Albuquerque Journal (NM)
April 17, 2012
On a recent morning, the students in Lisa Burnham’s fourth-grade class were studying dimensions, area and perimeter. They fanned out across the classroom with rulers and yardsticks, measuring items as small as a calculator or as large as the Promethean white board.
A parent observing the class at Georgia O’Keeffe Elementary might not know the students are being taught to a different set of standards than their counterparts in other Albuquerque classrooms.
These students are being taught using Common Core—an unprecedented nationwide effort to ensure students in every state are taught and tested on the same set of high academic math and reading standards. The idea is to improve standards nationwide, while allowing for valid comparisons of student achievement between states.
In Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), these standards are being piloted by about 100 teachers in fourth and eighth-grade classes. By next fall, the standards will be in use in every kindergarten through third-grade classroom in the state. By fall of 2013, they will be used in all classrooms.
The Common Core standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They have been adopted by all but five states: Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia.
Education Secretary designate Hanna Skandera said the Common Core standards emphasize critical thinking and mastery of key topics, rather than a shallow understanding of many topics. “Part of the emphasis in Common Core is the ability for students to think critically and process,” she said. “It’s moving beyond the first level of thinking to higher levels of thinking.”
Linda Sink, chief academic officer at Albuquerque Public Schools, said Common Core is based on research that shows students nationwide are failing to master key concepts, such as how to read complex text or the place value of numbers. A student who understands place value knows that the “5” in 153 represents five groups of 10.
“In the past, we didn’t focus enough on place value,” Sink said. “And through research, we found that students didn’t have a good understanding of place value. And from that misunderstanding, a lot things went wrong from there on, and then we have these people failing algebra.”
Sink said the standards also put heavy emphasis on fractions. “Instead of looking at it as just a breaking up of a pie, we start teaching it in a number line so that they get a true idea of what a fraction looks like on a number line, which then translates to algebra and builds on what they need to have to prepare them for algebra. “It’s just a different way of how you focus it.”
That fraction emphasis is clear in Burnham’s classroom, where a large wall poster lists important goals for fourth grade. They aren’t all about fractions, but instead include adding and subtracting fractions, adding and subtracting mixed numbers, and converting improper fractions to mixed numbers.
Burnham, who is in her 17th year of teaching, said she has been emphasizing fractions more than ever and that she has never seen fourth-graders with such strong understanding of the concepts. She said about one-third of the Common Core math standards are fraction-related. “We’ve been doing fractions yearlong. They have a much deeper understanding of fractions than I’ve ever seen.”
Burnham said she likes teaching to the Common Core standards because there are fewer of them, and she can spend more time on each one. She said her day-to-day teaching strategies haven’t changed, just her emphasis.
The emphasis on fractions shows as 10-year-old Olivia Detry and a classmate work on word problems during “math stations,” when students work in groups on different math-related activities. The girls tackle a problem in which a boy offers his younger brother either 75 cents or seven-tenths of a dollar. They quickly determine that seven-tenths of a dollar would be 70 cents, and the younger brother should choose the 75-cent option.
Sink said the Common Core English standards place more emphasis on reading nonfiction and complex texts, with less emphasis on novels. She said students will need to read complex texts in college, and high school should prepare them.
She said eighth-graders might analyze the Gettysburg address, for example, or write an essay using evidence and arguments, rather than one about their summer break. Skandera said Common Core also aims to break down barriers between subjects, teaching skills such as writing in every class.
“It’s no longer, ‘I’ve got history, then I’ve got English/language arts,’” she said, adding that English will be incorporated into all subjects. “We’re reinforcing our subject areas across different courses.”
APS and the state Public Education Department both have received grants to help with adoption of Common Core. APS was one of six districts that received a $500,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, which was used to pay teachers and principals who participated in the pilot, along with other planning and training. And the PED received $350,000 from the Kellogg Foundation to develop a plan for teacher and principal training, assessment and other expenses.
Skandera said Common Core should elevate teaching across the country because states will be able to share resources and programs that work. “The whole idea behind Common Core is that we have high standards and expectations, are taking best practices from across the nation and are ensuring our kids across the nation are the recipients of those best practices.”
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