The new Common Core State Standards Initiative brings with it more than a new curriculum in Howard County. It also brings a change in philosophy.

“Teachers are no longer the sage on the stage, but rather the guide on the side,” said Fran Clay, coordinator of elementary language arts for the Howard County Public School System.

That’s apparent in Lisa Johnson’s fourth-grade reading class at Clarksville Elementary School, where students last week were learning about planets.

Before Common Core, Johnson said, the students would be sitting and listening to their teacher present a list of facts. Now, students are sitting at laptops engrossed in their own work, listening to podcasts on planets, reading scholarly articles and taking notes. At the end of the lesson, they’ll write arguments on whether or not Pluto is a planet and why they think so.

But the assignment isn’t strictly an opinion piece, said Carrie Trudden, the instructional technology teacher who is also supervising the class.

“This is about getting them to look at multiple sources and come up with their own conclusion,” Trudden said. “They’re learning how to be independent thinkers and how to find information to back up their thinking.”

And, Howard County school and elected officials said, that’s the point of Common Core — to help students learn more conceptually and comprehensively; to become critical thinkers and problem solvers; to be more adaptable to changing technologies.

“Our new curriculum requires students to actively engage in their learning, think critically and develop the habits of mind to solve real life problems,” said Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose. “It shows great promise for elevating the level of rigor and preparing every student for a bright future.”

School board member Ellen Giles agrees that it shows promise, but she also has a healthy skepticism.

“To me, this has a lot of good things,” Giles said. “But is all of it totally formulated? Not yet. We’re still rolling it out. The devil is always in the details, and do I like every single thing? No. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s an appropriate move toward a universe where half the tools we use didn’t exist five years ago, and to equip our kids to be adaptable in a world where they have no idea what kind of jobs are going to exist when they graduate.”

Common Core is a set of rigorous academic standards adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C. so a sixth-grader in Howard County is playing in the same academic ballpark as a sixth-grader in New York or Montana. The initiative started coming down the pipeline in 2010, a year after the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers developed the initiative.

Maryland signed on for the standards after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put forth Race to the Top grants as incentive. By signing on to Race to the Top, and in turn the Common Core, Maryland received $250 million in grant money.

That was three years ago, and while Common Core had to be implemented in the 2013-14 academic year, Howard County started rolling out the new standards piece-by-piece, starting with kindergarten-level math in 2010 and adding more grade levels in subsequent years, for example, and elementary writing standards in 2011. The rollout is complete this year, excepting a new, separate set of standards from Next Generation Science in 2016.

Other jurisdictions waited until this year to implement the standards, which Howard officials believe has led to more confusion and tension.

In Baltimore County, Superintendent Dallas Dance wrote an open letter to teachers and administrators last week apologizing for the frustration surrounding that district’s new English language arts curriculum. At a Common Core forum last month in Towson, Robert Small, of Ellicott City, was arrested for speaking out of turn and loudly protesting that his question was not being answered. The charges were dropped four days later.

An aggressive time frame

Howard County school administrators said the change to the new standards is going well, but as in any major reform, there are hiccups, including concern from teachers about being evaluated under the new system and confusion from parents about what it means.

The biggest challenge for administrators and teachers has been time.

For Lauri Hornicek, a fourth-grade teacher at Manor Woods Elementary, the shift to Common Core is a good thing — but it’s a shift big enough to completely alter how she goes about teaching.

“It feels like I’m a first-year teacher,” said Hornicek, who has been a teacher for 30 years. “There’s a lot of anxiety and stress. There’s just not enough planning time, even with the county giving us some resources. You still have to put it all together yourself, and in elementary school, you’re teaching eight different lessons a day. The Common Core isn’t a bad thing — students are learning more critically — but it takes three to five years to get used to something new so we’re all still on that learning curve. Everyone’s kind of in survival mode and we’re all trying to support each other.”