A flurry of professional learning is occurring in states that are working to implement the Common Core State Standards. Most of these states have decided to begin at what seems like a logical point: unpacking the standards.
In these unpacking sessions, teachers and principals study the new standards, reach an understanding of the cognitive demand embedded in them, and prepare for the work required to transform their teaching to implement the standards.
While these early efforts may lay the foundation for understanding the new standards, they are inadequate to support implementation. States and districts must quickly shift gears to begin the real work of implementation by providing professional learning that enriches content knowledge, pedagogy, and most importantly, pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) -- knowing how students learn various disciplines and the major concepts within those disciplines.
Two recent articles in Educational Researcher acknowledge professional learning's important role in supporting teacher implementation of the CCSS, although the authors disagree on how to do this work. Each expresses some concern that the professional learning community model rarely embeds deep learning about content, pedagogy, and PCK. While one article recommends creating a video library of model lessons that provide examples of expert teachers' lessons indexed to the Common Core, the other advocates engaging teachers in situative, constructivist professional learning to develop expertise that extends well beyond knowing best practices and strategies. This form of professional learning helps teachers become responsive to school, student, and even teacher context factors, providing them with the confidence, efficacy, and expertise to meet the needs of all learners within their classrooms.
The articles reflect the authors' underlying beliefs about how educators learn to teach. Each is clearly articulated and grounded in reasoned deliberation and study of the literature, and produces a pathway for practice in professional learning.
Far too often professional learning does not have a similar deep foundation. It is essential that those responsible for professional learning as well as those who participate in it build a comprehensive plan grounded in a theory of change and fundamental beliefs that emerge from their own inquiry.
One of these areas of inquiry must focus on deep study of the Standards for Professional Learning and must result in a common vision about how educators learn and refine their practices. In other words, what types of learning experiences will educators need over time to develop and refine their content, pedagogy, and PCK expertise? Without a comprehensive plan that intentionally enacts the vision of learning and teaching, driven by a common vision and theory of change, professional learning will likely duplicate past efforts that have been inadequate, unfocused, and incoherent.
Just as the Common Core outlines learning progressions for students, professional learning leaders must work hand-in-hand with educators to develop learning progressions for educators based on the defined theory of change and beliefs, and must differentiate and sustain professional learning as a natural part of educators' daily experience so that they achieve high levels of expertise.
For many teachers, the professional learning focus on implementing the Common Core began at an unnecessary point. Rather than spending months or even a year unpacking the standards, teachers must engage in applying the standards in their classrooms and schools. Teachers and principals collaborate within teams of peers that have skillful facilitation to employ constructivist, inquiry-based practices, close guidance and support from content and content-specific pedagogical experts, and coaching that provides a steady steam of evidence-based feedback. School, district, and state leaders provide the necessary support, time, technology, and other resources essential for teams to succeed. School leaders create a culture in which all staff members share collective responsibility, peer accountability, and commitment to continuous improvement to achieve student success.
With a clear focus on implementation, a fully developed theory of change and fundamental beliefs to guide a comprehensive plan for professional learning, adequate expert support, and the necessary conditions for success, professional learning will become a significant lever in producing the transformation in classroom practice and student success embedded in the new standards.
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward