Common Core put into practice
Germana’s question represents an aspect of the Common Core State Standards: to encourage students to substantiate their answers in school assignments, and to cite evidence, whether it is in English, science, or, in this case, mathematics.
Germana is one of many teachers in the Regional School Unit 21 and districts across the state to implement teaching methods charted by the Common Core State Standards.
The standards, nearly ubiquitous (45 states have officially adopted the standards), were established in 2009 through a collaborative effort of educators across the nation, led by the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The standards, which were adopted by Maine in 2011, are optional and not federally mandated. The standards seek, among many things, to help students prep for “college and career-readiness,” according to the official website.
“Really it’s just a change in focus in our curriculum,” Germana said after his class ended. “Common Core puts emphasis on certain areas, but the differences are in practices.”
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not new curriculum, per se. They are, as their name suggests, standards for which teachers align their curriculum.
The English Language Arts Standards (ELA) contain guidelines for subjects at each grade level. Instruction for reading literature as a kindergartner includes, “With prompting and support, compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in familiar stories.” That same guideline for juniors and seniors in high school, reads, “Demonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.”
Ryan Quinn, principal of Kennebunk Elementary School, compared the Common Core standard of learning to Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is to say, curriculum builds off of preceding curriculum.
In the informational video on Common Core’s website, a drawing is shown of students climbing a staircase to illustrate learning with CCSS.
The standards demand advanced, or accelerated, displays of comprehension, which has caused a reshaping of classroom curriculum.
What is currently considered eighthgrade math curriculum will, next year, once the standards have taken hold in the classroom and CCSS books are distributed, could be practiced at a seventh-grade level.
Said Assistant Superintendent Sara Zito, “We’ve begun to map our curriculum in response to learning the standards.”
In some subjects the insertion of Common Core State Standards is more obvious than in others.
For example, “There is a striking difference between the way we viewed math instruction before (the standards) and after,” Zito said.
The standards require a focus on the process that one goes through to come to the conclusion of a problem, rather than just achieving the correct answer.
Accelerated learning means less time for review.
Rather than allowing for six weeks of review during the beginning of the school year, said eighth-grade math teacher Sharon Greenglass, students will swallow more advanced material from a younger age at a faster pace, which will lead to mastery rather than proficiency.
“All kids are mastering more advanced math with bite-sized pieces put into each grade level that are doable,” Greenglass said. “We’re trying to increase knowledge at a younger age.”
Greenglass supports the CCSS, but it took her a bit to warm to the shift.
“I wasn’t one of those who grabbed ahold of it and thought it was fabulous from the beginning,” Greenglass said. Now, “I really feel like this change is one of the better changes.”
“What Common Core has done is broken it into digestive sections, just like the SAT,” Greenglass said.
In reference to current math curriculum, Greenglass said, “it isn’t well-aligned; it is too fluffy ... we do too much review and repeat.”
Next year, for example, sixth graders will no longer work on adding and subtracting fractions, rather they will work on multiplying and dividing fractions, said sixthgrade math teacher Lisa Bodwell.
Working with angles, triangles and parallel lines will be replaced for the more advanced volume of prisms, area of irregular figures and surface area.
The demands of the CCSS for math, in other words, will alter curriculum to the degree that more advanced material, such as Algebra II, that would be presented, for example, to a sophomore or junior in high school will, as of next year, be presented to a seventh or eighth grader.
Further, “It’s more about thinking mathematically rather than computing,” Greenglass said.
The implementation of the standards, in RSU 21 and nationwide, has required a significant amount of professional development for teachers.
Funding has become an issue with some states and districts where funds are tight, thus creating a disparity rooted in fiscal differences and fueling derision of the standards.
To equip teachers in RSU 21 with adequate knowledge of the standards, staff attended off-campus training sessions, they were given access to online resources, and consultants visited the district to better “unpack the standards,” Zito said. Training is ongoing, and it continues to incur expenses.
For Zito, adopting the standards was “just good pedagogy.” When it comes to education, there is no middle of the road. “A school is either improving or declining. We can never become complacent . . . the standards can help inform that improvement.” The standards have taught instructors how to view curriculum through a different lens, Zito said. She believes curriculum should be “a living document,” and that “it shouldn’t be something you write and put on a shelf.” Rather, it is constantly evolving to better meet the needs of students. “It needs to be nimble and open to change,” Zito said.
Zito, like many advocates of the Common Core, believes that the standards provide room for a necessary amount of teacher autonomy in the classroom. Beth Carlson, an english teacher at Kennebunk High School, agrees.
In the middle of March Carlson facilitated a Socratic-like discussion for her seventh grade college-prep English class. The discussion pertained to the recent swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated magazine whereupon Barbie, in a one-piece bathing suit, took the cover.
Students were divided into three groups, one of which served as the provocateurs. The other two groups argued points at either end of the spectrum: Barbie is an iconic symbol and her presence on the cover is symbolic of how people view women’s bodies.
Conversely, Barbie is simply a toy and people should refrain from getting so worked up about it. A representative from each team took the floor in each round. Carlson required that students attribute references to support their verbal argu- ments.
“For every fact you’re going to support for your topic, you want to be able to cite where it came from and who said it,” Carlson told the students.
At the top of the assignment sheet, Carlson included four Common Core standards that pertained to the discussion, one of which stated: “Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence. Ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.”
“I’ve informally done this before,” Carlson said while the students prepared their arguments, “but there wasn’t the same standard. Usually only kids who did their homework participated.” The standards “require teachers to take what they’ve done, to some degree, and make sure all of the kids participate. In essence, everyone learns from that,” Carlson said.
Three students took their places in the center of the room for the argument’s first round. “Is Barbie just a doll?” asked provocateur Michael Pastorelli. The other two students paused before answering.
“If Barbie’s just a doll, why is she a negative influence on society?” asked Jen Bremser. Her opponent Kip Richards, retorted, “Is that a proven fact or just an assumption?”
Bremser, employing Carlson’s and the CCSS requirement, said, “According to a Barbie diet book that came out in 1965, it told women if they wanted to lose weight that they shouldn’t eat.” Bremser was referring to the controversial 1965 “Slumber Party Barbie” who came equipped with a scale and Barbie-sized diet book that advised “Don’t eat!”
Throughout the activity, many of the students, Carlson acknowledged, had trouble referencing a text and then, from there, forming a solid argument.
“This helps them realize they can only form half of an argument. It forces them to (verbalize) an argument they would otherwise just write on paper,” Carlson said. Despite the difficulty forming solid arguments, “I don’t think they’re (CCSS) are too hard for students. I think they’re very appropriate.”
Seventh-grader Caitlin Littlefield attested to this at the end of class: “It wasn’t hard to find the right sources, but it was hard to connect them.”
“Taking your own bias out is the challenge, isn’t it?” Carlson asked the class. “But there is a lot of strength in an argument with the bias removed.”
Activities such as this allow Carlson to grade the students on their verbal arguments in accordance with the standards for the students’ diplomas. “This gave us structure to evaluate in a way that an (informal) conversation might not have.”
Carlson doesn’t view the standards as dictating, but rather complementary. This technique, said Quinn, is precisely how the district wants its teachers to use Common Core: to individualize the standards to fit their classroom and their teaching style.
Quinn likens the swelling controversy around Common Core to Everyday Math. Everyday Math has been criticized for being too rigid and its implementation too uniform. But in RSU 21, “teachers use it as a resource; they can do what they want in their classroom ... ,” Quinn said. “The same is happening with Common Core: in some school districts these standards are given with instruction (from the district) not to change or adjust them.”
“Common Core doesn’t really look that different from other state standards,” Quinn said. “The beauty is this: for years school curriculum was created from the background that the purpose for public schools has always been preparing its students for citizenship. The Common Core Standards were built from a place of college and career readiness. That is what America needs now.”
The classroom needs to have more “robust standards,” Quinn said. “Common Core has raised the bar and made standards more rigorous, but as long as teachers have latitude they can simplify the content.”
An objective of the nationwide collaborative effort among educators to help craft the standards was to diminish the possibility of limiting curriculum regionalism, or regional bias, Quinn said. “We need to make sure that our students understand more than just life in New England ... what we really need is for our kids to be more critical thinkers. Evaluate and synthesize information is what we (students) need to do, not just memorizing facts ... what we really need is for kids to be more critical thinkers.”
The push to discern why a solution is what it is and then applying it to real world scenarios is prevalent throughout the CCSS. This point is enforced in the “Parent’s Backpack Guide to Common Core Standards,” accessible on the RSU 21 website. The literature informs parents of “What’s Shifting?” “Reading more nonfiction texts will help your child learn about the world through reading,” and “Your kids will understand why the math works and be asked to talk about and prove their understanding.”
The text informs parents they should expect to “look for math assignments that are based on the real world. For instance, homework for fifth-graders might include adding fractions as part of a dessert recipe or determining how much pizza friends ate based on fractions,” and “Your children might have assignments that ask them to show or explain their mathematical thinking – to say why they think their answer is the right one.”
The demand for abstract thinking will likely be difficult for some students, Greenglass said.
“The emotional readiness will make it harder for abstract problems,” Greenglass said. Once the students start with abstract problems from a young age, Greenglass said, they will have an easier time grasping more complex problems as they get older. “The more you challenge kids, the more they will work it through.” But such is not always the case.
Karleen Frost, a Kennebunk mother of three boys currently in the RSU 21 school system, vehemently opposes implementing the standards. Her sons Kyle, 5, Karl, 7, and Donald, 12, are all at different places on the autism spectrum.
“For me, a lot of Common Core seems to overcomplicate things,” Frost said. “I’m worried we’re going to have to pull our kids from class because they’re learning way is different from the Common Core way ... they’re going to teach to the test instead of the child.”
For Frost, the concern is with the pace of CCSS and strict comprehension demands. “You’re setting one bar for a multilevel of needs,” Frost said.
She recently began homeschooling Donald, who began the year at Middle School of the Kennebunks. While her reasons to homeschool were most immediately due to inconsistencies in the classroom, her decision was also preemptive.
If Frost’s other two sons, currently enrolled at Kennebunk Elementary School, begin to show signs of struggle as they age through the school system, Frost fears they, too will have to be homeschooled. “The way math is taught to Karl, it’s overly wordy and it frustrates him,” Frost said. “I don’t see how just creating another complicated math program is going to help them get into college.”
Frost fears that the rigorous content will put her sons at a disadvantage in the classroom.
“My biggest concern with what I’ve seen, is if Karl isn’t able to pass the Common Core test, he will not get a diploma ... the idea of Karl getting pushed through 12 years of schooling and him not getting a diploma, that scares me,” Frost said.
“Common Core, to me, part of the biggest problem is everyone has to do it the same way ... where does that leave a large group of kids?” Frost said. “I think it’s good in theory, but not every child will meet it.”
For Frost, living with three children with autism requires a certain amount of leniency and some flexibility, in both teaching methods and in understanding.
“I’m constantly teaching my kids that there’s more than one way of doing things. It just seems like Common Core diminishes that piece.”
Frost pulled out a shirt Donald made for Autism Awareness Day on April 2. The text on the front, apropos, reads, “Autism: it’s not a processing error, it’s a different operating system.”
“I don’t want to have fears,” Frost said. “I’ve worked so hard preparing my boys to cope with the real world, but I don’t know if they can cope with Common Core.”
For more information about the CCSS, visit www.corestandards.org.