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Professional Development—A Key to Working with the Common Core Standards

Shaughnessy_52010by NCTM President J. Michael Shaughnessy
NCTM Summing Up, December 2011

When the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) were released last year, a Joint Task Force of NCTM, NCSM, ASSM, AMTE was appointed to make recommendations to assist our respective members in implementing and assessing the new standards. Five priority recommendations made by that Joint Task force included the following recommendation:

Convene a panel of professional development experts to develop a conceptual framework for teacher professional development systems to support implementation of the Common Core State Standards at the school, district, and state levels.  

A team of mathematics educators obtained funding from the National Science Foundation to follow up on this recommendation, and these efforts led to a professional development conference last spring at North Carolina State University. The summary recommendations from that conference were recently released in the report Supporting Implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Recommendations for Professional Development. 

This report includes nine recommendations that the conference attendees concluded were critical for professional development supporting the effective implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

As I read the report, some of the recommendations appeared to me to be of particular importance to NCTM members who are involved in offering, receiving, or making decisions about professional development in mathematics—especially teachers, supervisors, and professional development leaders. I took away four main points from this new report on professional development:  

1. Research-based features that support teacher learning should drive professional development related to CCSSM. The report cites research that provides up-to-date information on how best to support teacher learning.   

My Takeaway: There is research on professional development practices that are most effective in supporting teacher learning; we should use it! 

From the report: 
“Substantial evidence has been amassed about features of professional development that make certain initiatives more effective. These features include: professional development should be intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice; professional development should focus on student learning and address the teaching of specific content; professional development should align with school improvement priorities and goals; and professional development should build strong relationships among teachers.”

          Suggested action steps  

  • Teachers: Examine the professional development experiences that you choose in support of CCSSM to determine whether they attend to important features of effective professional development. Let school leaders know of professional development that does not adhere to these features and does not provide you with opportunities to learn about the mathematics content and practices of CCSSM.
  • School leaders: Select only professional development options that are in line with features that support teacher mathematics learning.
  • District and state-level personnel: Allocate funds only for professional development opportunities that incorporate features that are known to support teacher learning.

2. Connecting CCSSM’s Standards for Mathematical Content and Standards for Mathematical Practice is critical. Furthermore, we should start by focusing on just a few content progressions and integrated practices, and broaden the work over time.  

My Takeaway: Don’t try to do it all at once!

From the report: 
“The mathematical practices presented in the CCSSM represent important (student) habits of mind that teachers must learn to incorporate and promote in the classroom. Just like the content standards, professional development targets a few selected practices to address in depth. These practices must be embedded in discussions about content. The standards for mathematical practice are an especially critical part of professional development that supports the CCSSM because the practices define what mathematics teaching and learning should look like. “

Suggested action steps 

  • School leaders: Make teachers’ experiences with CCSSM content and practices a priority, allocating time and resources for teachers to discuss and reflect on the standards progressions, new practices, and the ways in which content and practices support each other in instruction.
  • District or state-level personnel: Organize and offer professional development that is focused on a few specific content standards progressions and integrates mathematical content and practices. Over time, a broader set of content and practices can be addressed, but this expansion should occur gradually rather than all at once.

3. Ensure that professional development is focused, coherent, articulated, and sustained. When resources for professional development are hard to come by, as they are now, we need to use them wisely, not in a scattered manner, like bits and pieces of various short professional development inoculations.  

My Takeaway: Avoid a fragmented menu of varied professional development offerings!

From the report: 
A current problem with professional development is that available opportunities are frequently fragmented and episodic, including both high- and low-quality work, strong and weak learning opportunities, generic and content-focused activities, appropriately and poorly focused learning experiences, in part because professional development is supported and coordinated through many different    types of organizations. Offering isolated professional development opportunities that are not articulated into a coherent program ignores the need for teachers’ experiences in professional development to logically build on one another so that teachers can accumulate knowledge over time.”

Suggested action steps 

  • School leaders: Clarify and communicate school improvement priorities in relation to CCSSM so that programs of professional development can be designed to align with such priorities.
  • Professional development providers: Offer sets of extended professional development opportunities that support the development of a teacher’s knowledge base for teaching a particular slice of mathematics over time.

4. Professional development includes more than just teachers! Principals, supervisors, state administrators, parents, partners in business and industry, and the public also need professional development on CCSSM, particularly on the vision and importance of integrating the Standards for Mathematical Practice into the Standards for Mathematical Content.  

My Takeaway: Include a variety of our stakeholders in whatever PD we offer—don’t compartmentalize it; bring groups together!

From the report: 
Because the CCSSM represents changes in both what mathematics is taught and how it is taught, professional development needs to build capacity at various levels within the educational system (e.g., department chairs, instructional leaders, school administrators, superintendents)…. Those who understand how teaching will look different as the CCSSM becomes a reality in our nation’s classrooms need to educate parents, politicians, school boards, businesses partners, industry representatives, and other interested parties about what to expect from mathematics teaching that supports the implementation of CCSSM.”

Suggested action steps 

  • District or state-level personnel: Consider the professional development needs of various groups that play key roles, and provide targeted mathematics professional development to all such groups in support of CCSSM.
  • Professional organizations: Take the lead in developing ways to communicate to parents, policymakers, school board members, and other stakeholders to advocate for research-based teaching mathematics practices that support CCSSM, and explain why these practices are more likely to lead to improved student learning outcomes.

The complete report and recommendations on professional development are online at

They were produced with the support of a National Science Foundation RAPID Grant (#1114933) titled “System-level Professional Development: Articulating Research Ideas that Support Implementation of Professional Development Needed for Making the CCSS for Mathematics Reality for K–12 Teachers.”

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