At first glance, the bulletin boards lining the hallways of Oaklands Elementary School in South Laurel look like any typical display of students' work — drawings, short essays, a display of some dioramas.
A closer look reveals something else, something that's new at the school, and new across the state and much of the country this year. In the corner is a new directive from the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and the work on the board directly correlates to that standard.
On a second-grade bulletin board, the standard is for students to use addition and subtraction within 100 to solve problems. Students had to pick two numbers: one to start with, and one to end with. The standard requires students to find an unknown number, in this case, through subtraction. It sounds arduous until the pictures and word problems on the board are taken into consideration — if Hungry Bill had 24 grapes, and then had five, how many grapes did he eat?
"It's more kid-friendly this way," said Oaklands Principal Audrey Briscoe.
Oaklands, like every other school in Prince George's County and across Maryland, is in the midst of transition into the new Common Core. The new standards hold promise, said Prince George's County Public Schools Director of Curriculum and Instruction Gladys Whitehead, but as with any major shift in education, there are growing pains.
"It's going to take time," she said. "We don't expect this to be an overnight process. We're still working to make sure every teacher understands what it takes to implement the new standards."
This year, the goal is to have teachers work through the Common Core, Whitehead said, and continue to tweak the curriculum "to be sure that what we have developed truly meets the needs of the standards."
When it's all said and done, the Common Core will help students be better prepared for college and careers, Whitehead said, and there are many good aspects to the shift.
"I like that our students will be internationally benchmarked, and I like that students will be on a level playing field with students across the country," she said. "It moves our students toward being 21st-century learners, toward having the learning skills they need. We've always been focused on rigor and getting students ready for college and career, but this has helped us have a laser-focus on those goals."
Same academic ballpark
Common Core is a set of rigorous academic standards adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C. so a first-grader in Laurel is — theoretically — 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, Prince George's County started rolling out some of the new standards early — like math last year — so as not to be completely overwhelmed by the overhaul all at once.
"We were like guinea pigs last year," said Oaklands kindergarten teacher Chyna Pollard. "We got our hands dirty. The beginning of last year was more difficult — we were pulling our own resources because textbooks weren't aligned with the Common Core yet. Some things we could pull from our old books, but a lot of things we had to supplement on our own. Now, we have more resources. The textbooks are aligned, so it's a little bit easier this year. Like, what the kids were learning for the first time last year, we were learning, too."
As far as teaching resources go, Briscoe said, "Prince George's County has us going in the right direction." More resources are available this year, and a key focus of implementing the new standards is professional development for teachers.
Whitehead attributed that to a farsighted administration. In 2006, Prince George's partnered with the University of Pittsburgh Institution of Learning "to see how we could change instructional practices for better teaching.
"We laid that foundation before we even began the work with the Common Core," she said. "We started changing toward the Common Core two years ago, and when we changed content, we would change it by grade level. This year we put it all together so the whole curriculum is centered around that."
Whitehead and Briscoe said the state has also been helpful in providing professional development. Effective Educator Academies have been held for the past three summers to help teachers "get a handle" on the new standards, Briscoe said, and, once a month, two teachers from each school receive intensive additional Common Core training, which they then take back to their schools and colleagues.
That's key, Briscoe said, because while the county has provided curriculum that is aligned to the Common Core, teachers are now more responsible for writing their own lesson plans, which wasn't always the case.
"It's a lot more paperwork," said Oaklands music teacher Alicia Thomas. "It's a lot more documentation. But for music, the new standards actually make it easier when you're teaching across the curriculum. It's easier to integrate lessons that go along with the general teacher's lesson, and it kind of forces me to make those connections with other classroom teachers."
For Thomas, that can mean focusing on rhythm if students are learning how to count, or when her students learned the song "The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly," the lesson ties in math elements like shapes and sizes.
"I like the premise of the Common Core," said Oaklands ESOL teacher Jooyoun Cardwell. "We can be creative within its guidelines as to how we make those connections."
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Making those connections is critical for students, Briscoe said, and is a focus of the standards.
"It's getting into the children utilizing their critical thinking skills, their higher-level skills," she said. "They'll be able to analyze information, synthesize it and actually be able to do something with it. ... We're not necessarily looking for kids to have the 'right' answer. We're looking for how the student got that answer. There might not be one right answer, if the students can give you something and say, 'This is how I solved this problem.' It's more about the 'how' than the 'what.'"
To some degree, however, students will still be asked the "whats," as this is the last year for the Maryland School Assessments — the old standardized test that is not aligned with the Common Core. The test that was developed for the Common Core — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC — won't be administered until next year.
It's a mismatch, Briscoe said.
"We want them to do well on the MSA, but at the same time, our concentration is on the PARCC," she said. "But if teachers are teaching the standards, students should still be OK for MSA. We'll be covered. ...We've got so much going on. What we've done here is try to take it step-by-step. It's a process. We're going to get there."
Transition to the new, rigorous standards has been "very intense," Pollard said, but she thinks it's worth it.
"I think it'll be to students' benefit in the long run," she said. "In getting them prepared, stepping the kids up, they do rise to meet the challenge. They just need a little 'oomph.' We have high expectations of them."