They might as well have been ninth-graders puzzling over the SAT word of the day. Instead, they were teachers sitting in a Towson High School classroom, their heads bent over a list of new vocabulary words and phrases they couldn't seem to categorize in a way that made sense.
Even though these were some of the best teachers in the state, the exercise was designed to confuse. And that was the point: to make them realize they were learning a strange new language with words like common core, strands, clusters, standards for mathematical practice, and Maryland framework.
At Towson and 10 other locations this summer, Maryland is training 6,000 teachers and principals — or four staff members from each of the state's 1,450 schools — in what is known as the common core standards. This new national curriculum spells out clearly what students are expected to learn at each grade level from kindergarten through 12th grade and represents what is likely to be one of the most fundamental shifts in teaching in Maryland and 43 other states in the next decade.
"Anyone who thinks this is a slight adjustment really hasn't looked at it in-depth," said Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the city schools. The No Child Left Behind federal law has created a very low bar that every child in the nation has been expected to meet but the new common core will require far more from students. "It is a much higher, realistic floor," she said.
Teachers said last week that they are cautiously optimistic about the new approach and expectations for students. "I think we are getting a mandate to do things well," said Matt Damseaux, a City College math teacher.
Michael Jankowski, Perry Hall Middle School's math chairman, said he still had lots of questions halfway through the three-day training, but he was hopeful. "At least in math, students need to develop a full and deep understanding," he said. Too often, he said, he has felt that he had to race through curriculum rather than allowing students to understand how math works. With the common core standards, students will cover less each year, but go more in-depth in what they do learn.
State education officials say Maryland is the first state to hold such a comprehensive training for teachers on the common core standards.
While the new curriculum will be introduced this year, the entire package won't be seen for a number of years. This coming school year, teachers will be expected to add far more writing to their classes, and in math, teachers will concentrate on changing the way students work on problems by expecting them to explain their answers in greater depth and know why their solution did or didn't work.
While local governments historically have had control over what is taught in schools, a consensus began to develop several years ago among state education leaders that students would be better if they worked together to develop top-quality standards and tests, particularly for English and math. The National Governors Association and state education chiefs began writing standards that could be voluntarily adopted by states.
But the idea took off when the Barack Obama administration held a national competition for federal dollars called Race to the Top, which required states to sign on to the common core standards to be eligible. Forty-four states adopted the standards and a smaller group, including Maryland, is working together to write common tests.
Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent for instruction, said that in four years parents will clearly be able to see the difference in the classroom. For example, she said, Algebra I won't be the simplified version now widely taught that includes data analysis.
Writing, which had been sidelined because very little is required on the state's annual tests, will be given more emphasis. "Students will see a change in how much they are required to write in every class, as well as in how much of it is not story writing but opinion, argument and explanatory writing," she said. For example, elementary students will have to write opinion pieces that are based on what they are reading.
And reading will include more nonfiction than it does today and will be more complex and challenging.
For Meg Zerhusen's third-grade students at Warren Elementary in Cockeysville, writing already is emphasized. "We do a lot of writing in Baltimore County, so I don't feel there is a lot more," she said, but she does see a greater emphasis on grammar.
"Things are going to be more standard across the county," said Suzanne Speiss, a reading specialist at Vincent Farm Elementary.
In fact, many teachers said they are glad that the state and the country finally will have a common curriculum, like so many countries whose education standards are higher than the United States'.
"They are bringing us all onto a common page," said Amanda Rice, principal of George Washington Elementary in Baltimore. She said she was apprehensive at the start of the training session because the standards are one more thing her teachers will need to learn, but found herself growing excited by the emphasis on using real-world applications math and science.
Since their adoption, the standards have gotten positive reviews in most quarters, with few arguing about their value. However, teachers are concerned about the transition.
"What we don't want to do is to have teachers caught in the middle trying to wield two different curriculums," Cary said. "What we are saying is please go forward slowly and thoughtfully."