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Tackling Common Core... Collaboratively

Teachers in the Douglas County School System have found a way to manage three challenges that are overwhelming many educators across the country: simultaneously implementing new teacher evaluation systems, the Common Core State Standards, and new student assessments.

Douglas County is about 30 minutes north of the Atlanta airport and serves approximately 24,000 students. While Georgia is a Race to the Top state, Douglas County is not an RTTT district, which makes the work being done there even more impressive. The work stems from a simple commitment to do what is best for all students.

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the district along with colleagues from NEA and AFT. Each Monday throughout the summer, teams of Douglas County teachers gather to write common district assessments that are aligned to Common Core and state performance standards. Teachers have agreed to this approach to promote implementation of new student performance standards (aligned to CCSS), meet new teacher evaluation system requirements, and prepare for new assessments. They also support using these assessments in the future as a key alternative measure for the student growth component of their evaluations.

Teachers apply to participate in the development process. During a week of intensive work, teams of teachers write KUD (Knowledge, Understandings, an Do's) for each grade/course standard. After studying the curriculum, consensus is built and the teams move on to the writing the common district assessment. All products are labeled as drafts and teachers across the district are given considerable time to provide feedback. What's amazing is that after engaging hundreds in the process last summer, hundreds more applied again to participate this year to refine last year's products and develop more.

Teachers who don't participate in the writing process are given the opportunity to provide feedback on items throughout the summer. Everything is posted so anyone can review work as it progresses. During the school year, teachers are provided regularly scheduled common planning times and are encouraged to review the tests at the beginning and end of units to ensure teaching is aligned to intended outcomes. There are no secrets in terms of the standards by which students and ultimately teachers are assessed.

During our tour I saw evidence of the success of the work being done. Principals appreciated teachers' openness to the process and the changes in instruction they observed as a result of more deliberate planning and instruction. Teachers appreciated the more specific feedback principals were able to offer thanks to the common language generated from the assessments. Teachers also appreciated the system for its "soft entry" into the process. Initial goals were basically written in improvement language, specific targets were soft, and everyone knew that the first year was a pilot. Most importantly, labor appreciated management for engaging it throughout the process. This administration not only asks for and listens to feedback, it makes changes because of it. Teachers see that their opinions matter, and their expertise is honored.

My colleagues from NEA and AFT were impressed by the level of trust and honesty that was on display throughout the day. It was evidence of the best of labor and management relations in the name of collaboration and student learning. Perhaps it was the fact that many of these educators grew up in the community and are committed to giving back to it, or the fact that it has a long history of ensuring teachers and principals have the highest quality professional learning. Or maybe it's the plain truth that when educators prioritize student success, believe everyone shares their commitment, and take time to focus, learn, and go deep with a strategy that offers evidence that it promotes student learning, there's nothing they can't accomplish.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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