How Principals Can Relieve Anxiety Around Common Core Implementation

We hear a lot about the anxiety caused by the Common Core, much of it focused on how to support teachers in implementing the new standards.

This issue is particularly salient for principals, as they are the ones responsible for observing classrooms and debriefing lessons with teachers. The reality, though, is that it’s nearly impossible for principals to have expertise in all the standards.

On March 5th, we hosted a conversation with Skip Fennell, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and Joan Tellish, Mathematics Support Teacher with the Howard County Public School System and adjunct professor at Towson University, to discuss the challenges principals face when it comes to teacher observation and the Common Core, the pros and cons of various strategies they currently employ, and ideas for what can be possible in the years ahead.

Watch the conversation here:

Here are some highlights

(3:07) Why it is challenging for principals to do observation and feedback in the age of the Common Core.

(10:30) What principals can do to effectively address this challenge.

Skip starts by sharing the Look For tools that outlines what principals should be looking for while on classroom walk throughs. Skip and Joan explain how “The Standards of Mathematical Practice are written almost as observable behaviors”; this tool helps principals make sense of observed student disposition, teacher actions promoting these dispositions and more.

Click this image to download the Look For slides

Download the Look For slides by clicking above image

(19:45) How to adjust the dynamic from principals being perceived as the “expert” to principals and teachers having a conversation about the content and how to make it accessible to students.

Since we ran out of time to answer all the questions from our audience, Skip and Joan kindly agreed to share their thoughts on a few more, below:

1. What is the best plan for addressing parental anxiety around the CCSS?  How can we help them understand without being fearful or becoming negative about the shift to CCSS?

Joan: Host a CCSS Parent Night. Do an overall intro and then break into grade level teams and have the teachers address strategies and content. Give them resources such as LearnZillion and other websites.

Skip: I think schools and school districts must have sessions for parents.  This, to me, should be more than the sort “fun math night” where people play games, etc.  Those are nice, but it’s time for serious business here. I would see (and have seen) teachers presenting lesson snapshots of the critical topics (using the critical areas at each grade level) that children would encounter per grade level – particularly showing how representations are used to help develop and deepen understanding.  I am also seeing math leaders use Pencasts and LearnZillion activities as sort of a ‘flipped classroom’ opportunity for parents, followed up by at-the-school Q and A.  Hope this, as a start, helps.  NOTING that such opportunities (thos above) are not one and done!

2. What advice can you give to principals who do not have content specialists in their buildings or even in their districts?

Joan: Reach out to “leaders” in their building. Have them do a book study or lesson studies.

Skip: Well, certainly online visits to LearnZillion, the Progressions (this site for serious PD opportunities for teachers) and Illustrative Math sites (this site for classroom tasks and so much more) are a start in terms of having principals connect to the important mathematics within the CCSS (as well as the Practices).

Editor’s note: Skip wrote a book with Tim Kanold, Diane Briars that may be of interest entitled: What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Mathematics (2011).

3. What is the difference between a Common Core Classroom and the classroom that we are moving away from?

Joan: My answer is that it is all about good teaching practices. The content is different and students have more time to engage in rich tasks to develop the understanding. Taking the time to have deep discussions and students working in groups. What I do not like to see are worksheets and students who are not engaged!

Skip: Easy! This is about fewer standards done deeply and well, with a genuine push for understanding important mathematical concepts and developing proficiency in such ideas and related skills. Understanding is not an option, it’s an expectation AND it’s about time! (I am now into full rant form…)

4. What strategies do you believe will best support content development, especially for elementary teachers, who may not understand the content well enough to move into a more conceptual model?

Skip: Teachers MUST understand the mathematics they are responsible for teaching AND more.  Professional development needs to be content-focused leading to pedagogy with the Practices serving as that pedagogical window.  I don’t think there are specific strategies here other than exposing teachers to the developmental trajectories, which help guide both teaching and learning of critical mathematics topics.

5. How do I get my teachers to trust the student led instruction to ensure mastery of content?

Skip: I don’t think it’s student led instruction!  Teacher are in charge, they plan and present AND engage students in DOING the math (which is probably what is meant by the ‘student led’ phrase above). As students are involved they will experience EVERYDAY in EVERY lesson the ‘habits of mind’ that are the Practices.  They will solve problems, they will discuss solutions, they will use tools, etc.  But wait – this implies teachers know the content and content expectations, it implies they “get” the interface between content standards which may drive a lesson and the Practices evident within a lesson, etc.  That’s what must happen – some states, districts have been doing this now for 3 years others are just beginning.  For some, teaching “this way” has been what they have done FOREVER.  For others, new stuff, more demanding, etc.  OUR collective challenge is knowing such needs and addressing them.

6. Joan mentioned the practices book. What is it?

Joan: Putting the Practices Into Action. Implementing the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, K-8. by O’Connell and SanGiovanni (2013)  (Heinemann)

Skip: This book explains each Practice and gives examples

7. Also, would love to know what Joan’s talking tools mean… that looks great!

Joan: This year my school is focusing on “Rich Discussions” – Last year, I facilitated a Book Study for some teachers using Classroom Discussions – Math Solutions – last year. This year we integrated it throughout the entire school and I led 5 Staff Meetings on the “Talk Tools” – It is all based on Academically Productive Talk – but being intentional. The Talk Moves are Turn and Talk, Restate, Revoice, Agree/Disagree, Say More, and Explain. We put each “move” on a cut out of a tool and every classroom has a set. The ‘tools” are wonderful to incorporate the “Practices” such as Reasoning Abstractly and Quantitatively, Construct viable arguments…, Attend to precision. They really encourage the WHY and HOW and allow students to explain their thinking. We expect to see this is all classes including Related Arts. Our belief is that is you “Talk It, you remember it!” It is all about student engagement!

8. Skip – How frequently do you feel a math coach should try and meet with administration to talk about progress in the building?

Joan: My administrators and the Reading Support Teacher and I meet once a week for 1 – 2 hours. I feel fortunate that my administration is very supportive and the door is always open.

Skip: This is important to me!  When specialists are most effective it’s because there is ongoing communication and collaboration with other building leaders –  Principal/Assistant Principal, etc.  So, I would urge weekly meetings.  I would also urge the kind of collaborative work around teacher walk-throughs and observations that Joan suggested.  AND, I would suggest a daily check in – maybe it’s coffee time, maybe it’s just a couple of minutes…REALLY important.  I have horror stories going the ‘other direction’ which has fostered my passion for this important mathematics link.  Joan and her work with her Principal is a great example!

9. More on Look Fors

Skip: As noted on the webinar these tools came about because of a simple principal request and has sort of blow up (partly linked, though unintentionally) because of the teacher evaluation issue being discussed by seemingly everyone. The sources presented during the webinar should help those interested get started in the use of the Look For’s.  Happy to address more specifics on this at another time.

Like what you’ve seen, check out these other useful resources:

The secret to amazing Professional Development: The 3 P’s

When people ask me for the secret to great professional development, I share our 3 Ps.

Funnily enough, we discovered these 3 P’s by accident. In the summer of 2011, thanks to a Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant, we brought 20 teachers from around the country together to work on the first batch of LearnZillion lessons.  For two days we sat in a cramped room with math books, computers, and treats, working on lessons. At the end of the two days, several of the teachers said that it had been “the best professional development” of their career.

A year later it happened again.  This time we brought 123 teachers to Atlanta and called the event TeachFest.  On the second night, after a full day of working on lessons, we gave everyone an option.  They could go out on the town, watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on a large screen, or continue working on lessons in the basement.  At 11pm, half the teachers were still working in the basement.  Again, the feedback at the end of the event was, “this was the best professional development.”

It was a revelation that our content creation process was, in fact, the key to incredible professional growth, satisfaction and impact.  And when we analyzed why that was, it boiled down to 3 Ps: product, process, and people.

1. Product

DT quote 3 v2

The experience is focused on developing a final producta lesson.  The product is practical, meaningful, and challenging to create.  The teachers know they are going to use the lessons, and that other teachers and students are going to use them too.

Lesson on a computer

Most professional development focuses on professional development.  We have come to believe that professional development is most powerful when focused on creating something useful; professional development is the by-product of creating a product.

2.  Process

Focusing on a final product isn’t enough.  Teachers have to be set up for success.  There needs to be a roadmap that provides them with the guidance and resources they need to accomplish the goal – from initial research, to outlines, to drafting.  At TeachFest, we didn’t say, here’s a block of time to plan, go for it.  We thought through every step of the process and asked ourselves, “what does the teacher need to be successful now.  What about now?  What about now?”  And then we equipped them with those things.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 4.22.32 PM

Here, for example, is an overview of our TeachFest roadmap:

LearnZillion Process

LearnZillion lesson creation process

3.  People

The final P stands for people.  The 20 teachers at that initial convening helped each other out.  

DT quote 1

When one of them had a question about their lesson, they would talk it through with a colleague or a coach.  They had opportunities to get feedback and then make revisions to their work based on that feedback.  This happened in person and then continued on-line over the summer as teachers worked on their lessons.  As a result, most of the experience looked like this…

Teacher Collaboration

Dream Team teachers collaborating at TeachFest

…as opposed to looking like an expert standing in front of a large group of people.

Put them together and what have you got…

McDonald’s talks about its “secret sauce.”  When it comes to professional development we believe the sauce shouldn’t be secret.  Just remember the 3 Ps.  Put them together and you create amazing lessons, build the capacity of teachers, and have a lot of fun.

DT quote 4

Dream Team 2013 group shot

National LearnZillion 2013 Dream Team