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School year starts with new curriculum

Here's fair warning for students: Monday isn't just the first day of school in Baltimore City and the surrounding five counties, it's the beginning of life with a whole new set of expectations from teachers.

There's going to be a lot more writing, more researching and more emphasis on being able to argue a point, even in math and science classes. And math classes will likely go more in-depth and cover less material.

For the first time in a decade, what gets taught in classrooms across the state is shifting under a new set of standards for reading and math adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Those standards, called the Common Core, mark the first time there's been near-national consensus on what students should learn in math and language arts in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"We are pushing rigor ... earlier than we ever have before," said Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery.

The differences in Maryland schools in this transition year will be subtle, but still substantive, according to teachers and administrators. Most school systems aren't buying brand-new textbooks for reading or math, but they have been integrating the new expectations into their current lessons. And smaller counties on the Eastern Shore have decided to pool their resources and staff to write a new curriculum together.

Third-grade teacher Lauren Booth has always taught her students a story by author Mark Teague about characters who have wild adventures after falling into a lost-and-found bin. The teacher at Baltimore County's Colgate Elementary School would ask them to describe the differences among the characters as part of their lesson.

This year, she will still be teaching "The Lost and Found" but she'll also ask students to read a second Teague book, "The Secret Shortcut," and to compare the characters in the two books. Then they will write their own stories, incorporating the traits of the characters in the two books.

They will not only be developing narrative writing skills, she said, they will also have to use what they learned about character traits. This approach will take more time, and it will mean that she will drop another story from her lessons. But she said she also will be able to go into greater depth.

Booth said she is pleased with the new approach, even though as a relatively new teacher she found the change a bit overwhelming. "I see the kids really blossoming with this," she said.

Language arts teachers, Lowery said, will not be the only ones who will be teaching writing.

"I think the biggest shift is a focus on technical reading and writing," she said. For the past two summers, the state has held a series of large meetings at central points around the state to train thousands of teachers and administrators from each school in the new standards.

In math, school districts are shifting entirely to a new common core curriculum for their youngest students and adding other lessons in higher grades.

Like other counties, Anne Arundel also has decided to start demanding students do more research, writing and analysis in all the subjects, not just math and reading. So students will see more work in science, said Andrea Kane, Anne Arundel County assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"I love the Common Core," said Anthony Japzon, principal of Medfield Heights Elementary School in Baltimore City. In the past, he said, he believes that students were covering too much material. The new standards, he said, "may be only a hundred yards long but it is going to be feet deep. We were touching a lot of topics and skills each year, but they weren't emphasized enough."

Some potential pitfalls lie ahead, according to teachers and administrators. While teachers are starting to teach a different curriculum, their students will still be taking the old tests. Many fear test scores may drop.

"Even if we embrace the Common Core, there is still going to be a Maryland assessment this year," said Japzon. "I think that is a little bit problematic. It makes for a very unique year. We are kind of in between."

But Lowery said that since more is being expected of students, they should perform just as well on the old assessments. "If they are teaching the Common Core standards, they should do well on the Maryland School Assessments and the High School Assessments," she said.

But teachers may well have to worry about how their students will fare on the new assessments now being developed by a consortium of states, including Maryland, that are expected to be much tougher than today's MSAs.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, speaking to teachers on Wednesday in Baltimore County, challenged them to not get discouraged if scores drop significantly as students begin taking the new, tougher tests.

Particularly worrying for teachers is that the new tests and curriculum are coming at a time when they are beginning to be evaluated in part on the basis of their students' achievement. Every Maryland school district will be trying out a new teacher evaluation system in some schools this year, and the following school year that system will count for the first time.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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