October 30, 2012
Sam Radford expected to pay for college when he sent a daughter to Morgan State and a son to Norfolk State University. What bothered him was paying for remedial courses to get them up to speed with where they should have been after high school. It’s something parents of about a quarter of all New York students entering college now do.
That’s why, with three sons still in Buffalo Public Schools, Radford is thrilled at New York state’s implementation this year of rigorous English and math standards whose buzzwords are “college and career ready,” even for younger students.
“It’s frustrating to have to pay for college courses that are catching your child up versus paying for a credit-bearing course,” Radford said. “It does (children) no good to go spend six and seven hours in school every day, and then come out of there and not be in a position to compete.”
New York is one of 45 states that have adopted the new Common Core standards, a uniform set of benchmarks that include a dozen shifts in the way students are taught. From kindergarten through 12th grade, the goal is building an educational foundation that supports whatever follows.
In math, students delve more deeply into fewer concepts with the idea math is a set of tools to be applied in life. English and language arts (ELA) standards split reading more evenly between fiction and nonfiction as students are pushed to tackle more complex texts and be able to write about what they read. Stories are swapped out for works including the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence, as well as textbooks and current pieces from magazines and websites.
Pick a path
Classroom teachers, while lauding the standards’ goal, say they find themselves making sometimes frustrating choices as they aim to meet the lofty objectives without sacrificing creativity.
With the daunting ELA standards in mind, fifth-grade teacher Patrick Uhteg said, “My focus in science now is text-based instruction and drawing information directly from the text to answer comprehension questions, rather than my focus being exploration and discovery and inquisition as it was before.”
Ideally, the standards’ developers say, the Common Core will augment those rich and engaging lessons by building in writing and reading skills.
“The focus … isn’t on regurgitating information from textbooks or making science and social studies teachers into reading teachers, but on the analytical reading and writing skills that students will be working with in college and on the job,” said Carrie Heath Phillips, director of the Common Core State Standards Program for the Council of Chief State School Officers. The council coordinated development of the national standards with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.
Teacher Wendy Kalp’s third-graders have begun reading the children’s edition of Time magazine and the encyclopedic World Book Online instead of strictly storybooks. They dissect articles to understand photo captions, indexes, boldfaced words and headings, she said. “That’s a huge shift in what we’re teaching,” Kalp said.
Writing assignments even show up in math, where students must prove their understanding by explaining how they arrived at answers.
“Math in elementary school used to be very wide and not terribly deep, and now it’s not quite as wide but much deeper,” said Karen Marchioli, director of elementary education in the suburban Buffalo Lancaster Central School District, where Kalp teaches. “We’re really expecting kids to not only know what they’re doing, but to be able to tell you why they’re doing it.”
This year’s statewide English and math assessments in grades three through eight, which factor into annual teacher evaluations, will be aligned with the new standards. High school Regents exams will be realigned in the next school year.
Like and dislike
Opinion on the changes was split at a recent parents meeting on the Common Core, said Radford, president of Buffalo’s District Parent Coordinating Council. Some parents worried children would spend too much time on testing, cutting short time for art, gym and other pursuits. “Everybody was not happy,” he said.
Uhteg, who teaches in Depew, which is outside Buffalo, said with the new standards, state assessments and evaluations tied together in the very first year of implementation, teachers have no choice but to narrow their focus.
“That’s an adjustment teachers are making, districts are making, and that’s because the ELA testing is so daunting and out there that you want to prepare them for that test in any way you can using any content you can,” he said. “Because come March and April, that’s what part of our evaluation’s going to be. It’s frustrating. It really is frustrating.”
The coordinated standards were developed by working backward from the end goal, state Education Commissioner John King said, describing the approach as “talking with college faculty, talking to employers and asking what is it that students need to know to be successful, and then mapping backwards from there. What does that mean for what students need to know and be able to do at 10th grade, at seventh grade, all the way back to kindergarten?"
New York took it a step further and added a pre-kindergarten foundation outlining what incoming kindergarteners should know as they line up on the college-career trajectory. “The Common Core does ask students to work harder,” King said, “in part to ensure that when they graduate, they actually are ready for college and career success.”
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