Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Key Changes Of The New Common Core Academic Standards, Explained

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    Indiana teachers will have to start teaching Common Core standards in 2014, but the results of a recent Michigan State University survey suggest educators nationwide don't see the changes to curriculum as substantial.

    Hat tip to StateImpact Florida for highlighting an explainer on the new Common Core academic standards in this month’s Harvard Education Letter. Robert Rothman writes about the latest from a Michigan State University study:

    The good news was that the vast majority of teachers have read the Standards and nearly all like them. The bad news was that about 80 percent of mathematics teachers said the Standards were ‘pretty much the same’ as their current state standards.

    Those teachers might want to take a closer look. While the Common Core State Standards share many features and concepts with existing standards, the new standards also represent a substantial departure from current practice in a number of respects.

    As Rothman points out, it’s important that educators in Indiana and the other 44 states on track to make the transition by 2014 understand how the new academic standards will shape their teaching. Kindergarten teachers in the state will begin teaching the Common Core this year.

    Our colleague John O’Connor does a nice job summarizing Rothman’s key points:

    Depth, not breadth: Rothman notes that Common Core pares down the list of topics to allow teachers to focus more on the subject. He notes that elementary math is particularly affected, putting more emphasis on arithmetic over other topics.

    Ramping up difficulty: Both lesson content and testing gets more complex as students progress. Common Core also introduces new topics in each grade that build upon what students have learned previously. The curriculum is designed to emphasize how the topics are interdependent.

    Speaking and listening: Common Core focuses on both aspects of literacy. The new standards might mean more emphasis on large and small group work, and following up to ensure student comprehension.

    Rothman breaks down his list of key changes by math and English language arts, the two subject areas affected by the Common Core standards. The focus on arithmetic means elementary teachers will teach less geometry. They also won’t be expected to teach time, and data and statistics aren’t included in the curriculum until sixth grade.

    “Those are results we wouldn’t have predicted. There is no pushback from teachers.”
    —William H. Schmidt, Michigan State University

    “The reasoning is that teachers should concentrate on the most important topics, like number sense, in depth so that students develop a real understanding of them and are able to move on to more advanced topics,” writes Rothman.

    In English language arts, a big change is the emphasis on non-fiction. About half of the texts in elementary school classrooms will have to be non-fiction. In high school, it’s 75 percent.

    PBS NewsHour reported in May that the shift could put a strain on districts with tight budgets because elementary schools will have the replace the textbooks known as “basal readers” they use to teach young students to read.

    Perhaps more importantly, the Common Core could change how educators teach reading. NewsHour reports some schools are moving to a “balanced literacy” approach that lets students pick their own texts. Instead of working from the same book, advanced readers can select more challenging material while teachers help struggling students catch up.

    The new standards also emphasize complexity. For The Quick & The Ed, Susan Headden attended a training session designed to help high school English teachers select texts appropriate for the Common Core. She writes:

    We got some sharp insights into these essential questions by doing a close reading of three texts that filled the bill: a speech by Susan B. Anthony, a passage of dialogue about child labor, and a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt.  … Sentences in very complex texts tend to be complicated rather than straightforward, and vocabulary is academic rather than plain. Informational text that is defined as complex might require specialized knowledge, have multiple meanings, and an obscure purpose. Complex literary texts tend to include references to other texts, demand cultural knowledge, and carry sophisticated, multiple perspectives.

    So some teachers are receiving good training on the new standards they’ll be expected to teach. But the Michigan State University study Rothman references — we wrote about it last month — suggests even more are still in the dark.

    In an April interview with StateImpact Indiana, the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee said she understands why teachers are confused. But she also says it’s a bad idea for educators to downplay the new academic standards:

    I certainly don’t blame the teachers for this because they’re getting so much different information thrown at them right now. On the one hand, you have organizations like Fordham saying this is going to be an enormous shift. But on the other hand, you have some curriculum and professional development providers that are basically suggesting that if you just follow the same tactics that they’ve been promoting for years, they’ll be aligned to the Common Core. … I think that’s where leaders need to come in and make sure that teachers need to make sure they are partners in trying to get this done.

    You can find some of the resources Indiana is offering to teachers and school districts on the Department of Education’s website.


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