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In Strong Common-Core Endorsement, NEA and Firm Unveil Curricula by 'Master Teachers'

The National Education Association and the for-profit firm BetterLesson today unveiled a jointly designed, $7 million free platform with more than 3,000 lessons aligned to the Common Core State Standards—a move that comes concurrent with NEA's strongest endorsement yet for the standards.

The standards have been politically attacked in the states—and by some of the union's own members—but in an interview, the union's president challenged naysayers to produce a better alternative.

"When I sit on panels and someone chastises us for supporting the common core, I always ask: 'Are there specific things you believe should not be there?' I never get an answer," NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. "Second, I ask, "What's missing?' I don't get an answer. And the third thing I ask is, 'What is the alternative? What do you want? Standards all over the ballpark, tests all over the ballpark?' "

In point of fact, Van Roekel continued, "the Common Core State Standards are our best guess of what students need to know to be successful, whether they choose college or careers. If someone has a better answer than that, I want to see it." 

And that's why the union wanted to create a year's worth of what Van Roekel called "classroom ready" lesson plans aligned to the common core, and available to teachers for free. 

What differentiates the BetterLesson approach from an increasing number of other lesson-sharing websites, according to Alex Grodd—a former teacher and the site's co-founderis that it isn't just a bunch of lesson plans of variable quality. 

"Teachers write lessons in idiosyncratic ways; there are holes, they're not always meant to be shared," Grodd said. 

By contrast, he said, the new platform purposefully breaks each lesson into its component pieces, with narratives and artifacts from the master teachers explaining how they go about introducing a topic, arrange practice activities, and troubleshoot.

Founded in 2009, BetterLesson currently has more than 300,000 registered users.

Designing Lessons

The new common-core lessons were written by 130 teachers, who were selectively chosen from an application pool. There are at least five teachers for each K-12 grade level in math and English/language arts. The lessons they produce for the site will be free for all K-12 teachers in the United States, and are searchable by topic or by the standard they target. Lessons are oriented into units and full courses. In some cases, video clips demonstrate the teachers at work. 

Angles will effect the construction of a  home-built skateboard ramp, explains Colorado geometry teacher Tim Ault in the introduction to one lesson. And while tackling Milton's Paradise Lost, Colorado English teacher Jessica Keigan asks her students to consider popular artistic representations of the fall of Adam and Eve, and how Milton's verse draws on them.

Those are just two examples; as the master teachers produce more material, BetterLesson hopes to have 16,000 lessons by the fall. (Teachers will have to register with the site to download content.) 

"We want this to be the definitive body of knowledge of what effective teachers are doing in implementing the common core," Grodd said.

BetterLesson received a $3.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to kick off the master teacher project, while the NEA kicked in $3.6 million in staff time and resources. Among other things, the union helped to develop selection criteria for the master teachers, which included an analysis of their students' learning, the strength of the teachers' lessons, and their ability to work with other teachers.

The master teachers each receive a $15,000 payment a year to produce their materials and have parts of their instruction recorded.

Part of what drew the NEA to BetterLesson was the opportunity to recognizing exceptional teachers and their ongoing work to improve practice, Van Roekel said. In fact, one of the features of the new site is its emphasis on the master teachers, their personalities, and their approach to shaping lessons. Grodd said that this was a purposeful attempt to help teachers find others whose teaching styles mirrored their own—a feature he likened to eHarmony and other online dating sites.

A Trifecta?

For the NEA, the decision to partner with Better Lesson potentially opens it to a trifecta of criticism. The national union has a core of activists who have been highly critical of its engagement with the Gates Foundation and its support of the common core, and who are also deeply suspicious of for-profits' engagement in K-12 education.

Van Roekel countered that the union wants to be mindful of painting all for-profits with too broad a brush.

"I complain a lot about for-profits and what they're doing," he acknowledged. "For us at NEA, we are extremely careful in who we want to partner with. We have to be willing to differentiate who's out there and how they operate and choosing the right partners, and I think we did that in this case."

The other major teacher's union, the American Federation of Teachers, in 2012 announced its own partnership with a for-profit organization to help disseminate common-core materials. That effort, Share My Lesson, now has about 30,000 resources, the union said earlier this week.

With all this free stuff floating around, you may be wondering how BetterLesson plans to keep itself afloat. The company currently generates most of its revenue from a "premium" service in which school districts and charter-school chains pay a per-head fee of $60 for teachers to network and share lessons and ideas on the site.

But that service will be winding down, Grodd said, as the organization ramps up a new approach to professional-development offerings. That will certainly be worth watching, and of course, Teacher Beat will be on the case.

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