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Preparing Students for Common Core

24 Jul 2014 by Marsha Branch

Since their creation in 2009, the Common Core State Standards – which outline what K-12 students should know and be able to do at each grade level – have been met with anything but a lukewarm response.

Stakeholders, including parents, educators and politicians appear to be either certain that the standards – or some modified form of them – are the way forward, or adamant that they want them stopped.

Developed by governors and Chief State School Officers, the Standards are designed to better prepare all students for college and a career by developing their analytical skills and ensuring they are technologically adept. In short, the Standards’ creators want to ensure students possess the skills needed to compete globally for the jobs of the future.

So, can they achieve these goals? The answer to that question depends on whom you ask.

“If we’re going to prepare kids for their tomorrow, the jobs that don’t even exist yet, they have to be flexible, and their thinking needs to be stretched to the point where they have the ability to synthesize those types of problems that the Common Core asks of us,” Assessment and Technology/Office of Curriculum & Instruction Supervisor for New York’s South Huntington School District Dr. Jared Bloom said.

The district is networking with international robotics companies and developing relationships that Bloom said would not be possible without the Common Core.

After completing a robotics…STEAM program at Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center, Jonathan Macchiaroli logged onto theAldebaran Robotics (the company that makes the robots)website, took the developer test and passed. In a follow up email, Aldebaran execs expressed an interest in working with Macchiaroli and were surprised to learn that he was only 11. At the time they did not have student-based programs, but after discussions with South Huntington administration, they began discussions toward creating a junior developer program for younger students.

Jonathan Macchiaroli

“These are the types of things that can happen when you allow students to stretch their thinking and reach beyond just doing the typical workbook problems that we’re used to, and doing real world problems instead,” Bloom said.

But further south in Florida, Dr. Karen Effrem, Executive Director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, does not share Bloom’s enthusiasm for the Standards. She claims they are academically inferior and compromise student and family data privacy.

“The combination of psychosocial testing that is admitted to be happening with the other types of data that are going to be collected is the fulfillment of George Orwell’s big brother surveillance state,” Effrem said. “I see that as the most deceptive part of it because everyone is saying that these tests are testing academic standards.”

Effrem claims the Common Core Standards will combine medical, psychiatric and even genetic data with academic data.

“And so you have this so-called academic data that is very subjective, psychosocial profiling done on children whose parents think that they are just taking an academic test,” she said. “That’s not what parents signed up for when they think that their kids are being taught math and English.”

 

Common Core Standards Adoption by State

Whether for or against Common Core, the consensus appears to be that a set of nationally uniformed education standards are more beneficial to students than the individual standards states began rolling out in the nineties. The proof is in the numbers. Forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) have voluntarily adopted, and are moving forward with the Common Core.

So whether you’re an educator wondering what the Standards mean for your school or district, or a parent, wondering what they mean for your child, here is what you need to know.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN COMMON CORE AND PREVIOUS STATE STANDARDS

The Common Core Standards, test students in math and English language arts, which includes reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, speaking and listening. They outline what K-12 students need to know and be able to do by the end of each grade level, but they are not curriculum. They do not dictate what teachers should be teaching on a given day or week, or what textbooks they should use. This continues to be the responsibility of the states and their local school districts.

In English language arts, there is now a greater focus on non-fiction, evidence-based writing and academic vocabulary. Students are required to read more historical pieces and non-literature books.

 

 

Read more about key shifts in English Language Arts

The biggest change in math is that Common Core standards are more focused. They cover fewer topics than most previous state standards, but in much greater depth, building deeper knowledge of mathematical concepts and their application to different situations.

Read more about key shifts in Mathematics

In a nutshell, Common Core places assignments in the context of the real world.

In the South Huntington School District for example, students no longer write essays only for class. They also write to the newspaper and they write magazine articles.

“These are the types of experiences that we’re helping students to get to with the Standards and with the technology that we have; and we have a lot of technology,” Bloom said.

This ranges from using technology for basic research and word processing to bringing in complex robots where students are learning to code at a an early age.

“We’re using flexible coding platforms with drag and drop features, including MIT Scratch and the NAO robot platform which we work on with a company called TEQ,” Bloom said. “On the same platform, students can develop their programming skills by working their way from drag and drop to Python programming.”

But teachers aren’t teaching robotics and programming just for the sake of it. In these classes students are learning the kind of progressive, problem solving thinking now required by the Common Core math standards.

In Florida, Effrem says such complex tasks and high expectations are setting students up to fail.

“The problem is that [the Standards] are developmentally inappropriate,” she said. “There is no reason to teach math by methods that even parents with PhDs cannot understand and be able to help their children with.”

Effrem, a pediatrician, also faults Common Core for not teaching traditional standard methods in the early grades when she said children need to develop the basics, and a clear understanding of how things work sequentially.

Teachers Views on Impact Common Core State Standards Will Have on Select Student Skills and Abilities

“Common Core work is difficult. In fact, in some ways, it could be argued that it is a challenge program for everyone,” South Huntington School District Superintendent Dr. David Bennardo said. “And, as with anything more challenging in our lives, there is struggle.”

While Bennardo’s own fifth-grader finds the new standards to be demanding, he hopes the lesson she and other kids get from them, is that with struggle, there is pride and achievement.

“And with successful completion to struggle there is an understanding that difficult, challenging, 21st century tasks can be embraced and conquered, and not handed off to somebody else,” he said.

The ability to conduct research and collaborate to find solutions to difficult assignments and tasks is easier in today’s classrooms where students are utilizing such technological advances as the Google suite of Apps for Education.

“Now everybody is accountable …and everybody feels a part of that assignment,” Bloom said. “Our teachers and administrators are using these great tools as well to collaborate on curriculum.”

FREEDOM TO MOVE ACROSS STATES

Another key benefit the Core Standards’ authors and administrators expect students to derive is the ability to compete with other students on a level playing field if they relocate to another state.

Previously states had developed their own set of standards. Program Director of Common Core State Standards, Carrie Heath-Phillips said with that sort of patchwork of across the country, it meant that every state then had to develop all of its own resources, making it difficult to share materials across states.

“It meant that students, when they had to move from state to state were facing different things that were taught in different grade levels, particularly in today’s society when kids are so mobile,” Heath-Phillips said.

THE STANDARDS ARE INTERNATIONAL

Because the Common Core is based on international standards – having drawn lessons from the highest performing US states and other countries – Heath-Phillips said they should also be beneficial to children leaving the US to study internationally.

“In the math standards, we looked at what was being done in South Korea and Singapore. They were the pioneers in looking at this idea of focusing on fewer concepts in each grade, going really deep and building conceptual understanding before having kids move on to the next topic,” Heath-Phillips said.

For the English standards, examples were drawn from Australia, England, New Zealand and Finland.

“Those larger themes…in literacy, nonfiction, focus on evidence, and the complexity of text are ones we saw from [these] countries,” Heath-Phillips said.

WHAT TEACHERS ARE SAYING ABOUT IMPLEMENTATION

So what are teachers saying about the Common Core Standards? A recent Scholastic survey states that 73% who teach math, English language arts (ELA), science and/or social studies say they are enthusiastic about implementing them in their classrooms. However, they believe implementation will be challenging and that additional professional development and resources are needed, particularly for students who struggle most.

Teacher Agreement With Statements About Common Core State Standards

“I think the greatest thing that any school district can provide their staff is the time necessary to really dive into the standards, and one thing that we’ve built into our schedule is Early Release,”- John McAndrews, Assistant Principal at Broadway Middle School in Seaside Oregon said.

Every Wednesday the district operates on a shortened schedule. Students leave an hour earlier allowing teachers to work on curriculum concerns.

“It gives us that opportunity for collaboration,” McAndrews said. “The teachers need to be able to sit down with their colleagues…review these standards, and come up with a plan to help students who are already successful and those who need more support.”

Seaside District schools are also currently trying to develop resources to meet the Common Core standards. Because the curriculum was developed prior to the standards, the district’s schools are focused on bridging the gap between the current curriculum and where the Common Core Standards state students should be. They expect to better measure this after their first try at theSmarter Balanced Assessment in 2015 Mc Andrews said.

In the Astoria School District, also in Oregon, English teacher Jenni Newton believes budget cuts and the resulting limited resources mean that the added time teachers must spend ensuring the curriculum is in line with Common Core expectations is adding further stresses to already burnt out teachers.

“I feel really dishonored by the system as it is, and…this is not helping me help my kids,” the Astoria High School teacher said. Instead it’s making me feel burnt out or feel unappreciated, and I need my focus to not be on those negative feelings. I need my focus to be in my classroom,” Newton said.

HELPING PARENTS WITH IMPLEMENTATION

In addition to providing adequate teacher support, addressing Parents’ concerns is vital to smooth implementation.

“One of the things that [we] have been doing is setting up parent type academies and having weekly newsletters that explain where [parents] could find the resources and support they need,” Bennardo said. “The better we get at that, the less apprehension we’re seeing.”

The South Huntington School District also capitalizes on the numerous online resources available for reading support and building math fluency. (I’ve prepared a breakout box with links to some of the key websites that provide these resources)

“We are using these resources with parents and students to help them not only understand Common Core and particular standards,” Bloom said. “But if [students] are working on a standard in class and they don’t know how to solve a particular problem, there is a place for them to go online, in addition to the resources the teachers are providing.”

Cognizant of the limited resources and budgets available in some school districts, Bloom also implored teachers and administrators to seek out and pursue the numerous grants available for Common Core implementation.

“We are very aggressive about going after those grants,” he said. “A lot of them are posted on grants.gov.”

Specific grants are also available on agency websites for each state.

South Huntington administration used grant money in three major ways to facilitate smooth implementation of the Common Core Standards:

  1. They created Common Core coaches to support teachers with teaching the standards.
  2. They created mentors to support new teachers.
  3. They sent teachers and administrators to professional development workshops where they were able to learn from the experts who are writing the various curricula and modules.

Bloom also recommends seeking out foundations focused on raising money for education.

“South Huntington Educational Foundation raised enough money to buy three robots for us, ranging in price from $10,000 to $15,000, because they wanted our students to have that exposure,” he said.

“So these are all things that we have been doing to prepare ourselves and our students for Common Core, and I don’t want to pretend that this is not a challenge,” Bloom said. “But by doing these things, our teachers are working through that challenge, and where they are seeing gaps they are now building those bridges to those gaps.”

 

 

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