As districts across the nation grapple with implementing the Common Core State Standards, Aaron Grossman is already leading the way in Washoe County, Nev., where the strategy for helping teach the new reading and mathematics standards is being driven by those who are counting most on the guidance: the teachers themselves.
While interpreting and bringing the new standards into the classroom can be a tricky and convoluted process, Mr. Grossman and his team are working with teachers to devise a set of best practices and to help both teachers and students reach their full potential in a special initiative called the Washoe Core Task Project. Mr. Grossman, a teacher on special assignment to the district’s department of curriculum and instruction, and his colleagues are helping teachers carry out the common core in their classrooms by finding and providing them with resources and original sources, and then gathering and synthesizing teacher feedback as they test out new lessons and curricular materials in their own classrooms.
What sets this project apart is what has made it so effective.
“Aaron pushes teachers to take on a leadership role,” said Jodie Westmont, a special education teacher in Washoe County, a 63,000-student district that includes the resort areas of Reno and Lake Tahoe. “So many times, it’s just administrators given these roles. He’s provided those opportunities to teachers.”
“He sees within teachers their true power to work together to improve resources and outcomes for teachers and students alike,” said David Coleman, one of the authors of the common-core standards and a founder of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit aimed at creating and disseminating materials, based on the common core, to improve teacher and student achievement.
The Nevada state board of education officially adopted the common standards in October 2010. Washoe County, the state’s second-largest district, began the hard work of implementing the new, more rigorous academic standards the following spring. The project began with just 18 teachers and has grown to include more than 1,000 educators and 25 of the district’s 63 schools.
The road to common-core implementation isn’t an easy one anywhere in the United States. Districts and teachers continue to struggle with finding instructional resources adequately aligned to the common core, and there’s still a big need for useful forms ofprofessional development and continued coaching support for teachers. Meanwhile, states remain uncertain of what to expect from the common-core tests scheduled to take effect next school year.
While the standards were meant to be a major transition for educators, Mr. Grossman said he wasn’t seeing the same sort of dramatic shift reflected in the textbooks and other resources that claimed to be aligned with the core standards.
He sought to address those issues in his own district by going directly to the writers of the common core and others intimately involved in their development, which was spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
“I thought the most obvious way was looking through the lens of what the authors were saying,” said Mr. Grossman.
Roots of the Project
A native of Montana, Mr. Grossman, 41, has spent his career in schools whose low-income populations were large enough to qualify them for federal Title I funding. He began with the Montana Reads program with Americorps, where he helped match college students to classrooms or students to promote literacy. He started teaching 6th grade in Washoe County in 2002 at a Title I school. From there, he became a site-based school improvement coordinator, responsible for making sure that curriculum materials were aligned to state tests.
He felt limited in his capacity to serve all the district’s schools in that position, though, and later moved to his current role in the department of curriculum and instruction to aid Washoe schools in their transition to the common core.
Mr. Grossman began by finding and sharing with teachers a video of Mr. Coleman, now the president of the College Board, in which he talks about the standards and their origins. Then he went on to reach out to individuals who worked closely with developing the common core.
While Washoe was just one of the many districts across the state implementing the new standards, once it launched the Core Task Project and began “leveraging the video and free content” available from standards developers and others, the school system’s implementation started looking different from the rest of the state’s, said Mr. Grossman.
“Without an acute understanding of why the standards were written, all decisions become unnecessarily challenging,” he said. “The Core Task Project really is about teachers trying to figure out what it means to do common core. We selected a path where we share a message that is unfiltered. We go straight to the sources.”
To carry out the project, Mr. Grossman joined forces with colleagues Torrey Palmer, the district’s K-6 language arts coordinator, and Cathy Schmidt, an implementation specialist in the district. Their aim was to provide teachers with materials, strategies, and resources that are “vetted, scalable, and free,” said Mr. Grossman. The teachers, in return, test these strategies in their classrooms and provide feedback.
“I think this project affords teachers the chance to really experience an instructional shift,” said Ms. Palmer. “It’s so connected to student learning, very data driven, and very authentic.”
“So many times you go to training where they talk at you. At the [Core Task] trainings, [Mr. Grossman, Ms. Palmer, and Mr. Schmidt] talked at us for a little while, and then we got to go try a new approach and come back and tell them what we thought,” Ms. Westmont said. “It very much facilitated discussion between teachers.”
Ms. Westmont, an instructional coach at the time, became involved in the project when it launched in October 2011.
That also meant a heightened level of accountability, according to Ms. Westmont, since teachers were asked to return from testing the implementation strategies ready to discuss and assess their effectiveness in the classroom.
“The effort here in our district feels different for a lot of people,” Mr. Grossman said. “It’s teachers building stuff from the bottom up.”
For example, rather than sending a few individuals to common-core conferences, the Core Task team would show teachers tapes of those conferences.
“This isn’t me filtering and telling [teachers] what is most important. We got out of the way,” said Mr. Grossman. “We just allowed people to hear the message.”
Once the teachers saw and discussed their resources, they tested the techniques in the classrooms.
At the end of each meeting, teachers who had tested the new teaching techniques were asked to reflect on their experience and outcomes. The project then aggregates all that information to refine its strategy.
“[Mr. Grossman] definitely led the charge in terms of pointing us in the right direction with the instructional shift,” said Ms. Palmer. “He found some fantastic content and primary-source material.”
One of the individuals Mr. Grossman contacted in gathering authentic materials for teachers was David Liben, a senior content specialist with the literacy and language arts team at Student Achievement Partners, and his wife, Meredith Liben, the director of that team.
“Aaron has been instrumental in getting this going and getting questions answered,” said Ms. Westmont, the special education teacher. “We joke that he emailed [David Liben] so many times that Liben had no choice but to email him back. He finds answers.”
Since their first discussion about common-core implementation, Mr. Grossman and the Libens have collaborated on a variety of projects, including creating video resources and a course for iTunes University intended to help teachers understand the common-core shifts in English/language arts and literacy and how this might change classroom practices.
David and Meredith Liben have visited the district multiple times to work with Mr. Grossman and his team.
The work by Mr. Grossman, Ms. Palmer, and Ms. Schmidt on the Core Task Project also led to their fellowships with Student Achievement Partners, in which they help to disseminate information and tools for implementing the common core to educators across the country.
“I was really impressed with how they were approaching the transition and how aggressively they were making changes and working collaboratively with teachers,” said David Liben. “Aaron was able to bring the standards into Washoe, and he’s done so in a hands-on way with teachers that I think is unique.”
What’s more, Washoe’s students are benefiting from Mr. Grossman’s and the Core Task Project’s efforts.
“I can confidently say that by engaging in this work, we are moving our students closer to college and career readiness,” Ms. Palmer said.