it favors a panel or process for validating such materials.

I don’t care.

ELA Common Core lead and Susan Pimentel said, “If we’re asking students to be able to look at text and draw evidence from it, it means they need to be given text, with good teacher support, but without a lot of excessive spoon-feeding up front.”

It’s time to want the same thing for teachers.

An amazing chance to empower teachers exists in how we begin to implement and appraise the Common Core. Handing that process and the design of those systems over to textbook companies and those with little skin in the game isn’t reform, it’s regression.

One thought on “Things I Know 192 of 365: There’s Opportunity to Empower Teachers in the Common Core

  1. It struck me while at ISTE (I don't know why then of all times) that many of us want teachers to give up more of the control in their classrooms and to say yes to students more often. However, teachers are not typically given a lot of control or said yes to. It seems to me that the problem is a lot bigger than I had been thinking. I'm all for any opportunity to empower teachers. But I also think teachers need to go ahead and take that power, whether or not it is being offered to them. We can't just keep waiting.

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