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."
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."
That help comes from something called "the hub," where teachers can access the curriculum and administrators have placed sample lesson plans to guide them. Eventually, said Kay Sammons, coordinator of elementary mathematics, teachers will be able to share their own lesson plans with teachers across the county.
But teachers not being given enough professional development in the Common Core is a concern for some Board of Education members.
"The problem is that the devil is in the details," said board member Cindy Vaillancourt. "In theory, having a standardized group of things that students across the country are expected to know at the same time is good, but implementing a new curriculum a few weeks before school starts, in the case of some teachers, and expecting them to have lesson plans to give kids is not realistic. We basically threw out everything that we were already doing and replaced it with something that's half-baked, and that creates a disconnect."
'Only time will tell'
Staggered implementation of the Common Core standards among different grade levels over the past few years was designed to eliminate that disconnect, Sammons said.
Still, the system hasn't "seen where the kinks are in the armor yet," said board member Giles.
A concern among board members, too, was the lack of input local school systems had in adopting the standards.
"We were being dictated to by the state and federal government as usual," said board member Ann De Lacy. "Teachers are doing the best they can to implement something that was imposed — just like No Child Left Behind was imposed. I agree with the concept (of the Common Core), but Common Core and the PARCC assessment (the new test that will replace the Maryland School Assessment) bother me because we're still going to be teaching to the test."
Testing changes are another "awkward" result of implementing the new standards, Aquino said.
"From a standpoint of local control, we really haven't been part of the process, and that's an issue," he said. "But right now, Common Core isn't aligned with the assessment we're currently giving so in certain cases, student are being tested on material they might not have covered in class."
The PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) test isn't being officially rolled out until the 2014-15 school year. But Howard is field-testing the PARCC this spring (student scores won't count) and MSAs will be administered for the last time this spring.
"It's patently unfair to students to teach them for one test but test another," said Vice Chairman Brian Meshkin. "It's more unfair to teachers and administrators to hold them accountable to the test they're not teaching toward anymore."
As part of Race to the Top, teachers and school administrators are now more responsible for students' learning than ever before. For example, in Howard County 10-20 percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on how well their students do on the standardized test. For teachers who don't directly deal with assessed content areas, 50 percent of their evaluation is based on student growth — benchmarks determined by the teacher and their principal. Student growth is also used to evaluate teachers who teach assessed content areas — up to 30 percent.
"I don't see any significant drawbacks to Common Core itself, but everyone knows how I feel about standardized testing," Lemle said. "The linkage of tests to teacher evaluations is going to have terrible outcomes. ... If you had asked anyone 10 years ago, how do you feel about a set of standards that will level the playing field across the country, prepare everyone equally for college and career, they would have said it's a good idea. It's a shame the teacher-evaluation timeline was tied to Common Core."
It will be years before anyone can tell if Common Core produces the results everyone hopes for, Lemle said.
And Aquino, who believes the premise of the Common Core is sound, agreed, saying it's going to take time.
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"I think in the end, if we give it a chance, the Common Core is supposed to deliver skills to students starting at an earlier age that will prepare them for the 21st century," he said. "Is it better or worse than before? Only time will tell."