The time frame was very aggressive, agreed Clarissa Evans, the system’s executive director of school improvement and curricular programs.
“We started earlier than most jurisdictions and we still found it to be an aggressive timeline,” Evans said. “It’s been challenging to get the materials that teachers need in their hands when they need them. I honestly don’t think people understand how normally curriculum changes relatively slowly, usually only a discipline at a time. To have this massive change, something that overhauls the entire curriculum for grades K-12, three years is not a lot of time.”
A key focus of the Common Core, said Clay, the coordinator of elementary language arts for the school system, is what’s being done in Johnson’s Clarksville Elementary School classroom — students are developing an aptitude for academic vocabulary and learning how to analyze informational text like scholarly articles.
But what scholarly articles are appropriate for 9-year-olds? National Geographic Kids, for one, Trudden said. There are informational texts written at all reading levels, said Lisa Davis, coordinator of early childhood programs, and implementing Common Core means taking advantage of them.
“So, take ’The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ ” she said. “We read that book in pre-K, but then we’ll read an informational book about caterpillars and what they actually eat. The students learn that no, caterpillars don’t actually eat things like chocolate cake.”
The phrase is “disciplinary literacy,” said Mark Stout, coordinator of secondary social studies, which means students are learning to read as historians, or as scientists. They’re learning how to pick apart informational texts — another huge component of the Common Core — to determine if the author or institution has any biases in their writing. That can be done through learning about literary devices in an English Language Arts class, for example: what words or tones are being used to convey what message?
“Informational texts are the texts we encounter most as adults,” Stout said. “Literature is still an important part of the curriculum, but we’re recognizing that kids have all these classes where they’re encountering texts that we deal with on a larger scale as adults. Striking that balance perhaps wasn’t as good as it should have been before.”
It breaks down like this, Clay said — during the day in elementary schools, students are learning from 50 percent informational and 50 percent literary texts; in middle school, it’s 60 percent informational and 40 percent literary; in high school it’s 70 percent informational and 30 percent literary.
“It’s more reflective of the real world,” she said.
The balance between informational and literary text is one of six instructional shifts under Common Core, Clay said. There’s also a shift toward more academic vocabulary so students can more accurately articulate their thoughts in everything from essays to lab reports. There is a focus on close reading, which encourages re-reading to garner more information, and higher level thinking skills, which are developed through text-based questions and text-based answers so students learn how to get information from a text, analyze it and use it in their responses. That leads into the final shift — writing from sources.
“We want them to reference sources,” Clay said. “Common Core isn’t about finding one right answer, but finding an answer you can support and back up with evidence.”
Fewer objectives to teach
Another positive characteristic of Common Core, said Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle, is that teachers have fewer objectives to teach, allowing them to focus more on their material and giving students a better chance of developing a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
“You have too many objectives and you can’t teach anything very well,” he said. “Now you have more time with each one. Narrowing the focus down to the principles of democracy in an American history class, like limited government, majority rule with minority rights, and making sure your students are fluent readers and writers in those areas is a dramatic improvement over, say, teaching the first amendment one day, the second one the second day and so on.”
That’s his “greatest hope” about the Common Core, Lemle said. His greatest fear, however, is that “we won’t devote sufficient energy to giving those teachers time to collaborate and evaluate their lessons.
“I worry we won’t have enough time for planning and grading, of course, but the real problem is that we don’t have enough time to look at our own practices,” he said.
Kaye Breon, principal at Clarksville Elementary School, said fitting in adequate professional development time for teachers has been a challenge, but for the past three years, central office staff have visited schools four or five times a year and sat down face-to-face with teachers to work on implementing the standards in classrooms.
“I think we’re the only county in the state that has figured this out, and we gave the teachers time to absorb it in bunches, rather than all at once,” Clay said.
While the universal standards were mandated by the states that adopted them, the curriculum is written by the local districts — in Howard County individual teachers write their own lesson plans. That’s a different approach than other Maryland districts, like Baltimore City, Clay said, where the system provides ready-made lessons plans for all teachers to follow.
Howard County is ahead of the curve, too, local administrators said, because the system started rolling out the standards gradually rather than all at once. Furthermore, said Board of Education Chairman Frank Aquino, “I think we’re doing this better than most, based on the amount of resources that are available to our teachers.”