The Common Core standards for math and English Language Arts have led to major changes in how elementary and secondary students are being taught. But some education experts worry that teacher training has not kept up with the changes.
Kate Walsh, President of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an education think tank that focuses on teacher preparation and effectiveness, says college education departments are not in step with the major changes the Common Core requires of teachers. “Higher education is traditionally slow at adopting changes that are happening at the K-12 level,” she said at an Education Writers Association conference in Detroit last month. “We're seeing little evidence of the Common Core being taught on campuses up until a year ago. That may be shifting, but what has happened at the K-12 level often doesn't manifest itself in the teacher training that's going on in those schools.”
But officials at Towson University, established in 1866 as the Maryland Normal School for Teachers, said they are up to speed in making sure their students are prepared to handle the changes the Common Core standards have brought to classroom instruction.
Dr. Raymond Lorion, Dean of Towson's College of Education, said the school revamped all of the department’s courses to align with Common Core standards in 2011, two years before the standards were fully implemented in Maryland schools. He said the changes required the education department’s faculty to take numerous professional development classes. “That included us bringing in national experts, some of the people who actually designed the Common Core, who were involved in conceptualizing PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers), the assessments, or who were responsible for overseeing the Teacher Principal Evaluation for the state department of education,” Lorion said.
Last week, Dr. Cole Reilly, an assistant professor in Towson University's Elementary Education Department, pushed his class of senior practice teachers—he calls them interns--to think critically and defend their answers as they will have to do with their students under the rigorous Common Core standards. He had them analyzing political cartoons and a Frederick Douglas speech that he recited, an example of the standards’ requirement of using more nonfiction texts in classes. “With me reading the speech, my students can hear my inflection and his (Douglas’) frustration, which is often lost when you see words on a page,” Reilly said. “That’s part of the Common Core--to have students look at listening and speaking skills and our interns are getting that.”
Cristie Crocker, a student teacher at Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville, said she got a lot out of the exercise in Reilly’s class and is pleased with Towson’s program. “We've trained really well to implement the Common Core into the classroom,” Crocker said.
She said the students are encouraged to look up specific Common Core standards on the Maryland education department's Web site as they develop lesson plans to see how the standards relate to those lessons. “At first it was a little scary but after a lot of practice, you get used to going online and figuring out what standards you need from the Common Core to do your lessons,” Crocker said. “Meeting all the standards can be a little hard sometimes. I'm still a little shaky.”
Student Mike Duklewski, who has a bachelor’s degree in history and is working on middle school teacher certification at Towson, said he’s not having a hard time connecting the Common Core standards with classroom instruction. “It’s been easy because all of my professors are well versed in it and are great resources if we don’t know something,” Duklewski said. “All of our assignments that we do for classes, our projects and lesson plans are all aligned to the Common Core. It’s clearly sited in all we do.”
But Walsh said Towson's approach to the Common Core is not the model used in the majority of teacher training institutions. Most education schools, she said, are not requiring future teachers to have the depth of understanding of the subjects they will teach that the standards call for. “When we look at what institutions are requiring, especially at the elementary level, it's very thin about what teachers need to know in mathematics, history, English Language Arts,” she said. “It wasn't adequate for the old way of doing things and unless all of a sudden they're beefing up what teachers have to know in those areas, they're definitely not going to be Common Core ready.”
Felice Shore, an associate professor in Towson's math education department, said Common Core has not meant major changes. Her department has always stressed critical thinking and deep understanding over memorization. “Not so much, other than we now make explicit references to the Common Core in every class because the students will be hearing about it,” Shore said. “We are teaching the same content. It may be in different grade levels. For example, we're not teaching as much probability as we had for elementary education majors because [it] now does not appear until the seventh grade in Common Core.”
Dean Lorion said the school is following first-year Towson teachers in Baltimore County's Halstead Academy to see how they fare under Common Core. County school officials will also help evaluate Towson's teacher training program as they work to keep it in line with classroom changes.