Monday, October 22, 2012

New Common Core standards to reshape teaching

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

Emily Seaman, a fourth-grade teacher at Hillcrest School, knows there are big changes ahead in the way she goes about teaching reading and math.

But by the time the new Common Core State Standards go into full effect in 2014, she believes that she and other teachers in the Lawrence school district will be ready.

“I think they are definitely preparing us,” she said after one recent training session on the new standards. “We’re doing a lot of diving into the standards and figuring out what they’re doing, how they’re changing and how they’re the same. There are a lot of shifts in how you learn and how you teach, from the old standards to the new standards.”

Seaman was one of several elementary classroom and special education teachers who attended a training session Wednesday at Langston Hughes School. But teachers throughout the district, and at all grade levels, are being trained in the same way during their weekly “district collaboration” time. That training will continue over the next 18 months as the district ramps up for full implementation.

“It’s one of the most significant changes in educational standards that we’re moving into,” said Adam Holden, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

And it isn’t just happening in Kansas.

So far, 44 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories have adopted the Common Core standards, the result of an effort by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to establish a national model for reading and math that would better prepare students for college or the workplace.

The Kansas State Board of Education approved them, with some modifications, as the official Kansas standards in October 2010. But they will not be fully implemented here until 2014, when the state expects to have new tests in place that are aligned to the new standards.

In fact, Kansas is part of a consortium of states collaborating in the writing of those tests, known as the Smarter Balance assessments. But the State Board of Education hasn’t yet decided whether Kansas will use those tests or some other test developed by outside organizations. That decision will be made next year, sometime after board members — some of whom will be elected in November — take office in January.

The Common Core standards are intended to be more rigorous than the previous standards. They also focus on fewer skills in each area, focusing on depth of knowledge rather than breadth.

“In math, one of the changes is we’re doing a lot more with fractions in fourth grade,” Seaman said. “And it’s taking fractions to a much deeper and more complex level than it has been in the past. We’ve touched on fractions in the past with our old standards, but it’s taking things like that, where we’re taking things we have done, and it’s becoming a more complex thing at our level than it has been before.”

The new math standards also emphasize the use of real-world examples to reinforce concepts and encourage students to investigate for themselves to understand how mathematical concepts work.

Lawrence school board members saw a demonstration of that at a meeting earlier this month.

At that meeting Holden, the assistant superintendent, presented a video of how one California teacher used that method to explain concepts in algebra. The teacher would show video of himself shooting a basketball from a free-throw line. Frame-by-frame, the video traced the arc path of the ball, and he could pause the video when the ball reached its peak, also known as the equilibrium point in the arc. Students would then be asked to predict whether the ball would go through the basket or not. But instead of checking their work, the teacher would simply restart the video so students could see for themselves what happened.

“We can’t give them abstracts on a piece of paper because there’s less meaning in that,” Holden said afterward. “So we’re going to have to look to go to their world, and our teachers are going to be working hard to make sure we give them practical and real world examples.”

Focus on reading

The new standards also integrate reading skills with all other subjects, including math, science and social studies. As a result, students at all grade levels will read more nonfiction material that ties in with those other subjects. And in those other subjects, students will also be working on exercises that build reading and math skills.

“They were talking today about doing close reading, and re-reading, and the way we incorporate into other subjects,” Seaman said after the training session. “We were mainly doing social studies today, making sure we remember to incorporate the reading aspect, because we do reading in social studies and science, but the way that we’re teaching it and how we go about doing the reading in those areas, it’s going to be much more integrated.”

Kathy Gates, a learning coach for the district who is conducting many of the training sessions, said students will be expected to analyze reading material on a deeper level than before.

“Where before we might ask them to describe the plot in a story, now we’re asking them to look at how the author wrote, and why they might have written something in that manner,” Gates said.

Test results

That shift in focus is expected to cause changes in the way students are tested in reading and math, and officials say they don’t yet know whether that will cause major changes in how well students perform.

It is possible, they say, that students who went through elementary school being taught under the old standards may have trouble adjusting when they are later tested in middle and high school under the new standards.

“I don’t think so, but I do think that whenever there’s a new assessment system, we do expect some variable in student performance,” Holden said. “Sometimes it dips a little bit; sometimes it raises a little bit. So, we certainly expect there to be some sort of reaction to that. But knowing what that will look like right now is difficult.”

Seaman said she does not expect to see significant changes in test scores.

“In elementary school, we’ve got our K-2 teachers already teaching common core,” she said. “Those kids will never take the current state assessments, so those kids, I think, will come in better prepared. Some of the students we have now, I don’t think will necessarily drop, but they definitely will be surprised when they have to answer things that are not multiple-choice, things that are deeper-thinking questions.”