State Education Agencies Focusing on Technical Assistance

My second article on the Common Core for ASCD. You can also see it here and sign up at that site to get ASCD’s Common Core-focused newsletter. Here goes:

School districts and state education agencies are developing close working relationships as they create new tools and processes for implementing the Common Core State Standards. They are discovering that they have much to learn from one another, as states watch and learn from districts working with school leaders and teachers on effective implementation and as district personnel support those at the state office as they create new training and systems for statewide rollouts of the standards.

In Missouri, just such a relationship has developed between Willard R-2 School District and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in Jefferson City, over two hours northeast of Willard.

Willard School District, about 11 miles northwest of Springfield, has 4,200 students and nine schools: five K–4 buildings, of which three are full Title I; a grades 5–6 school; a 7–8 building; one high school; and one alternative school. Danielle Sellenriek, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, has been leading the district’s work with the Common Core State Standards.

Now starting her second year at Willard, Sellenriek has previously worked with the state department of education as a regional instructional facilitator, doing professional development for districts out of one of the state’s regional centers. “When I worked with DESE,” Sellenriek says, “I was a part of the assessment division and worked with about 90 school districts on the state assessment and its oversight. In that role is when I first met the people at Willard.”

Sellenriek moved from the professional development center to Willard as an assessment specialist. She built on the work that she had started at Willard with districtwide common formative and summative assessments, deconstructing with the district the state’s grade level expectations standards and creating a process that would soon be ideal for work with the Common Core State Standards.

Using the state’s grade-level expectations, Sellenriek and her Willard colleagues created formative and summative assessments around units of studies and clustered standards, with pacing charts, essential questions, learner objectives, and other parts of thoughtful, actionable units. When the state adopted the Common Core State Standards, Sellenriek and the team leaders from Willard transitioned into the new standards, shifting their work from the grade-level expectations to the Common Core. “It made sense to incorporate the two lines of work,” says Sellenriek.

As other small districts have done, Willard ensured that people from several school buildings were involved in this work. Master teachers represented the different content areas of each school. Instructional coaches and administrators from Willard schools and the district office were also involved. Once trainers were prepared, they went to the individual schools and trained their colleagues. Kent Medlin, Willard’s superintendent, was also very engaged and supportive.

But unlike at other small districts, Willard also had another partner in this process: personnel from the state education office. Not only did the state office assist with the development and delivery of this work, but it also used what they discovered as a pilot for work with other districts across the state of Missouri. Diane Audsley, a Communication Arts Consultant at DESE, a former colleague of Sellenriek’s, and the lead contact between Willard and DESE, says that the state office was “looking for a district to work with, for piloting ways to help teachers understand new things coming down the road with the Common Core.”

“We wanted to know: What kinds of information and materials would be most helpful to teachers so that they really understand the shifts happening with the new English language arts [ELA] standards?” says Audsley. “And what is going to help those teachers make those shifts?”

“The state department has always been very collaborative,” said Sellenriek about her work with Audsley and DESE. “People at the state office function in the real world and used our work as action research, to create a structure that they can use around the rest of the state.”

Sellenriek, Audsley, and Willard School District colleagues developed a professional development series around the Common Core State Standards, with the focus on ELA at the elementary level and math and ELA at the high school level, and then Sellenriek and Audsley cotrained. This process allowed Sellenriek to access resources from the state office and Audsley to see closely what was happening on the ground in a district, as she and her DESE colleagues planned for a statewide Common Core rollout.

“With this training, we provided a really strong overview of the shifts that were taking place with the Common Core,” says Audsley. “When we began this work, we were very much on the same page, and teachers came to a much deeper understating of the instructional shifts that would need to happen.”

Audsley continues, “Interestingly, what Danielle and I did not anticipate was just how thirsty teachers would be for knowledge, so much so that they got out ahead of us.”

As for the statewide rollout this summer, DESE is taking what was done with Willard, modifying the materials as needed for a statewide audience, and delivering a series of train-the-trainer events to curriculum directors from larger districts and professional development trainers from the state’s professional development centers. Both groups then will go out and train their own cohorts of people.

Sellenriek could not be more positive about her work with people from the state office. “For us here at Willard, it is about being collaborative and proactive and moving forward,” she says. “We are working for our students and their future.”

Audsley feels the same way and sees her work with Willard as a metaphor for what is happening across the country, given each state’s common goal of implementing the Common Core State Standards. She sums up: “We developed and are now sharing that work, all over our state, and other states are doing the same, given that we all have the same goal, effective implementation of the Common Core State Standards.”

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