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Common-Standards Supports for Teachers Eyed

Five states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards are beginning work on an initiative to create an open-source "platform" that would help teachers access, download, and create resources tied to the common standards, officials from the Council of Chief State School Officers told us today.

CCSSO and the states of New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Colorado will take the lead in helping design and pilot the platform, with financing promised by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Four other states—Delaware, Kentucky, Georgia, and Louisiana—are planning to take part in the near future, with the goal of implementing it in all nine states by 2013.

The idea of a resources clearinghouse, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of CCSSO, came in response to conversations with teachers and teachers' groups that have been providing feedback on the progress of the common-standards initiative.

"One of the early concerns that was raised [by teachers] is what kind of support are you going to give us as we try to implement," Wilhoit said. "Frankly, they told us, 'You'd better not abandon us.' "

The idea is to make a range of supports—including lesson plans, diagnostic tools, and curricular units—available for free through an online platform. That online clearinghouse would offer teachers access to tools and materials and also give them chances to network, discuss ways to use or improve them, or band together to create, upload, and share their own resources.

The designers also want to create "applications" for teachers and students to download to help them track their students' progress against the "learning progressions" outlined in the standards—basically the sequence of skills that have to be mastered along the way to attaining each standard.

Access to the dashboard would be free for teachers in those states, with many of the resources made available in a free, open-access format. And while there wouldn't be a formal quality-control mechanism, the system would allow teachers to rate and comment on the usefulness of the materials. Also, the designers envision tracking user patterns to determine which materials are most popular.

Wilhoit said that, potentially, for-profit companies could choose to make some of their resources available through the platform for a fee. But those resources, he noted, would be vetted by users in the same way, and so they'd have to be pretty compelling to compete against the free stuff.

The effort is in very preliminary stages, which makes it a bit tough to describe. The best way to picture what the designers have in mind, it seems, is a hybrid of a social-networking site, Angie's List, and the iPhone's "App Store." (My colleague Catherine Gewertz suggested calling the venture "Gene's List." Just kidding, Gene.)

Wilhoit took pains to state what the venture will NOT be: a de facto national curriculum. In fact, he suggested that the platform and the user vetting will serve as a safeguard against a national curriculum.

"What we don't want is a single curriculum or a curriculum developed by a single vendor, or organization in fact," he said. "It's a place where rich resources can be put. Ultimately judgment about utility of that would be in the hands of teachers and their students. We would like to get a bit of competition going on."

It is probably not a coincidence that Wilhoit chose to underscore this point. Common-standards supporters have faced a lot of debate among the chattering classes these days about whether the common-standards movement will lead inexorably to a national curriculum. Dozens of edu-folks recently signed a "manifesto" raising such concerns.

Both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, in New York City, have "committed" to developing the platform but not to a specific dollar amount, and they haven't doled out any cash yet for the efforts. (They'd better get their pocketbooks ready, because Wilhoit estimated that the system could cost up to $100 million to develop.) In the meantime, CCSSO folks have been in conversations with various providers, including Wireless Generation, but don't have a formal relationship or contract with any yet.

Any contractor ultimately chosen, Wilhoit said, will get funding to do the design work but would not own or maintain proprietary control over the product, which would remain open-source. And while CCSSO is coordinating the initial design work, it aims to turn the venture over to some kind of state governance structure.

It isn't entirely clear whether or how this undertaking will coordinate with other efforts to develop resources for the common standards.

Those other ventures include the Gates-Pearson collaboration to develop online courses for nearly all the grades, and the supports and tools for certain grades now being developed by the two assessment consortia that are crafting tests aligned to the common-core standards.

Will teachers feel overwhelmed by a surfeit of materials, or grateful for the array of stuff to choose from?

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