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An Early Glimpse at Gates-Funded Instructional Tools

A new set of papers from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers us an early look at the lessons and assessments they're developing for the common core standards.

You might recall that the foundation, which has supported the development and adoption of the common standards themselves, awarded $19 million in grants early last year to "design collaboratives" to build an array of instructional tools for teachers striving to teach to the new standards. When those grants were announced, only one state—Kentucky—had adopted the common standards. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia have done so. (The Gates Foundation also supports Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

In a new monograph, "Supporting Instruction: Investing in Teaching", the Gates Foundation's Carina Wong, who oversees this grant area, updates us on the work that's being piloted in 14 school districts in eight states. Two shorter papers offer examples of the tasks and tools from the math and literacy areas.

The first full versions of these tools should be ready this coming fall, the paper says, and eventually will be available for free on the Internet.

The math work highlighted in the paper focuses on "formative assessment lessons" being created for grades 7 to 10 by the Shell Centre in England and the University of California-Berkeley. Designed to be part of a teacher's curriculum, the assessments aim to engage students in a "productive struggle" with math, and draw them toward the knowledge needed to do the calculations correctly, as well as master concepts and apply them. Students complete an initial assessment task, then participate in small-group collaborative activities and whole-class discussion before returning to the initial assessment to improve their original responses.

The idea is to use this process "every couple of weeks," in varying ways, so teachers can get an evolving sense of how their students are doing, the paper says. The formative tools will be accompanied by professional-development modules and classroom-based summative assessments that mix shorter and longer answer formats. Another grantee, Math Solutions, is designing a web-based interview tool for middle school teachers to help them get a sense of their students' learning.

In literacy, the design collaborative of school districts, teachers, and other partners is working on a "set of connected components" that embody the common standards. These include the "centerpiece" of the approach: "template tasks," fill-in-the-blank tasks that require students in grades 6 to 12 to read, analyze and write about a variety of types of texts. There are also instructional modules to help teachers extend instruction on given tasks or skill sets for several weeks. The system can be scaled up or down by expanding upon the template tasks and instructional modules. Full courses are still being developed.

The foundation also notes that it is subjecting its work to "continuous review" to ensure its tools are aligned with the summative assessments being developed by two groups of states with federal Race to the Top funding as those are developed. The foundation also says that in addition to the literacy design collaborative, it is working on a literacy-based middle-school science curriculum, better ways to measure text complexity, and a tool to match students with the right reading and writing assignments.

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