When the deadline to implement the new Common Core State Standards Initiative came at the start of this school year, some districts across the country — and state — treated the change "like a light-switch," said Howard County Public School System Executive Director of School Improvement and Curricular Programs Clarissa Evans.
Howard County didn't, and that has made a big difference, Evans said Thursday night at an information session. Howard has been implementing aspects of the Common Core for three years, Evans said, and that came after an analysis from the system to ensure students wouldn't have educational gaps during the transition.
"In a lot of places, they stopped what they were doing and started doing the Common Core," Evans said. "It hasn't been painless for us. It's been challenging, but when parents listen to the national debates, we want them to know that no, kids aren't having gaps because of the Common Core — they have gaps because someone didn't do a gap analysis. We want them to know what's happening here, in Howard County, for their students."
The school system held its second of four information sessions on the Howard County curriculum's alignment with the Common Core State Standards Initiative at Howard High School in Ellicott City. That session was attended by about 170 people, Evans said, and about 50 were at the first session Tuesday at Wilde Lake High School.
The Common Core is a set of academic standards adopted by 45 states in 2010, following the initiative's development by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Roll-out in some areas of the state have been rocky, with teachers receiving the new overhauled curriculum from their administrators shortly before the start of the school year.
Throughout the course of the evening at Howard High, parents attended two breakout sessions on any number of Common Core-related themes, like the "secondary mathematics classroom experience" or on disciplinary literacy.
Common Core brings with it a new way of teaching, said Kay Sammons, elementary mathematics coordinator.
"We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't exist, to use technology that hasn't been invented and to solve problems that we don't even know are problems yet," she told a group of parents in a breakout session on math in grades K-2.
That means that even if the numbers are the same, the way math is taught is different, said elementary math resource teacher Heather Dyer.
For example, elementary students are learning to add, subtract, multiply and divide in ways different than previous generations learned. More emphasis is placed on number value than procedure, she said — but they still learn the traditional algorithm for subtracting multiple-digit numbers, eventually.
"It makes helping with homework difficult," said second-grade parent Cynthia Nicholls. "I would want to help my daughter a certain way, but that way is different than the Common Core. They're using different methods, and the kids aren't learning the way we learned… But I think (students) understand this better. We learned the process and procedure, but we didn't learn why. They're learning the why."
Nicholls sister, Stacey, agreed.
"There is more than one way to learn what we learned," she said. "The kids are learning more number sense, rather than algorithms."
How to help parents help their children was a discussion point in several of the breakout sessions. In a session on the middle school English and Language Arts (ELA) curriculum, secondary ELA coordinator Zeleana Morris and English resource teacher Nancy Czarnecki suggested different ways to support their middle school ELA students, like sharing personal favorite books, or asking for evidence in everyday discussions or disagreements to foster skills learned in persuasive writing.
Morris and Czarnecki also outlined the ELA class offerings in middle school, which includes a support seminar for struggling students.
That was a relief for fifth-grade parent Carmesha Young, who worried the new curriculum might be too challenged for "middle-road" students.
"I think this will be good for students," she said. "It's more challenging, so I was glad to see that they have a seminar class if your student is struggling, or in the middle of the road. I was happy to learn that."
The school system has two remaining Common Core information sessions scheduled in the coming days: Tuesday, Jan. 21 at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia and Thursday, Feb. 6 at Glenelg High School. Both are at 7 p.m.
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The PTA Council of Howard County is also holding a panel discussion on the Common Core Sunday, Feb. 23, at 5 p.m. at Reservoir High School.