Common Ground on Common Core

As implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is introduced in classrooms across the country, one question among educators is emerging: Where do paraeducators fit in?

“Most times, paras aren’t included in the implementation of curriculum, which makes it difficult to know what students can do and what students are required to learn,” says Dr. Tonia Mason-Cantlow, principal at Lucy C. Laney Comprehensive High School in Augusta, Georgia. “For common core to succeed, collaboration between paras and teachers is vital because each entity has contact with students.”

At Laney, where Common Core rolled out in 2011, administrative and cross-grade leadership teams conduct weekly observations of classroom teaching and learning. Observers found that transitioning to the new standards requires teamwork among administrators, teachers, and paraeducators.

“It also requires training across grade levels,” says Mason-Cantlow, who is president of the Richmond County Association of Educators. “The time has passed when collaboration and training is only for certified teachers.”

According to some teachers, consistency among educators involved in the implementation process is key.

“The biggest thing I have learned from attempting to implement CCSS is that you can’t do it alone,” says Jamie Baugh, a first-grade teacher at Quil Ceda and Tulalip Elementary School in Marysville, Washington. “It is essential for paras and teachers to collaborate on this process because paras play a vital role in supporting the education of students.”

Developed through collaboration among the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and several education groups, including the National Education Association, the Common Core State Standards are designed to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, will graduate with the same globally competitive skills. To date, 45 states plus the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted the standards, which are not a federal mandate. While states that chose to adopt the standards agreed to implement Common Core by this school year, Quil Ceda and Tulalip started working with CCSS in the 2011-2012 school year. Aligned summative assessments are set to start with the 2014-2015 school year.

“In order to turn a school around, or even close student learning gaps, every person in the school who has contact with students needs to know where we are going and what our goals are for students,” says Baugh, a member of the Marysville Education Association (MEA). “This includes CCSS.”

Baugh works on a grade level team that uses core standards and student data to implement lesson plans. Over the summer, literacy coaches across the school district rewrote units of study to better match common core standards and other academic objectives.

“We use our paras to pull small groups throughout the day, therefore they need to understand CCSS,” says first-grade teacher and MEA member Alexandra Hirsch. “We are all here to help students succeed, so everyone should receive the same training.”

Jacque Selby is one of the paraeducators at Quil Ceda and Tulalip who collaborates with Baugh and Hirsch. She works with literacy groups of three and four students throughout the day, is part of an assessment team that helps administer tests, and meets with grade level data teams twice a week.

“My work reflects decisions that are made at these meetings,” says Selby, who has worked for the district for 22 years. “I feel a part of the team.”

Quil Ceda and Tulalip, which is affiliated with NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, has approximately 540 students in kindergarten through fifth grades. Selby says paraeducators at the school are fortunate to receive sufficient training and equal access to CCSS planning meetings, due in part to a supportive principal.

“Paras are always included in district directed training,” she says. “As a result, I feel respected for the work I do.”

While the standards provide teachers flexibility to use professional judgment, paraeducators trained in CCSS can contribute greatly to ensuring curriculum alignment. For example, students with disabilities and English-language learners require the type of one-on-one and small-group instruction often provided by paraeducators. For these students to keep up with classmates, paraeducators should possess the skills and content knowledge needed to engage students with common core-aligned materials.

“This year, we plan to improve on our instructional strategies, commonly agreeing through our collaborative data team to better describe our expectations,” says Irene Bare, a former teacher now serving as Quil Ceda and Tulalip’s RTI (Response to Intervention) coordinator.

Common core allows educators to focus on fewer topics than previous sets of standards permitted and to dive into them more deeply and rigorously. Bare says during the school’s first year of implementing common core, incoming kindergarten students were assessed and less than 5 percent knew 12 letter sounds.

“By the end of the school year, 95 percent of these students were reading books at or above grade level expectations, the highest scores in our district,” says Bare. “Our first-grade students are now taking formative assessments our teachers collaboratively wrote using CCSS.”

Hirsch credits students’ success to the collaboration between Bare, teachers, and paraeducators. “Students showed tremendous growth in a year, and I personally feel that my students walked into second grade with a greater understanding of CCSS and a more in-depth grasp of second grade,” she adds.

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