School district aims to de-mystify Common Core
In Delaware, public schools are preparing for an educational change that is also affecting states ranging from California and Florida to Maine and more. And parents of Indian River School District students recently got some insight on these Common Core State Standards, which 45 states and the District of Columbia voted to adopt.
The IRSD has already aligned its current curriculum to the Common Core but is still training teachers for changes to instruction. The district has been transitioning for the past 12 months.
“Not everyone will approach it the same way we do,” said LouAnn Hudson, IRSD director of curriculum and instruction. “Some [districts] bought all new textbooks and programs. We feel we have done it right so far, and we don’t want to mess it up. … We do feel the community does trust us.”
As the transition period continues, the district will continue studying how to best implement Common Core while getting support and feedback from parents, students and the community.
In today’s modern and global age, U.S. children rank only 18th in science and 26th in math among students worldwide. So the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) hope to improve education across the U.S. through the Common Core standards.
The Common Core is an organized list of what education officials believe every student should know and be able to do before graduation from high school. The individual standards are considered “stepping stones” to what students should know at each grade level.
Previously, two different school districts might teach multiplication in completely different grades. So, a child who moved from New York to Delaware might be way behind or way ahead of her peers.
Now, students in Common Core states will have an easier transition if they move between school districts or states, because all fourth-graders will be learning the same math instruction, and so forth. Additionally, the hope is graduates will be better prepared for college or the work force.
On Oct. 17, Hudson first explained the difference between standards and curriculum.
“Standards tell schools what to teach. Standards are just the ‘what.’ They tell us the final overall goal that we want for our children,” said Hudson. “Curriculum is the ‘how.’ We are still in charge of the curriculum,” she emphasized.
Local teachers decide what materials and strategies they use in the classroom. For instance, every fourth-grader might need to know certain vocabulary words. But one class might read a newspaper to help them learn the words, another class a short story and a third a National Geographic article. Science class might be a video or a nature hike.
The manner of teaching will differ in each classroom, but successful students will understand the same concepts.
“Standards aren’t that different than what they were before, just more carefully articulated,” said IRSD Superintendent Susan Bunting, who compared it to “reorganization, rather that whole new math program.”
Individual teachers within schools will be more aware of what each other grade is teaching, to “build a strong foundation at each level … so teachers are more aware of what each other has covered and what still needs to be,” said Will Revels, IRSD supervisor of secondary education. “If we’re going to make sure all standards are addressed … there [must be] coherence taught across the grades.”
Good literacy skills are considered of primary importance, so even math class will include some reading and writing. English class will include more nonfiction, because “to read even an instruction manual requires a level of literacy,” said Audrey Carey, supervisor of elementary education. Meanwhile, one parent noted that her daughter’s math class has written paragraphs explaining why they solved a problem a certain way.
“We design math equations in our head all the time,” Revels said of the real-world applications. “We figure out if we can go to the movies this week or buy this product over that product.”
With a renewed emphasis on accuracy, Common Core does away with any kind of “fuzzy math,” in which students could receive credit for incorrect answers if they showed the correct thought process.
As part of the transition, this spring the district will be piloting a new standardized test by Smarter Balance. But that has raised concerns about whether teachers will just be teaching to the test.
“If we’re teaching to the standards, teachers will be prepared for whatever is on that test that year,” Bunting said.
Textbook companies are dealing with new standards, too, so Hudson said the district has not purchased new textbooks yet. If and when the time comes, the district’s textbook committee of parents, teachers and students must approve the books, which must also pass a pilot program.
Although teachers must redesign lesson plans to adapt to the Common Core, they have some help.
IRSD teachers are “fortunate” because they are not so isolated, said Lori Hudson, district Teacher of the Year from Phillip C. Showell Elementary. At each grade level, teachers work across the schools to improve skills and share ideas with each other. Now, they’ll also have a nationwide network of support.
“A good teacher plans lessons every day and night,” Bunting said. “Every time I taught a lesson, I made it better.”
And while the core education standards are changing, special programs will continue, including Excel, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs.
Under a new set of standards, some might be concerned about more students being left behind in a more rigorous classroom. With more instructional support, LouAnn Hudson said, teachers are trained to identify “challenge points” in each lesson, where students may have trouble.
And, as students are more engaged in a lesson, there will be less drama in the classroom, Revels said.
“I see them more engaged … presenting arguments … a sharpening of skills,” Bunting said. “We feel it’s our responsibility to help them succeed.”
Asked on Oct. 17 why some states are now backing out of Common Core, Bunting said she couldn’t speak for other states, but noted that 45 had signed up in the first place.
“It takes a certain amount of political courage to look at where we are in the current system,” said Revels. “[Sometimes] we’re afraid of that measure, afraid off what might show up.”
Common Core was “not imposed on us” by the federal government, Bunting emphasized. “This was done by our governors. Our teachers are developing standards. … Our eighth-grade teachers have been developing programs for eighth grade.”
That initiative is one of the cornerstones of the district’s four-year Race to the Top plan. Although it occurred simultaneously, the governors’ Common Core initiative is “not necessarily hooked to Race to the Top,” said Bunting.
While some have questioned the decision to use Common Core, Bunting suggested they contact their legislators in Dover. As long as the district is funded by public money from the State, she said, the IRSD will use the standards.
“That’s not our argument to make,” Hudson said. “That’s the political argument to make. … Our job is to do the best we can by our students.”
Parents with more questions about the Common Core are being encouraged to contact their child’s principal or the Indian River School District’s central office.