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Schools are changing-and this year probably marks the biggest change in many years as districts shift to Common Core teaching and begin using a new state-mandated staff evaluation model.
School districts throughout Connecticut and in 24 other states have modified curriculum, re-written lesson plans, and learned new teaching styles to prepare for this year's shift to the inquiry-based teaching method dictated by the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These became Connecticut's school standards for language arts and math when the state Board of Education adopted them in 2010.
For the past three years, districts knew this would be the big transition year. As a result, teachers and administrators have spent many hours over the past few years preparing in training and in working to revise curriculum.
What is curriculum? At its core, curriculum is the road map that identifies for teachers and administrators which specific skills and content units are to be taught in each grade level and at what depth.
Old Saybrook Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Heston Sutman said that during this summer alone, 95 teacher days were applied to the task of revising district curriculum to meet the Common Core standards.
Under Common Core, fewer skills and content units are covered in each grade than before. Those that are, however, must be taught to ensure students develop a greater depth of understanding of each topic; Common Core instruction focuses on depth of understanding rather than breadth.
Other Common Core linked changes shift specific math or language arts skills from one grade to a different grade.
The Common Core transition also means other changes. Common Core compliance also requires teachers to move from teacher-directed instruction to an inquiry-based model in which students play a larger role in their own learning.
So this is a year for change: change for teachers, change for students, and change for administrators. And it's also a time of preparation: preparing students for a new computer adaptive standardized test that will be administered in 2015 in 25 states, including Connecticut.
The new multi-state exam, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment or SBA, will present students with performance tasks aligned with grade-specific Common Core standards. These tasks will require students to rely on their ability to analyze and synthesize what they have learned; rote memorization is not enough to succeed.
Multiple choice questions on the SBA also will have more than one correct answer. This approach will require students to master each topic to a greater depth of understanding, which means schools must add more Common Core-based language arts and math units at every grade level and teach students new test-taking skills to help them succeed on the new test.
"There's a big increase in the number of hours devoted to professional development per teacher and administrator, both in the summer and over the academic year," said Sutman.
All school administrators in the state had to go back to school for five days to become certified to use the state's new teacher evaluation model. Among its elements, the new rubric for the first time links student performance on standardized tests to teacher ratings.
Which standardized test will be used-the Connecticut Mastery Test series for one more year or a pilot-version of the new Common Core-based Smarter Balanced Assessment-depends on whether Governor Dannel Malloy's request for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education is granted or not. The state Department of Education was still adjusting rules and guidance as late as last week; full implementation could be delayed.
New Evaluation Standards-SEED and CCSS
Every new school program is peppered with acronyms-the new state-mandated teacher and administrator evaluation program that goes into effect this year is no exception.
The new evaluation model-the Connecticut System for Educator Evaluation and Development (SEED)-uses several acronyms for the measures of teacher, administrator, student, and school performance that comprise the rating formula. These include SLOs (Student Learning Objectives), IAGDs (Indicator of Academic Growth and Development), and SPIs (School Performance Index).
What are the elements that combine to make an educator rating under the state-mandated SEED program? For teachers, 50 percent of the score is based on outcomes and 50 percent on practice. For the outcomes component, 45 percent is tied to student growth and development outcomes, and five percent to whole school student learning indicators or student feedback. The 50 percent for the practice score ties 40 percent to observations of performance and practice and 10 percent to peer of parent feedback.
For school administrators, 50 percent of their summative rating is also tied to outcomes and 50 percent to practice: for the 50 percent linked to outcomes, five percent for teacher effectiveness outcomes and 45 percent for multiple student learning objectives; for the 50 percent linked to practice, 40 percent is for observations of performance and practice and 10 percent to stakeholder feedback.
The specific staff scores are also linked to districts' transition to Common Core. That's because the student performance measured will be on a standardized test like the new SBA, a multi-state test aligned with the Common Core Standards.
A conundrum for teachers and administrators is how to set their student learning objectives for student performance to a standardized test that's changing. While a pilot SBA was administered in some state schools last year-Old Saybrook volunteered and a mini pilot version was administered in one class per grade-there are not yet any reliable benchmarks to use.
Nonetheless, the state of Connecticut wants the program implementation to begin. So they've given districts access to a new state data management software program called BloomBoard. The program will be used by teachers to record their SLOs and IAGDs and will also be used to warehouse and analyze data to assist with the rating development.
"Most staff know it's coming," said Westbrook Superintendent of Schools Pat Ciccone. "I've already done two or three orientations with staff, but the state's timeline is crazy. All of the evaluations for staff must be finished by May, including a self reflection."
Teachers had expressed concerns that the data, once collected and organized, could become public record.
According to Old Saybrook's Sutman, the state recently ruled that data, once warehoused, cannot be released to the state without the individual teacher's or district's permission.
"We're trying to decide right now whether to use the state's forms on BloomBoard for evaluations and observations. But they're not even available on BloomBoard yet," said Sutman.
District administrators and the state Department of Education will be working to resolve the many issues of the first year of SEED implementation over the course of this school year.