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The “core” of professional development

Forty-two states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity — DoDEA — have adopted the Common Core State Standards. The standards took the stage in 2010, and since then, the standards landscape has shifted often, with some states opting for their own standards and assessments.

This month, we’re covering Common Core: Where are we now? In this blog post, education leader Fred Ende suggests two facts he says cannot be ignored about the Common Core State Standards: they create a common language and support “true rigor.”

When the Common Core State Standards were released in June 2010, it set off a storm of activity. Many states chose to adopt and implement; some did not, and still others chose to create their own standards that were, in some ways, almost a “Common Core Lite” version. Regardless of the politics and personal viewpoints many have shared since then, two facts can’t be ignored:

  • The existence of a set of common learning standards allows for common benchmarks, common talking points, and common curriculum, which in turn, makes it easier for learners, parents and community members to “stay in touch” in our increasingly mobile society.
  • The standards encourage a different way of learning, one that welcomes skills in favor of direct content, and a methodology that focuses on increasing complexity by grade as a hallmark of true rigor.

Say what you will about the standards, but it can’t be denied that these learning benchmarks strive to approach education in a more collaborative and learning-focused format than standards have in the past (at least that was the case in New York).

And that’s what I want to write about in this post. In my role, I’ve seen a tremendous change in how professional development has been designed and facilitated, thanks in part to the Common Core.

And that change? Primarily for the better.

English language arts

Let’s start with ELA. One of the best results of the methodology in the Common Core Learning Standards for ELA (yep, New York was one of those states that adopted the Common Core State Standards but made a number of additions) was the emphasis on ELA being more than a single subject area.

While the standards didn’t create the need for educators to help students become better evaluators and crafters of the written word (we should have been doing this a long time ago), it provided further evidence of this need, and just as importantly, visible outcomes to support making large scale moves in this direction. Over the last few years, particularly for our secondary educators, our professional development offerings have grown to include sessions such as “Deeper Research in Social Studies and English,” “Writing Like a Historian,” and “Meeting Science Standards and the ELA Common Core with Interactive Science Notebooks.”

What is so fascinating about this is that prior to the Common Core, none of these workshops would have existed, and it leaves one to wonder if they ever would have come to pass without the integrated nature the Common Core strives for. These standards have also helped us refocus our regional curriculum programs. Both SCIENCE 21 (our K-6 kit-based science curriculum) and SS/ELA (our Social Studies/English language arts program for K-7 teachers) have taken on a much fuller and more comprehensive nature due to the “reading and writing exist everywhere” stance that the Common Core State Standards takes. And when it comes to providing relevant PD, that is one stance that is hard to argue with.


And what about math? The emphasis on practices and shifts, even more so than content, has helped us to provide clinic-based professional learning opportunities for educators. Last year, regional leaders in the field of mathematics facilitated grade-specific sessions, four times over the course of the year, which used the Common Core Learning Standards as a foundation to building true math understanding. These small cohorts of educators took a dive into the math content, explored how it related to the standards, and then focused in on what that meant for their pedagogy.

From sitting in on these sessions, and reading workshop evaluations, I can share that educators felt these were some of the most intense and meaningful professional learning experiences they’ve ever attended. They praised these clinics for helping them to feel comfortable with math content and truly get to the heart of what the standards mean. While these clinics were designed for grades K-5, at the other end of the K-12 spectrum, the standards provided another interesting learning opportunity.

Our region, as a whole, has found it challenging to accelerate students in mathematics in a way that truly recognizes math prowess without discouraging learners or families from continuing on a non-accelerated path. As such, a number of our districts accelerate high percentages of students at the middle school level, sometimes despite student developmental readiness. With the creation of the Common Core, math benchmarks at the middle school level have become increasingly more rigorous. This led a number of districts in our region to seek our assistance in working together to design a new acceleration pathway, one that moves middle school acceleration to a realm only for those with incredibly advanced math skills, and shifts the acceleration timeline to tenth grade, a time when students are not only more developmentally prepared for the acceleration, but also a time when the collective math knowledge and skills a given student possesses has increased dramatically. Without the increased demand of skill mastery and content knowledge that the math Common Core specifies, our region could not have made this shift.

No standards document is perfect, and certainly, our experiences in the suburbs of New York City might be different than those of other educators in other parts of the country. And yet, the transition to the Common Core Learning Standards has made for a wonderful learning experience, one where the professional development and curriculum design work that our agency focuses on has become more robust, more focused, and most importantly, more relevant for the educators and students we serve.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at, Edutopia and at ASCD EDge.

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