Midway through the school year, about half the state’s teachers have access to a new “Digital Library” the state purchased to help them teach the Common Core State Standards, but it’s unclear how many teachers are actually using it and how useful it is.
The Digital Library is a new product of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, an organization of 21 states, including California, that the federal government funded to develop Common Core tests in math and English language arts. The California Department of Education is paying Smarter Balanced, which is now operating on annual fees from member states, $6.2 million this year for the content of the tests, which millions of California students will take this spring.
California is one of 15 states that also are buying a supplemental service from Smarter Balanced that includes the Digital Library and “interim assessments” that districts may give in advance of the spring tests to determine how students are progressing.
The Digital Library is intended to be a key support for teaching Common Core. It’s a bank of resources for teaching the new standards and for changing strategies when teachers determine students aren’t understanding what they’re being taught. They include formative assessments – tasks such as pop quizzes, illustrations and small group discussions that can provide teachers with immediate feedback and evidence of learning. California paid $3.35 million for the supplemental package for 2014-15.
One hundred California teachers were selected for a network of educators charged with producing and screening submissions to the Digital Library. They were trained during four days last summer and are paid if they submit a contracted number of items or reviews.
The Digital Library currently has more than 2,500 resources for K-12 teachers covering the various clusters of Common Core standards, content areas and grades. They include items contributed by teachers in the consortium states and instructional videos and tutorials commissioned by Smarter Balanced and produced by Amplify, a subsidiary of the News Corp., and other sources.
In November, the state Department of Education reported that log-ins had been created for 107,000 of the state’s approximately 300,000 teachers. In an agenda item for the Jan. 14 board meeting, the department has updated the enrollment figure to 155,000 teachers. California Department of Education officials don’t know the number of actual users in California.
At its last meeting, in November, several members of the State Board of Education, which approved the contract with Smarter Balanced that includes the Digital Library, expressed dismay that more school districts hadn’t promoted the resource.
“If we are paying for this to be available to teachers and it is not, then there is a problem,” said board member Sue Burr. “I don’t know what districts are doing, but it strikes me as very strange.”
The California Department of Education says that 400 of the state’s nearly 1,000 districts have not provided the Smarter Balanced consortium with information that would automatically generate log-ins and an email telling teachers about the Digital Library. It has asked the Educational Testing Service, which administers tests for the state, to contact them to find out why. The department would not identify the districts.
Opinions differ on its value
Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, reports that all of its teachers should have received log-in information by mid-December. But some districts aren’t providing log-ins for all teachers because they’ve examined the materials and concluded the library doesn’t mesh with their training approaches.
“At this point in time we are only uploading teacher names by request. We have done minimal advertising of the availability of the Digital Library,” said John Burke, supervisor of the Assessments and Achievement Division at the San Francisco Unified School District. “We looked at it, but nothing in particular stood out. That’s too bad, because we thought it would be great.”
San Jose Unified also isn’t promoting the site but has provided all teachers with access to it. “We haven’t yet found a resource (in the library) that meets the (district’s) level of rigor,” Jason Willis, assistant superintendent of San Jose Unified, wrote in an email.
“If we are paying for this to be available to teachers and it is not, then there is a problem. I don’t know what districts are doing, but it strikes me as very strange,” said State Board of Education member Sue Burr.
Long Beach Unified, the state’s third-largest district, is more supportive. Pamela Seki, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and professional development, said that all teachers, administrators and staff received videos from Smarter Balanced and slides introducing the library. The resources are also on the district’s website.
Anne Oberjuerge, Long Beach’s K-5 math curriculum leader, said that she has not heard back from teachers. But she said that’s not surprising, since they’re “overwhelmed with the transition to Common Core, with so much coming at them at once.”
She said she discovered an excellent resource in the Digital Library on understanding fractions with videos and formative assessments, in English and Spanish, that she emailed to 4th-grade teachers. She may include a tour of the library in the district’s next math training in February, she said.
Having the resources vetted by teachers and in one location, with an effective search function, could prove valuable to California teachers. Even critics of what’s in it now acknowledge the Digital Library’s potential.
“The Digital Library is definitely a work in progress,”said Adam Ebrahim, a 9th-grade human geography teacher at Fresno High School and vice president of the Fresno Teachers Association. “I understand that what’s in it has been subject to high levels of scrutiny, which has necessarily slowed the library’s growth.” Ebrahim said that a place to “find resources, training and clarity, whether what I am doing in the classroom is aligned with the Smarter Balanced assessments” is “essential if we are to avoid misguided systemic panic and narrowed instruction in response to test scores.”
Jason Roche, a coordinator and teacher at Fresno Unified’s Cooper Academy, agreed with Ebrahim about the importance of “assessment literacy,” but added in an email, “I am not sure what this site offers that isn’t offered by any number of other sites. The sample lessons or strategies submitted by classroom teachers are well-crafted, but they are standard fare. This site would serve solely as a place where I might find a good idea if I’m stuck.”
Samples of resources
Leanne Raddatz, one of the California teachers in the network of reviewers for Smarter Balanced, disagrees, saying she “absolutely recommends that teachers use” the Digital Library. A 9th-grade English teacher and honors program coordinator at Centennial High in the Kern High School District, Raddatz said, “I have used several things this year and been pleased with what I have found.“
Raddatz submitted five items and all were accepted and posted. One focuses on Shakespeare’s use of allusion in Romeo and Juliet – references to Greek mythology, the Bible and historical events – to reveal the meaning of complex texts. Another is an extensive strategy for teaching high school students how to write complex and compound sentences that incorporate varieties of dependent, noun, adverbial and relative clauses. She does this by creating exercises for small groups and pairs of students using a device called a Frayer Model, a chart with four sections that helps students understand key words and concepts.
Raddatz said she likes how the library is evolving into a resource “based on the collective wisdom of teachers” in which teachers can comment on and critique submitted resources and create forums to discuss them. But she also acknowledged that at her school, very few teachers have signed into the Digital Library, despite her encouragement. It’s a challenge for teachers to find time to explore it, she said.
Burke, of San Francisco Unified, and Roche and Ebrahim, the two Fresno Unified teachers, said that Smarter Balanced should turn the Digital Library into an open-source resource, in which all teachers can submit content, which other teachers would then rate and discuss.
“I would love to see crowd-sourcing with moderation to let users decide,” Ebrahim said. “I would open it up to teacher-generated assessments that could be implemented in the classroom.” **
Debate over public access
Under the terms of the contract, the Digital Library is available exclusively to teachers in the consortium states that buy the service. State board members also said they favored opening up the library to parents and the public.
Given what he described as “the conspiratorial nature of some of the opposition to Common Core,” State Board of Education member Carl Cohn said it would be a good idea to provide parents and the public access to the library.
But Joe Willhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced consortium, said that the consortium is relying on the income from a paid service for teachers. Opening it to the public would risk making it available to non-paying states, he said.
Bill Lucia, CEO of the advocacy organization EdVoice, said that the Digital Library’s resources should be publicly available since Smarter Balanced was funded with tax dollars. But Willhoft said federal funding did not pay for some of the content, and Smarter Balanced can charge for access to a website it creates.
Stating there is “real curiosity” about the library, state board member Patricia Rucker encouraged Smarter Balanced to at least provide the public with sample videos, worksheets and items.
Diane Hernandez, director of the state Department of Education’s Assessment Development and Administration Division and California’s K-12 liaison with Smarter Balanced, said last month she has raised this possibility with the consortium and will update the board on the progress at next week’s meeting.
** Note: Ebrahim and Roche have created a series of planners that teachers could use in creating lesson plans to teach the Common Core. They say the planners also could be used to post formative assessments for the Digital Library. Here is a link to a sample.
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