By Renee Boss, Initiative Director at The Fund for Transforming Education, and Amy Spicer, Director of Professional Learning at The Colorado Education Initiative
What happens when teachers trade isolation for collaboration? Teachers in Colorado and Kentucky wanted to find out so they created the Common Assignment Study (CAS) to show the positive impact of teachers working across district and state lines to better serve students. This two year partnership has produced free downloadable resources of high quality curricula and instructional resources demonstrating the power that is unleashed when teachers are supported to work together in authentic and professional ways.
At the start of the project, both Colorado and Kentucky recognized that they had a common challenge: how do you successfully support student success on rigorous curricula? By working together to cultivate their collective intelligence and experience, teachers created units that were richer and more powerful than if they had worked alone. Notably, the project’s 11th grade history unit, The Cold War, and 10th grade English Language Arts unit, Words Matter, received “exemplary” ratings from EQuIP, a nationwide peer-review initiative.
CAS teachers not only produced instructional units that can be used widely across the country, they also developed tools and resources that support collaborative professional development. These tools—a unit template, unit quality rubric, and student work analysis protocol—scaffold peer collaboration in ways that are loose enough for use with local curricula and priorities and structured enough to help students meet more rigorous college and career-ready standards. These tools can be used to facilitate collaboration and innovation in schools and districts by sparking connections and establishing shared expectations among those who know teaching best—teachers.
Increased professional collaboration wasn’t the only benefit for CAS teachers. They also gained new ways of demonstrating students’ academic progress, a key component in both states’ teacher evaluation systems. Teachers in both Kentucky and Colorado are exploring the use of common assessments in the units as evidence of student growth, particularly in subjects that lack state assessments. Also, because the CAS units incorporate common, embedded student assessments and assignments, participating teachers have had rich resources to help show how their students have grown during the year. One project partner, the National Center for the Improvement of Education Assessment, argues that this approach has potential to be used statewide in Kentucky and Colorado, as well as other states that wish to make student growth goals more objective.
For CAS teachers, evidence of effectiveness shows up in their students’ level of engagement and quality of work. Research For Action, an educational research and reform non-profit, found that the vast majority of teachers believed that the project has positively influenced student learning. Lisa Adams, a biology teacher at Thompson Valley High School in Colorado, was overwhelmed by time constraints and was ready to leave the project midway through. At the same time, Adams was struck by her student’s excitement during the CAS biodiversity unit. As her students enthusiastically role-played scientists presenting their papers at a research conference, Adams recalled thinking: “Who are you and what have you done with the kids I normally teach?” After teaching the unit, there was no turning back. She saw that the investment was worth it and decided to stay in the project.