Can Common Core Revive Professional Development?

“Repeat after me:  ‘I will…think…critically.’”  Sounds like a joke, unless you’ve watched this video (recently posted by this blog). In an image reminiscent of the satirical PD scene from The Wire, Season 4, teachers in a Chicago “PD” session are asked to parrot the presenter in unison. What might not be immediately apparent in the Chicago video is that the words that the teachers are repeating are taken from the Common Core State Standards.  The irony is that the Common Core asks students to be critical thinkers, who can read complex texts, write analytically, and understand math both conceptually and fluently.  Despite the fact that we are asking more of our students than ever before, rote and superficial methods of PD are still all too common for our teachers. Why?

First and foremost, old habits die hard. We are used to treating teachers more like factory workers than entrepreneurs. But there is a fundamental disjuncture between the idea of teachers as automatons and students as independent thinkers.  Second, even those who understand this, struggle to make time for teachers to think, collaborate, and learn. To succeed with the Common Core, we need a new form of PD.

The hopeful news is that many teachers are already experiencing a better approach. Listen to these teachers from Washoe County (Reno, NV) talk about their teacher-driven PD initiative, known as the Core Task Project. The Core Task Project gives teachers the opportunity to pilot Common Core-aligned lesson plans with their students, reflect collaboratively on what worked (or didn’t), and receive feedback and training throughout the year. The initiative was recently featured in an EdWeek article and a  Fordham Foundation report, and has grown from 18 teachers to nearly 1500 (roughly half the district). According to the Fordham report, 89% of the 1000 teachers surveyed reported that the PD helped deepen their understanding of the Common Core instructional shifts. Through their training, participating teachers have created a bank of Common Core-aligned curricular resourcesavailable freely via the web.

Around the country numerous strong professional learning models are springing up to meet the challenge of the Common Core, including LearnZillion’s TeachFest, New York City’s iPD initiative, the DC Common Core Collaborative, and the Basal Alignment Project (BAP). The Common Core did not create the demand for effective professional learning, but it does highlight how much we need it.  In contrast to traditional PD, which often elicits groans and foot-dragging from teachers, teachers flock to real professional learning; LearnZillion had over 3000 applicants for its Dream Team and BAP has become one of the biggest Edmodo groups with over 35,000 members.  Teachers are hungry for the opportunity to reflect on content, collaborate with peers, receive expert feedback, and practice the skills they are trying to learn.  All of these models engage teachers deeply with the Common Core by asking them to think and create.

Thinking and creating are the practices we want to develop in our students. Why don’t we start by developing them in our teachers?

Silas Kulkarni works on the Literacy team at Student Achievement Partners, and previously taught in Harlem, New York, and SE Washington, DC.

Max Wagner