The 2013-14 school year began with the full implementation of the Common Core State Standards in Maryland, the District of Columbia and 44 additional states.
The new national standards in English/language arts and mathematics symbolize a shift in what it takes for students to be "college and career ready."
"It's very challenging," said Richard Weisenhoff, executive director of academics for Baltimore County Public Schools. "It's requiring a lot more out of our students. They're going to be more fluent in mathematics, and they're going to be better writers and readers based upon what the Common Core is requiring us to do.
"The National Governors Association was the driving force behind it. They decided that, in language arts and mathematics, there was a need for a national standard to be developed," he said.
"My take is, we're getting involved with this so that all the materials that are being developed across the country from educators would be available in our schools as well," he said. "If everyone's teaching the same thing, why reinvent the wheel."
In English/Language Arts, students must "demonstrate independence," "build strong content knowledge," "value evidence," "comprehend as well as critique" and "use technology and digital media strategically and capably," according to the Common Core State Standards website.
In mathematics, students must "make sense of problems and persevere in solving them," "reason abstractly and quantitatively," "attend to precision," "look for and make use of structure" and "look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning," according to the website.
The confusing language describing the standards has been met with much criticism by parents and educators alike.
"That's one of the real problems we've got," Weisenhoff said. "It's hard for a real person to understand.
"I wish it wasn't that way but education shoots ourselves in the foot with all the jargon we have," he said.
Students will take a Partnership for the Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers test each spring.
In 2014, the PARCC assessments will be piloted in various classrooms throughout the county along with the final year of Maryland State Assessment tests.
Common Core State Standards shift education toward more independent learning and — by reducing the number of topics in a given subject — a more in-depth conceptual understanding of fewer specific topics, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
"What this is, it's a list of what students should know at each grade level," Reinhard said, "and the differences between this one [set of standards] and Maryland's former standards really differ at each grade level.
"In mathematics, you have students learning fewer concepts at each curricular grade level, but learning them more deeply.
"Talking to educational experts, they believe this is how children learn better," Reinhard said. "We have gaps in learning now, and the goal here is to reduce them so students really understand the material more deeply."
Local control and federal funds
Rumors that the standards were federally developed and remove local curriculum-writing power have caused a stir of controversy among parents and educators in recent months.
Robert Small, a 46-year-old Ellicott City resident, was arrested at a public forum discussing the new curriculum in Towson Sept. 19 after he stood up and interrupted BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance.
In a YouTube video from the meeting, Small is seen confronting Dance about the new standards.
"I want to know how many parents here are aware that the goal of Common Core Standards isn't to prepare our children for world class universities, it's to prepare them for community colleges," he said at the meeting.
"Don't stand for this," he urged the parents in attendance. "Parents, you need to question these people, do the research, it's online," he told them, before a police security officer pulled him out of the meeting.
Charges against him were dropped the following week.
The Carroll Values Educational Freedom and Excellence parent group in Carroll County has published "Why Common Core Must Be Stopped," a compilation of 11 "myths" about the standards' effectiveness.
"Common Core takes control of education away from parents and the local officials they elect," the document reads under "Myth #1: Common Core is not a federal takeover of education."
"The standards are COPYRIGHTED and owned by private organizations," the pamphlet continues. "Core VIOLATES the spirit of federal law by federalizing education."
Weisenhoff stressed that Common Core is not a federal program. However, he did admit that states that adopt Common Core State Standards are eligible for funds from the federal Race to the Top program.
Race to the Top, "provides funding to consortia of States to develop assessments that are valid, support and inform instruction, provide accurate information about what students know and can do, and measure student achievement against standards designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace," according to the program website.
"If a state opts out of doing the Common Core State Standards, then the feds will not provide them Race to the Top funds," Weisenhoff said.
He said federal money only accounts for 5.7 percent of the school system's fiscal 2014 budget.
He also noted that the county recently applied for a $30 million grant from the Race to the Top program.
He also said that BCPS — and every other school district implementing the new standards — was able to retain its curriculum-writing power.
"The standards, they are the things that students should know when they leave a specific grade level," Weisenhoff said. "The curriculum, which is what we do in Baltimore County Public Schools, is what we do in the classroom."
Making it work in the classroom
Melanie Coates, who chairs the english department at Catonsville High School, said she works as a curriculum designer with the Maryland State Department of Education and has been working with Common Core State Standards since before the start of the school year.
"I've been immersed in this world [of Common Core] for probably five years now," she said. "They tell us what we need to know, what students need to be ready for college and careers.
"Those anchor standards are then backwards mapped all the way down to pre-K. It's pretty well mapped out what's expected for students at each grade level."
The standards are general, she said, and do not prevent advanced students from moving beyond the standards for their grade levels or prevent assistance for those students not meeting the standards for their grade.
"Instead of it being a crapshoot, like what does a high school diploma mean in the United States?" Coates said. "Now it has a little bit more consistency."
She said the new standards encourage more thorough reading and provide students opportunities to think outside the box.
"After third grade, we stop teaching kids how to read, and we just assume that those skills they've learned up to third grade will carry them through," Coates said. "[Common Core teaches] how do you deal with things that are a little more complicated in the way they're explained.
Because she has been teaching Advanced Placement classes for a number of years, Coates said the shift to teaching Common Core standards has not been too different.
When teaching an AP class, she said, students must be prepared to be tested on any number of broad concepts taught throughout the course of an entire year during the final exam in May. Teaching Common Core for the PARCC assessment is very similar, she said.
"I had to pack a very big tool bag for those kids," she said of preparing her AP students for the cumulative test. "I've sort of taken that back now to all my classes.
"You have to really empower kids to be able to learn things on their own [with Common Core]. When students don't understand an article, rather than leaping in and becoming an enabler or becoming a crutch, you want to teach them the skills they need when they don't understand. That's required us to slow down what we do and maybe take a few things out that we had in the past."
"Now it's all about reflecting on their own learning and empowering them to becoming their own learners."