Students, teachers and parents across the country are feeling the effects of new, more rigorous standards that are working their way into the nation's classrooms.
Freshmen in Pennsylvania are preparing to take new tests that they will have to pass before graduating their senior year. Los Angeles pupils are toting around school-issued iPads in addition to notebooks and pens. Parents in the San Diego area are getting schooled on their students' new grading system and harder homework. Math lessons in schools in many states are looking beyond the equation's answer to how the problem was solved, while nonfiction texts are joining the novels that dominate English class reading lists.
The changes are part of a multi-year transition to the Common Core State Standards for English and math, a set of benchmarks for students from kindergarten to the 12th grade that have been adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C. Proponents say the goal of the voluntary standards, which were developed by associations representing state governors and school officers, is to move the educational system's focus from rote memorization to critical thinking and problem-solving skills essential for success in the 21st Century economy.
“We’ve shifted from teachers thinking they need to cover xyz; it’s less about coverage and its more about student learning,” Michele Puhlick, executive director of curriculum and instruction at Hartford Public Schools. “The focus is now what’s the evidence? What are students learning? How can they prove they’re learning it?”
With the target date for full implementation just a school year away, many states and schools are ramping up efforts to incorporate Common Core-aligned learning into their classrooms.
While nearly two-thirds of the states planning to adopt the revised standards were set to do so by this school year, according to the Pew Chartable Trusts' Stateline project, gauging the overall initial impact of Common Core and readiness for the change across the country is difficult because it is up to states and school districts to set curriculum and decide how to go about the implementation.
Close to 40 percent of teachers surveyed by one major teachers union earlier this year said they were concerned that their schools weren't prepared enough for the full transition, Stateline reported. But some observers say progress has started to pick up.
“I think the states got off to a bit of a sluggish start, but have made big gains,” said Lisa Towne, who tracks Common Core and other education initiatives for Education First. “About a year or so out to when the rubber really meets the road… I think it’s starting to sink in and you’re staring to see it really making its way into classrooms.”
The transition hasn't been without hiccups or controversy. Reports by think tanks like The Brookings Institution have questioned whether the new standards and tests will actually do anything to accelerate student achievement. Poor scores from students in New York and Kentucky who took versions of the new, more difficult tests that will be used to measure students under the revised standards fueled criticism that the assessment approach is flawed and too tough.
The process of phasing in the standards and preparing for those tests has also proved to be a challenge that requires revamped curriculums, intensive teacher training and, in some cases, technological upgrades.
“The entire shift over affects every aspect of what we do,” said Puhlick, whose district started incorporating lessons and tests based on the revised standard soon after Connecticut signed onto Common Core in 2010.
Puhlick said Hartford schools have updated curriculum goals and tweaked the format and content of the state's current standardized tests in recent years in hopes that students will feel less of a shock in a planned trial run of the new assessments next spring.
“Certainly it is new for them to be asked to do these kinds of activities and to be accountable for their own learning, but the students are rising to the occasion; they find this kind of learning much more engaging,” she said. “Instead of being the quiet student in the corner that barely raises their hand, now they’re having to be actively involved in their learning.”
Educating teachers about the new standards and how to help students meet them has been a major component of the launch of Common Core.
In one San Diego-area district, an “intense” two-plus year effort to promote the transition includes 32 hours of professional development for instructors this year, said Maria Castilleja, executive director of curriculum and instruction at Sweetwater Union High School District.
“You have to transform the role of the teacher from one of being the director, directing the instruction, to one of being a facilitator,” Castilleja said.
That training, which includes ideas for lessons that promote interactive learning, is supplemented with another 16 hours of instruction on how the shift impacts students who have disabilities or use English as a second language.
Classroom tools and materials are changing along with the teaching style. Students in Castilleja's districts will see their nine-year-old textbooks replaced with digital versions aligned with Common Core Standards in the spring. All seventh and eighth graders were given iPads, a move aimed at giving them the technical know-how to meet the goal of being career ready upon graduation.
Castilleja says she has seen very few issues arise from the iPad program, but that hasn't been the case in all areas. NBC Los Angeles recently reported that savvy students in local schools have hacked their school-issued tablets to allow them to play games that were supposed to be prohibited on what were intended to be study tools.
Access to traditional materials that support Common Core has also been a problem in at least one state. Schools across New York City have been scrambling to assemble old textbooks or print class materials because of issues with the delivery of new textbooks ordered to teach to the revised standards, according to The New York Times.
Scrutiny of the new standards and the tests that will accompany them is likely to increase in the next year, as more schools move toward instituting either one of two assessment models aligned to Common Core or their own tests. Some states, like Pennsylvania, are pushing to make the tests on math, literacy and other subjects requirements for graduation. That proposal for the state's Common Core-aligned Keystone Exams, approved last month by the state board of education, would apply to the current freshmen class set to graduate in 2017.
Lackluster test performance in Kentucky and New York, where the percetage of students deemed proficient dropped by double digits, have upset parents and worried teachers and administrators in states planning to evaluate school and personnel based on scores. Those concerns have sparked protests and prompted some parents to pull their children out of testing or public school altogether.
Education officials have attempted to assuage those fears, emphasizing the benefits of raising expectations for students. New York Commissioner of Education John B. King, Jr. described the tests in an August letter to parents as “a new beginning and starting point that will provide better, clearer information to parents, teachers and principals about what our children know and are able to do."
“I want to make it very clear that the change in test scores (including, possibly, one in your child's score) does not mean that your students are learning less or that teachers and schools are performing worse than last year,” King wrote.
But critics say the approach is fundamentally flawed. Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, blasted the assessments as “more of the same failed strategy” that hasn't led to higher performance in the past.
“It is still based on the flawed theory that raising the bar and testing to it will improve schools magically,” he said.
Common Core also continues to face opposition from conservatives who see the initiative as the federal government overreaching on education decisions, an argument that stems in part from the Obama administration's decision to make Common Core adoption a factor in awarding federal Race to the Top school grants.
Those concerns of “federal intrusion” were cited in Florida Gov. Rick Scott's recent call to review the standards and drop out of one consortium of states developing a shared testing model. The move has driven speculation that the state will delay implementation or eventually join Texas and other states that have opted out of Common Core altogether.
Despite the setbacks and criticism, supporters in states where the standards are being put in place say they're already seeing a difference. Christina Robinson praises the new benchmarks for leading to a “broader application of student learning” at the southwestern Illinois high school where she teaches English Language Arts.
“I think it’s increasing both college and career readiness because it gives students, especially with the focus on informational text, more opportunities to apply what they’re learning in real-world situations and various content areas,” Robinson, who works at Nashville Community High School, said in a press release issued by the Illinois State Board of Education. “It’s not only about writing in English class but writing is important in shop class, it’s important in science class.”
The impacts of Common Core both on student readiness and classroom experiences will only continue to grow as the standards fully take effect. Successful implementation of the benchmarks, Towne says, will likely “require a rethinking of resources and a rethinking of structure” that could drastically change the nation's approach to education.
“The U.S. Curriculum has often been criticized for being an inch deep and a mile wide,” she said. “The Common Core State Standards suggest a very different approach which emphasizes depth of understanding and application and fewer topics spread over a sequence of grades... eventually the way time is used in schools is going to look quite different.”