Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Educator Preparation and the Common Core: A Voice from the Field

obriena's picture

One of the greatest challenges that the education community faces in implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative is ensuring that the education workforce is ready to help students succeed under these new, higher standards.

Facing this challenge requires providing the current workforce with high-quality professional learning opportunities, something we talk about a great deal at the national level. But it also requires preparing new educators to enter classrooms ready to teach under the CCSS, something we talk about very little. How are the higher-education institutions that train the vast majority of our nation’s teachers working to ensure the successful implementation of the Common Core?

To help answer this question, we contacted Linda McKee, Director of the Teacher Preparation and Certification Program at Tulane University. McKee is currently serving as the president of the Louisiana Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (an affiliate of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, AACTE) and as the president of Louisiana Learning Forward. She collaborated with two of her colleagues at Tulane – Holly Bell, Coordinator for Assessment & Accreditation and an early childhood education faculty member, and James Kilbane, a professor for secondary education in math and science – in responding to several questions on how university-based teacher preparation programs in general, and Tulane in particular, are preparing educators to teach in the age of the Common Core.

Public School Insights (PSI): As a faculty member at an institution of higher education, you see firsthand the products of the nation’s high schools. Do you think that the Common Core will help ensure students are better prepared for college or career? Why or why not?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: The Common Core (CC) is more rigorous than we have previously seen in Louisiana, and if implemented correctly, the new standards could make a difference. We desperately need to make a difference in students’ learning to think. The difficulty with the CC lies in educators understanding the aims of the standards and being able to implement them with fidelity. The Common Core standards represent a dramatic change from the specialty area standards that most states had developed and were testing. The challenge is that those standards were not being met, so we question if the CC standards will be met any better without assistance from teachers, schools, and students.

The established system is so ingrained with lower standards and a minimum achievement test focus that it has taken classrooms far from the Socratic seminar experience of complex thinking that the Common Core seeks to induce. It will take time for school systems to respond effectively because it is a paradigm shift away from single choice correct answers towards critical thinking. 

The Common Core has a stronger focus on complex thinking skills, and that will support students in both college and career – in life! However, a few of the CC standards seem to be developmentally misplaced. As teachers and students are pressured to achieve these (misplaced) standards, students may begin to feel more unsuccessful in school and become less engaged, which in the end defeats the value of the more complex thinking.

PSI: In general, how can colleges of teacher education and other educator preparation programs help ensure successful implementation of the Common Core?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: If we want to change teaching on a fundamental level, we need to model for teacher candidates by instructing them in known, research-supported, successful, best practices of teaching. Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) have to make our own lessons active, open-ended, and rigorous. We also have to keep teachers and teacher candidates apprised of current events in education on a state and national level, and we have to help them make sense of the standards and other requirements they will be expected to meet. This way they enter the field informed and flexible enough to adapt when the next set of standards are presented.

EPPs can help teacher candidates understand what the Common Core, and all standards, are asking students to do and how teachers can design learning experiences to support that. We also need to teach students how to analyze and critique the value of the critical CC standards to address in their subject area because there is an excessive volume of standards for students to successfully learn well. Again, we have a system that is too broad and not deep enough for quality learning to occur.

PSI: What changes have or will be made by the faculty at the Teacher Preparation and Certification Program at Tulane to ensure graduates are ready to teach in an environment shaped by the Common Core?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: There are two main actions that we have taken since the acceptance of the Common Core standards. First is to have teacher candidates study the CC standards, as we had them study the standards prior to the CC, and design lessons for those standards upon which we evaluate them. We have whole class periods devoted to unpacking the standards, looking at how they align across grade levels and how they correlate with learning theory and child development. We require teacher candidates to write the standards into their lesson plans and to create assessments based on those standards. 

The second thing we have done is on a program level. We have revised our curriculum to link the focus on thinking that was already ingrained into our program to the thinking addressed in the CC standards. With each revision of the state standards, university EPPs adapt their curriculum and program assessment systems to ensure their teacher candidates are prepared for the classroom and their students.

PSI: What is the biggest challenge that teacher preparation programs face in preparing new educators to teach under the Common Core?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: The challenge continues to be the same one that universities have always had – having enough time for students to develop a complex understanding of the learning and teaching process as well as providing enough quality experiences (with successful teachers in classrooms) before someone enters the classroom on his/her own. We are limited by state legislatures in the preparatory coursework we can offer, which thus limits how effectively we can prepare teachers. We are limited by the disingenuousness we see supporting the idea that teachers need to continue to develop and are only novices when they leave the university. We are limited by the growing belief that learning about the complexity of learning and teaching, as well as how to maneuver within that complexity, is not necessary and thus anyone can teach without developing a strong knowledge-based skill set.

We are limited by not understanding how the state will interpret the new standards. We are challenged by how that affects the requirements on teachers, pre and post certification. And we are challenged by working within the expectations of local school districts concerning the new standards as well, when it is clear that they have limited support to implement the standards with fidelity. 

PSI: How has or will the Common Core State Standards Initiative changed the way that schools of education operate in terms of collaboration – with K-12 schools and districts, state education agencies, and/or other schools within their institution?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: The hope is that it will redirect universities and school districts to collaborate to support teachers throughout their career. This will not occur until the policy makers believe that it takes time and resources to develop an effective teacher. The university/school/district partnerships are vital to our future training of teachers but are difficult to sustain, especially when professional learning for career educators is not supported by state agencies.

At Tulane, there has been little change – we constantly strive to sustain strong partnerships with schools and districts in the greater metropolitan New Orleans (NOLA) area. Our pre-service teachers are in the schools from their very first class, and their experiences escalate as they progress through the coursework. We have presented professional development to charter groups in preparation for the 2013-2014 school year to help teachers better understand how to apply the new standards. All of the university programs in Louisiana have Common Core/PARCC university-PreK-12 teams who collaborate to design curriculum and implement the standards. NOLA universities have also offered parent workshops and held education panels to enlighten the community.

PSI: Louisiana is part of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) consortium that is working to develop next-generation assessments aligned to the Common Core. What implications do these assessments have for 1) institutions of higher education in general, as students complete high school having taken these assessments, and 2) teacher preparation programs that must equip new teachers with the skills necessary to ensure student success on these assessments?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: PARCC is going to affect the number of students completing tests successfully. Any time standards change test scores drop – as has been proven in states where the new tests have been implemented. Students have prepared for years to meet other standards. There needs to be a grace period or grandfathering period – longer than the few years being currently allowed in Louisiana.  The system simply cannot respond effectively in such a short turn-around – any system requires time for assimilation of new material.  The assessments can be used as diagnostic tools – the true purpose of such tools – but not for high stakes or accountability.

The question remains on whether the PARCC assessments will be able to do all they promise or that schools will be able to implement them. It is also questionable if the PARCC assessments will actually be able to measure the complex thinking required of the CC standards that would actually make implementing an accountability system valuable. Rather, the assessments [could] provide data that doesn’t help us understand student ability to use complex thinking.

The goal of teaching is to equip teacher candidates, and ultimately their students, with the ability to develop learners who effectively use creative and complex thinking. When we design assessments that measure that, then we will be successful in our students learning any model of standards for any form of assessment, and student success will be ensured. The standards or assessment instrument of the moment are not the issue – the creative and critical thinking of our students must be imperative.

PSI: Some are concerned that the efforts of colleges of teacher education to adapt to the Common Core are mainly efforts by individuals or individual institutions. Do you find that to be true? What can be done – at the state, federal or local level – to ensure such efforts are systemic?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: Colleges of teacher education are being maligned on a national level. We take our charge as seriously as other professions- maybe more so. Coordinated efforts to teach and meet the new standards are happening in every EPP in Louisiana. There are alliances in place at the state and national levels that have been disseminating information and education for instructors of higher education for years.

There was a systemic failure from the beginning not to include stakeholders in this process. Having one or two representatives of various stakeholder groups from across the nation gather together in effective secret without including a broader base of input has led to the situation of inconsistent support and implementation [that the Common Core faces]. The current situation of discord and unrest was caused by ignoring systems theory, change theory, and school reform history. We need to use the next few years as formative years and support in-depth training and in-school coaching for teachers to revise their methods of teaching. State and national entities can support the universities and schools by revising policy to reflect, and support, partnerships for collaborative implementation of the new standards; funding professional development that follows national standards of professional learning such as designed by Learning Forward; and requiring district and school support of pre-service training for teachers in high quality classrooms. And we can design a guiding coalition that develops better responses to this question – it is not an answer that should be left to only one person!

PSI: Are there any other questions that I should have asked but did not?

McKee, Bell, and Kilbane: If so, I cannot think of them now. Give me a few more months—in education, as in life, everything changes.