By Noelle H. Lowery
A couple of weeks into the new school year, parents are noticing some differences in their children’s’ schoolwork. Gone are the days of rote memorization and recall. Traditional prescriptive lessons ending with a multiple-choice quiz are a thing of the past. Bye bye, multiplication tables.
They have been replaced with the Common Core State Standards for K-12 education specifically in English, Language Arts and Math. In their final stages of implementation in Florida schools CCSS are specific and rigorous standards and expectations for each grade level. Their focus: comprehension, analysis, explanation, writing, group work and class discussion. The standards have been adopted by 44 other states, Washington, D.C. and four U.S. territories, including American Samoa Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Already in the works, Florida’s public schools will fully adhere to CCSS as of the 2014 school year.
Experts believe these standards will better prepare students for college and the workforce, as well as propel U.S. students to the top of the international classroom, by teaching them how to think. “There are estimates that 65 percent of today’s elementary school students may be in jobs that are yet to be invented,” explains George Abounader, CEO and principal of Marco Island Charter Middle School. “To prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs, a shift in the nature of teaching has to take place. Teaching tomorrow’s leaders today will entail developing in young minds higher-order thinking skills — those skills such as analyzing, communicating, understanding, interpreting, problem-solving and reasoning skills.”
The core standards
Voluntarily adopted by Florida’s State Board of Education in 2010, Common Core describes “the what” that students need to learn, but does not spell out “the how.” Curriculum and instruction define “the how,” and that is determined at the local level: the district, the school and in the classroom, according to Mary Jane Tappen, Florida Department of Education’s Deputy Chancellor for Curriculum, Instruction and Student Services.
Fewer concepts per grade level provide for more in-depth classroom instruction, which becomes a collaborative effort and focuses on communication and literacy — the ability to read and write with competency. Children are expected to demonstrate that they can speak and listen effectively. This means more small-group and whole-class discussions with teachers evaluating students on how well they understand a speaker’s points.
Additionally, subject areas overlap and intertwine with more in-depth and complex reading assignments. As such, students are expected to write more and better, using facts, details and examples — evidence — from their reading to inform, describe, explain and justify their answers. All subject areas focus on reading and comprehension with reading and writing being the responsibility of every teacher. This includes history and social sciences, science and various technical subjects. This follows the philosophy that the more fluent students are in a particular field, the more capable they are of understanding the complexities of that field. It is believed literacy standards will enhance the content standards for these specialized subjects.
And, let us not forget technology. Common Core interweaves technology-based standards into its literacy standards in the hopes of preparing students for life in a technological society. The standards ask students to understand and use sound methods for researching, producing and consuming media.
“These standards provide for a far greater amount of life-learning,” says Tappen. “Support for this is I-learned-it-but-don’t-remember-it. If you have to communicate and use language to show why, you will probably end up remembering the content.”
In the classroom
In the classroom, this translates to critical thinking and problem solving. For example, one of the Common Core writing standards for third grade requires that students be able to ask and answer questions about information from a speaker with appropriate elaboration and detail, while a sixth grade math standard requires students to distinguish comparisons of absolute value from statements about order. This mean kids can recognize an account balance of less than $30 represents a debt greater than $30.
Kindergarteners use technology “with guidance and support from adults to explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing including in collaboration with peers.” In third grade, students learn to use technology as a search tool to gather information from print and digital sources and to provide a list of those sources. That is a long way from handwriting facts on note cards from an encyclopedia for five-paragraph essays.
Grades four, five and six focus on technology as a writing tool, using it to compose text routinely over various lengths of time. This helps to prepare students for everything from a timed-essay to extended research projects. For example, fourth graders focus on typing a minimum of one page in a single sitting; fifth graders a minimum of two pages in a single sitting; and sixth graders a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.
Abounader finds the classroom application of standards truly extends to students’ real life experiences: “Instead of memorizing vocabulary words, reading an unfamiliar word surrounded by context clues within the text will assist the student in developing some of those higher order thinking skills… With the use of calculators, computer programs and the various other technological devices that have students begging the question ‘why do I have to study math? I don’t ever use it,” the CCSS approach to the study of mathematics also will teach students to use the thought processes learned in the traditional mathematic courses to solve problems, interpret, understand word problems, find creative or alternative solutions.”
“CCSS attempts to develop the thinking skills of children and not settle for isolated chunks of knowledge,” he adds.
Teaching and assessing
To be sure, these standards are brand new for Florida’s teachers, who have been centering their lesson plans on prepping students for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) since 1998. Common Core provides teachers with two things that have been absent from Florida’s classroom for some time — freedom and creativity.
“One of the advantages is allowing teachers to be creative,” contends Dr. Jory Westberry, principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary School. “That is a piece that has been missing. This gives them some more freedom. It says here is the standard now you figure out how you are going to teach it and make it relevant in your classroom.”
Tappen agrees: “The greatest strength (of these standards) is the change in instructional strategy. Instead of a teacher being the keeper of all knowledge, the students will have to show proof, tell why their answer is correct. It is deeper level of thinking and requires more back from the child.”
Teachers are stepping up to the challenge, though, Westberry notes. “They are trying to grasp the new standards and determine how they will teach it to the kids. It is a commitment to rigor and moving kids into thinking processes as opposed to rote learning.”
The kids are responding as well. TBE Assistant Principal Katie Maya is amazed at how quickly and how successfully children are adapting to the standards. “One of the most eye-opening things is if you sit and listen to how the children talk through a concept,” she says. “The conversations that are going on are amazing, and all of it has been going on in their heads this whole time. We are building on how their brain is actually processing the information…The little light bulbs are going off.”
Still, one question lingers about Common Core: How will we know the new standards are effective? This year will be the last year for FCAT 2.0, and its replacement has yet to be determined. FDOE has been working with the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, to create a standardized test capable of accurately assessing the progress of Common Core. Florida is one of 19 states along with the District of Columbia that make up PARCC, which received a $186 million “Race to the Top” assessment grant to develop the test.
The challenge, according to Tappen, to developing a test is three-fold. First, it must fairly assess the standards. Second, it cannot be too long, and third, it cannot be too costly. In addition to PARCC, FDOE is looking at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and at the assessment written by the state of New York.
“The criteria will be to test the standards with fidelity,” Tappen insists. “The test must defend the students’ thinking, and multiple choice might not be the most appropriate method to do that.”
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