It’s late June, and for most students around the country, that means one thing: summer break. But for the teachers, principals, IT personnel and other support staff responsible for these students’ education, it’s prime preparation time. With mandatory online student assessments set to begin in fall 2014 for public school districts in the 45 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards, school leaders are working overtime to ensure that their networks can handle the load, that they have enough computing devices on hand for students to complete the tests, and that teachers and staff are properly trained in how to administer the assessments.
To better understand what K–12 IT leaders think about Common Core and the challenges and opportunities it presents, CDW•G surveyed nearly 300 IT professionals from districts in the 45 states that have embraced the standards, which aim to provide clarity and consistency to student learning across the country. (Currently, Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia aren’t participating in the nationwide initiative.)
The resulting Common Core Tech report, released during a Monday morning session at the ISTE 2013 conference, summarizes how survey respondents are working to ensure that their schools and districts are technologically equipped to handle the new online student assessments that align with the standards; what most concerns them about the standards; and the effects they believe the standards will have on instruction and overall operations.
Julie Smith, CDW•G’s vice president for K–12 education, shared highlights from the report and spearheaded a discussion about its key findings with a panel of industry leaders that included:
- Joanna Antoniou, technology coordinator, Passaic (N.J.) Public Schools
- Doug Renfro, instructional designer, Metropolitan Nashville (Tenn.) Public Schools
- Dr. Geoffrey H. Fletcher, deputy executive director, State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), Glen Burnie, Md.
Credit: Marla Clark
CDW•G’s Julie Smith (from left), Doug Renfro of Metropolitan Nashville (Tenn.) Public Schools, Joanna Antoniou of Passaic (N.J.) Public Schools and Dr. Geoffrey H. Fletcher of the State Educational Technology Directors Association participated in a session on Common Core IT readiness during the ISTE 2013 conference on Monday, June 24.
What Are the Benefits of Common Core?
According to the Common Core Tech report, three-quarters of the IT professionals surveyed expect Common Core to have a positive impact on their district. The majority of those respondents (81 percent) cite, among the anticipated outcomes, on-demand student data analysis. Other anticipated benefits include new classroom technologies (79 percent), improved classroom technologies (78 percent), improved teacher instruction (78 percent), improved data management (77 percent) and improved student engagement (76 percent).
“There’s a great deal of excitement around Common Core,” Smith told session attendees, “but there are also a lot of concerns. There’s no end to the conversation right now.”
The panelists agreed that the transition to Common Core is facilitating a lot of positive changes across the K–12 community. But, as SETDA’s Fletcher pointed out, “There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain.”
In fact, more than half — 56 percent — of the computers registered through the Technology Readiness Tool co-developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, SETDA and Pearson “are still running Windows XP — an operating system that Microsoft will stop supporting in 2014.” That, he says, means there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Prioritizing Common Core Initiatives
CDW•G’s survey findings reflect that district IT professionals understand this all too well. Despite a barrage of competing IT needs, 83 percent of respondents call preparations to meet the technology requirements of Common Core one of their top three priorities. Nearly three in 10 respondents (29 percent) cite it as their top priority.
For both Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) and Passaic Public Schools, making Common Core a priority begins with professional development.
“Every teacher in our district has gone through Common Core training,” MNPS’ Renfro said. “Getting 7,000 teachers to do summer PD is a feat in itself. They’ve been training with our curriculum specialists, who are making sure that they’re modeling the practices we want them to use in the classroom.”
Antoniou echoed that sentiment, noting that professional development in Passaic Public Schools “has always focused on the instructional shift. Our technology PDs are never how-tos,” she added. Rather, “We’re trying to embed it and model as much as we can. In the end, it’s so much more valuable for teachers — as they’re struggling with the technology, they’re learning it.”
More Than a Few Challenges Stand in the Way
The CDW•G Common Core Tech report recommends the following steps for school and district leaders as they continue preparing for Common Core:
- Move forward confidently. Strong infrastructure is a must to ensure teachers can move forward confidently, so update and upgrade before bringing in new technology.
- Share your vision. Change is hard. Develop and communicate a strong vision to all stakeholders to ensure everyone is speaking the same language.
- Focus on instruction and good teaching. It’s not about a device, which should be transparent. It’s about the instructional shift that makes students active participants in learning so that they take ownership of their education.
- Prepare for more change. In a year, your program will look very different. Continue to use pilot groups or leaders to share best practices and borrow ideas that unify your vision.
For more from the report, visit CDWG.com/CommonCoreTech.
There are concerns, of course. As CDW•G’s survey notes, district IT leaders worry that they don’t have the budget (76 percent) or the IT staff (69 percent) to support the increased technology needs that Common Core requires. Also troubling many of them is whether they have the technology in place to support online student assessments (62 percent), whether classroom technologies for instruction are adequate (60 percent), if the existing IT infrastructure is strong enough (55 percent) and if existing wireless access is reliable enough (55 percent) to handle the influx once the first testing sessions commence next fall.
Asked how they’re overcoming these challenges, SETDA’s Fletcher pointed attendees to an array of resources on the association’s website, at setda.org/web/guest/assessment.
Both Renfro and Fletcher spoke about the importance of getting the entire community involved. “We developed a new learning technology plan,” Renfro said. “We wanted it to be focused on learning, not IT, and that put our IT department and our teachers on notice. The first thing we did was bring students and the community into the planning process, because they’re the ones who are going to hold us accountable if we don’t hit these goals. It puts a lot of pressure on the school district, but we can’t afford to not have that pressure on us.”
Fletcher emphasized the importance of that approach, relating an anecdote from his days working for the Texas Education Agency: “We created a plan that proved to be very successful,” Fletcher said. “And it was successful for the reason Doug just mentioned: We brought the community in to create it. Once it was created, we had a cadre built to go to the legislature to make it happen. From that, we were able to get significant funding for the state, for technology.”
Creating Assessment Plans
The CDW•G survey also asked respondents to identify how their districts will administer online testing when the time comes. Nearly eight in 10 (78 percent) of them indicate that their districts plan to test students in shifts. Just 20 percent aim to test all students simultaneously.
What’s more, such testing will be conducted in a variety of ways. Given several methods from which to choose, 75 percent of surveyed IT leaders say they will rely on traditional computer labs. But some will mix in (or rely exclusively) on other delivery mechanisms, such as carts stocked with notebook computers, tablets or other computing devices (37 percent); traditional PCs (37 percent), cloud computing (30 percent), one-to-one programs (29 percent), bring-your-own-device programs (17 percent) and virtual desktops (9 percent).
Notably, Renfro said that his boss, Dr. Kecia Ray, executive director of learning technology and library services for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (and the International Society for Technology in Education’s new president) “envisions the death of the computer lab.” The idea of not having computer labs in schools “wasn’t well received by a lot of people,” he added, but the goal remains “for every student to have a device of his or her own.”
Fletcher expressed a similar vision. “I don’t think we should have computer labs and isolated experiences,” he said. “A lot of people are focused on the 2014–2015 assessments as the end — not as the end of the world, but as the end of the process. I look at it as graduation: It’s an important milestone.”
Asked to share final thoughts about Common Core, Renfro stressed the importance of keeping the focus on instruction. “That’s where the rubber meets the road as far as how we perform with Common Core,” he said. “This is all just starting for us. It will be interesting to come back to this in a year and see how we’re doing.”
Added Antoniou: “It’s about the people, not the technology. It’s critical to have a strong team using a common language that includes all stakeholders.”
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