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Connecting Professional Learning Standards to the Common Core

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By Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director, Learning Forward

As a recent article in Education Week makes clear, there are many educators at a range of levels across the country talking about the link between teacher capacity and successful implementation of the Common Core (read Concern Abounds Over Teachers' Preparedness for Standards).

That link between educators and successful implementation is clear to me — it's high-quality professional learning. And as I attended last week's meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) Implementing the Common Core Standards state collaborative, I was delighted to hear that I am not the only one with that belief. CCSSO Executive Director Gene Wilhoit focused his opening comments on the role professional development must play in achieving the vision for the Common Core.

He began his remarks with the following: "If you take nothing else from what I say this morning, remember our success depends on two concepts: how we impact at scale (for this work depends on impacting the vast majority of teachers, schools, and districts) and all said, this really is a systems issue and we are the system. The cruelest thing we can do to teachers is to poorly prepare them for today's challenges, isolate them in dysfunctional environments, treat them as line workers while calling them professionals and then blame them for the woes we face."

We know from decades of reforms that this very step — how we prepare teachers to implement changes — is at the heart of making a transformation a reality in schools. "Nothing could be more critical to success of the standards than professional development for educators," Wilhoit said. "We need a fundamental shift in how teachers learn, grow, and improve in our education system."

So here's where I need to bring in another set of standards. The Standards for Professional Learning address the very issues that Wilhoit raised in his remarks. Crafting professional learning with attention to these standards will be essential in building teacher and leader capacity during our efforts to implement the Common Core. I'd like to focus on just two of our seven standards and the connections between them and Wilhoit's message.

Our Learning Communities standard states: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment. Wilhoit asked that systems and schools make sure teachers participate in learning communities focused on Common Core. Such learning communities will be most effective when the educators within them collaborate in an environment where they hold one another accountable for the success of all students in a school or system. Together, educators will determine their greatest learning needs, and they will tap both the expertise within their community and identify resources beyond their team to begin to increase their capacity.

As Wilhoit noted, "The Common Core will require more content expertise and greater pedagogical skill, since when we demand more of students we'll be demanding more of teachers." With such demands, the peer-to-peer support of an effective learning community can leverage the best teaching a school has to offer.

Equally important is the Leadership standard: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students requires skillful leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create support systems for professional learning. In this standard, we are addressing skillful leaders at all levels, from the classroom to the state, province, or nation. At whatever level they work, leaders make learning one of their top priorities, and not just for students, but also for themselves and for all staff. They also advocate for professional learning, and use their understanding of how change happens for systems to ensure support is in place. Wilhoit emphasizes the importance of the state leader in the shift to Common Core when he stresses that the state leader's role "is to articulate to educators, across your various projects and programs, that the state has a vision for how all of these seemingly disconnected initiatives work together to help them get their students to be college and career ready." He was speaking not only of Common Core, but also of teacher evaluation systems, and how all initiatives must interconnect.

I appreciate that so many of my colleagues understand the key role of professional learning in attaining our dreams for students, and I urge those who are concerned about how to create learning systems that build educator capacity to start with the Standards for Professional Learning (available online at www.learningforward.org/standards). All seven standards work in concert to facilitate learning that leads to changes in educator practice, leadership, and most importantly, student results. When we are striving for a transformation as critical as the Common Core, we can't overlook the importance of addressing the capacity of those responsible for achieving it.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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