In new school year, local school districts continue shift to Common Core
Fifth grade teacher Mary Wilke listens to Sam Nichol during a math lesson on place values on Friday, September 13, 2013 at Broken Ground School.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
From left, Kristin Womack, Pradeep Sharma, Maria Armaganian and Sam Nichol play parts in a game their fifth grade teacher Mary Wilke devised to explain place values in their math class at Broken Ground School in Concord on Friday, September 13, 2013.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Sujata Khadka, center, uses her fingers to count while finishing an activity during her fifth grade math class at Broken Ground School in Concord on Friday morning, September 13, 2013.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Signs of the latest public education reform effort will become more visible in local classrooms this year, as teachers continue a shift toward lessons that go beyond surface-level learning and stress mastery over memorization.
That means if you haven’t yet heard about the Common Core State Standards, you will soon.
The standards have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia and are meant to increase expectations in math and English to better prepare students for college and careers. In New Hampshire, districts have been gradually moving toward the standards since the State Board of Education adopted them in 2010. But as the time for new standardized testing – set for spring 2015 – draws closer, schools are making a more concentrated push to start preparing students.
“We don’t throw the switch and say ‘Now we’re Common Core on Tuesday’ – this is a process,” said Donna Palley, assistant superintendent in the Concord School District.
A motto of the standards is “fewer, clearer, higher,” meaning students will cover fewer topics but in greater depth. In kindergarten, for example, teachers may spend more time on numbers and counting and cut out introductions to algebra such as making patterns. Fractions, which used to be introduced as early as first grade, will be held until later grades.
English classrooms will see changes, too, with students spending a lot more time reading nonfiction – the new standards recommend nonfiction make up 50 percent of elementary school reading and up to 70 percent in high school. In writing, students will be expected to construct stronger arguments using evidence from the text.
Although the standards dictate common expectations across grade levels, local districts and teachers still get to decide how to change their lessons to fit those new standards. Administrators from Concord, Merrimack Valley, Pembroke, Bow and Hopkinton all say they’ve had the power to determine how Common Core is rolled out in their schools.
In some districts, small-scale implementation began last school year. But across the board, administrators say changes will be evident in classrooms this school year.
Last year, Concord teachers from preschool through eighth grade had two days of training with math and English specialists to help them learn about the new standards. Math specialists also spent time with teachers this summer to revise lesson plans that are unfolding in classrooms this year.
In Mary Wilke’s fifth-grade classroom at Broken Ground, for example, she will stop teaching exponents and negative numbers. Instead, she will delve deeper into fractions and geometry. She worked on a committee this summer that revamped math curriculum for grades three through five. Teachers don’t want to move on when all students don’t understand the material, she said, and covering fewer subjects will give her more time to make sure her students truly understand how to apply the skills they are learning.
“We used to cover an awful lot in math,” she said. “As a teacher, I really like this.”
For English language arts, the district purchased new materials this summer, and there will be a heavy focus in kindergarten through fifth grade on writing. At Rundlett Middle School, teachers will meet in their “teams” to discuss how all subjects fit in with Common Core. Teachers from science, social studies and other subjects will contribute to the nonfiction reading expectations by bringing more reading into their own classrooms.
At the high school, the move toward the new standards has been slower because the school is undergoing a lengthy re-accreditation process that ends later this month. English and math teachers had some training last year, but training for all teachers will begin this fall.
Now, as the standards make their way into classrooms, the district will begin communicating with parents about the changes.
“We needed to understand it well first,” Palley said. “So I feel like we’re just at the right time now to bring this out and talk with parents.”
Last year Merrimack Valley focused on Common Core awareness, and implementation will begin in small doses this year, said Chris Barry, assistant superintendent.
Since the new standards promote greater depth of knowledge, many teachers will have to change the way they present material. Laura Culp, an eighth-grade math teacher, said she’s focusing more on perseverance, precision and argumentation.
In the past, for example, she would give her students a problem, ask them to solve it, and say whether it was right or wrong. Now, she’s also giving them problems that have already been solved and asking them to analyze if they’ve been solved correctly, and if so, why.
“We’re asking the students to look at a problem that’s been solved . . . and say ‘that’s right because,’ ‘that’s not right because,’ ‘there’s a better way you could have done it,’ ” Culp said. “I’m having to be much more of a coach than just an instructor.”
The district is also considering full-day kindergarten because the expectations for young children have risen so drastically. In the past, one end-of-the-year goal for kindergartners was counting to 20. Now, they’ll be expected to count to 100, by ones and by tens. They’ll also have to write all the numbers to 20, which requires a greater understanding of how numbers work, Barry said.
Overall, Barry said she thinks the standards are a good goal, but that three to four years isn’t enough time to fully prepare teachers and students for the new test. But since the 2015 deadline isn’t likely to change, she and the teachers are doing the best they can with the resources available.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “It’s too complex, it’s a big shift.”
At School Administrative Unit 53, which includes Pembroke, Allenstown, Epsom, Chichester and Deerfield, Common Core will find its way into all classrooms this year.
Kindergarten and first-grade classrooms transitioned last year, and grades two through eight are bringing in new lesson plans this year. In English classrooms, students are reading more difficult books, and the math curriculum has been reorganized. The SAU created a template for implementing the standards, but each of the five districts has freedom to decide how changes are made.
Pembroke Academy, which is also undergoing the re-accreditation process, will likely change its scheduling for next year so that students have their core classes every day all year long.
“They will be moving to a schedule that is more Common Core-friendly, where you have daily math and English language arts,” Superintendent Helene Bickford said.
Bickford said she has spoken with groups of parents in Deerfield and Allenstown as well as Epsom’s school board about the changes. Chichester’s principal has also done outreach with the school board and parents.
Hopkinton tested two new math programs last year in kindergarten through fifth grades and surveyed parents on what they thought before making a final choice. Sixth-grade teachers are testing a new program this year, and in grades seven through 12 teachers are continuing to adapt their lessons to fit the standards, Superintendent Steve Chamberlin said.
Since the changes started last year, students this school year are already showing a deeper understanding of how numbers work, said Debra Jones, a math specialist hired by the district specifically to help with Common Core. Just like in Merrimack Valley, there’s a greater emphasis on getting kids to persevere through difficult problems and learn how to apply math skills to a number of situations.
This year, a committee will focus on literacy and technical writing in all grade levels, Chamberlin said. The Common Core focus is also becoming more “global,” he said, meaning teachers from all subjects, not just reading and math, will be talking about how to increase expectations in their classrooms. Although the expectations are more standardized, teachers are still free to teach how they want to teach, he said.
“The teacher still has autonomy, but we hope the curriculum decisions are made in collaboration,” he said.
In Bow, Superintendent Dean Cascadden says he sees the new standards as the next step in a path the district was already taking. When he arrived in Bow seven years ago, the district began revamping its English language arts curriculum, and it will need only small revisions to align with Common Core.
In math, however, the changes will be greater. Like most of the other districts, reworking math curriculum was a focus last year. Part of that included conversations about how to alter teaching styles. The national Parent-Teacher Association released materials that give advice on teaching the standards at each grade level, which Cascadden said have been a valuable resource.
“It’s a complex set of work because it’s not just content that we’re talking about,” he said.
Since Bow is typically a high-performing district and the standards align well with what was already happening in the classrooms, Cascadden said there is not much district-wide anxiety about the new standards.
Too much, too fast?
While each district is well on its way to bringing Common Core into the classrooms, such significant changes aren’t simple.
The New Hampshire chapters of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are supportive of the standards but are emphasizing that teachers need time and adequate resources to master them. Since the new standards are so much higher and the testing format is different, it’s possible students across New Hampshire will see a drop in test scores in the first few years.
The state Department of Education is holding training across the state and created an online network where schools and teachers can access resources and share experiences. But the one resource schools can’t have more of is time.
“All the administrators I talk to and all the teachers I talk to, none of them say ‘Oh, we don’t think these are good,’ they just say ‘Oh my goodness, how are we going to do that?’ ” said Barry, of Merrimack Valley.
But although the changes will be difficult, all of these administrators say the vision and purpose of the new standards – to better prepare students for college, careers and to compete on the world stage – is a strong one.
“We are not doing our kids any kind of service by holding them to lower standards,” said Bickford, the SAU 53 superintendent. “We need to hold our kids to high standards.”