It’s one of the biggest changes in American education in ages.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are beginning to run their schools under the Common Core Standards, a sweeping initiative produced by the nation’s governors.
The name is misleading; this isn’t just some effort to make sure everybody is working toward the same goals or adhering to similar lesson plans.
This is a marked upgrade in what students will be expected to do — from kindergarten through high school graduation.
It won’t be enough, for example, that students read well and write a sensible book report. In English, history and science, they’re going to be expected to evaluate evidence, form coherent arguments, state logical positions, read between the lines and discern what an author truly means to say.
In math, they’ll be expected to know the “whys” of math as well as the practical skills of doing computations. They’ll struggle with difficult problems, show they can reason abstractly and apply the math they know to the problems of everyday life.
The over-aching goal is to make American students better prepared for college and careers.
It’s going to require huge shifts in teaching. And fast. New systems of assessments are expected to be introduced by the 2014-15 school year.
The general public hasn’t been paying attention. If you aren’t an educator, it’s possible you’ve barely heard a thing about it.
But teachers are hearing the stirrings of an avalanche.
“It’s upon us,” says Tamara Jochinke, a teacher coach in New York City. “We’re living it. We’re getting dirty with it.”
In the educational world — if almost nowhere else — signs of the change are everywhere. Across the Internet, many teachers and instructional experts are posting packages of lessons, or ideas for structuring lessons, available for free, to help teachers make the change.
Yet only half the teachers recently surveyed by the publishers of Education Week said they were “prepared” or “very prepared” to teach the new standards. Their doubts grow larger when it comes to children with special needs or who lack English.
“We’re in a horrible transitional period,” says Janet Price, director of instruction at New Visions for Public Schools, a New York non-profit that’s training teachers for the Common Core deluge. “If teachers don’t change now, they won’t be ready for ’14-’15.”
Some teachers are already making the change — but school systems aren’t adapting at an equal pace. New York State, for example, hasn’t yet switched its yearly mandated tests to the Common Core, a problem for students who are starting to be taught to the new standards.
New Visions is a leader in the transition. Its staff members fan out to 77 New York City public schools to work closely with principals and teachers to create new types of lessons geared to the higher standards. The nonprofit also runs four charter public high schools, with two more planned for next year, all seeking to discover the best ways for teachers to raise their game, given the heightened expectations.
Tom Vander Ark, who writes extensively about changes in education, calls New Visions “the most productive intermediary in the country,” adding, “Thousands of students each year graduate from high school and go to college because New Visions created high schools.”
New Visions is interested in innovations in teaching that can be spread across the public school system.
“We try to build community across schools — teachers and school leaders sharing with each other — to help with spread,” Price said.
Over a week in February, I sat in on high-school and middle-school classes and teacher conferences and coaching sessions around New York to get a look at how New Visions is preparing teachers and students for the big changes. Here’s a sampling of what I found:
At the The Young Women’s Leadership School, in East Harlem, Constance Fenner is leading about 30 seventh-grade girls in a lesson concerning the disastrous yellow fever plague that decimated Philadelphia in 1793.
This is a Language Arts class, not history. But the Common Core agenda calls for English classes to deal heavily in non-fiction. And so, besides a historical novel for young audiences, Fever 1793, the girls spend part of the hour reading a separate article about the role of black people in the epidemic.
Fenner asks the students to concentrate on the vocabulary in the article. In each girl’s copy of the text, she has circled such troublesome words as destitute, approximately, parishioners, huddled, fatigued, controversy, flatulency, foetid, appalling, pestilence. Now she breaks up the class into small groups, assigning bits of the list to each group, and gives them 10 minutes to figure out their meanings from the context of the sentences.
When they get back to their seats and Fenner pries out their answers, it turns out they did very well.
For homework, they’ll have to write an answer a question that’s on the board: “How did the Free African Society develop, and how was it helpful during the yellow fever epidemic?”
At the start of the class, Fenner asked a few girls in random, surprise fashion, what did they read yesterday? They’d better have an answer. One told the teacher she’d read “about Dorner,” the ex-cop who was then on a murderous rampage in Los Angeles. Another said she read something in the Dora The Explorer series.
These were all Common Core-related tasks, instructional specialist Kristina Kasper explained later.
“It’s a lot more than just reading for content,” Kasper said. A lot more, in other words, than following the plot. When the girls read the book Walk Two Moons, about a girl separated from her mother, they had to answer the question, What’s more important, the needs of moms or kids? As they read, they had to list the needs of both. In answering the question, they had to give the evidence for their conclusions.
Fenner said the girls enter her classroom with huge deficits. “They don’t read on their own, so their vocabulary is extremely limited,” she said. “There’s a disconnect between knowing the definition of a word and really using it.” Hence, the exercise in figuring out vocabulary from the context. The girls I saw did surprisingly well at it.
This is a lot more work for teachers, but Fenner said the push is worth it. Society is expecting the schools to produce citizens who can understand information and make well-reasoned decisions. “I think it’s a step forward,” Fenner said.
Later, I sat in on a meeting of teachers who were figuring out how to assign essays that will fit the new standards — an assignment such as this one: Read an article on the recent ban of large beverage sizes in New York City. After reading it, write whether you agree or disagree. Then write three reasons to support your position, using information from the article.
One of the Common Core goals is for students to be able to write a thesis statement for just such an argumentative essay.
To do that, leaders of the session told the teachers, they would have to break the assignment into smaller pieces. They’d have to explain to students that a thesis statement is the sentence or paragraph that begins the essay; that the statement should contain both sides of the argument; that it should make clear the writer’s own stance on the subject; and the statement should read fluently.
In grading the kids’ answers, teachers would be looking for other specifics: What did the task within the assignment require students to do? What did the kid’s paper show about what he understood — and did not understand — about the key concepts? What specific instruction should the teacher design for the student next?
Writing a coherent essay can be done. Teaching the writing of a coherent essay can be done, too. But it looks a lot harder.
At the Bronx School for Law and Finance, part of the old JFK High School, some 20 science teachers are gathered to discuss how they’re going to boost reading and critical thinking skills in their science classes.
Along with the principal and with two New Visions staffers, they are trying to come up with lessons they can structure as tasks for the students. As the students work step by step to solve the task, they’ll have to learn scientific facts and then apply them to answer some overall question.
“Since we’re teaching critical thinking, we’re going to have think like a student — how to think a problem through,” one teacher tells the others. “So you work backwards from the task to figure out what the students need to know to get there.”
So that’s what they do, working up a hypothetical lesson, before the discussion descends into a jumble of neo-educational jargon, all “modules,” “rubrics,” “skills clusters,” and “instructional ladders.”
Later, Tamara Jochinke, a former Earth Sciences teacher turned New Visions instructional specialist, meets with teacher O’Neil Spencer in his empty science classroom.
They talk over his idea for lesson plan idea: can can the students deduce about evolution from the Grand Canyon? The kids better have evidence.
The two of them are finding that it’s a lot easier to come up with a lesson idea than to create a working lesson. Spencer tells Jochinke he has looked for articles about evolution or about the Grand Canyon that contain arguments that the students can grapple with, but most he’s found at the 9th and 10th-grade level are defenses of creationism.
Making notes on her iPad, she gives him some suggestions on other places to look.
“OK, this is a great idea,” she says of his evolution concept. “But what, exactly, are you going to do on Day 1?”
Spencer nods. “My idea is to have them write, ‘What do you know about evolution?’ And then have them write, ‘If you wanted to prove, using evidence from the Grand Canyon, that evolution took place, what would you do’?”
They talk back and forth. To address the question, the kids will have to know something about geological eras. They’ll have to know about fossils.
“Say, you know, every article they read doesn’t have to be about the Grand Canyon,” she says. “They can read about fossil dating, for instance.”
Piece by piece, the two break down the task into bits, into activities.
She meets with him every Wednesday to address his work as a teacher at this minute level.
I ask Spencer whether this enormous shift, and all the added effort it entails, is a change for the better — or is it just the latest educational flavor-of-the-week, the latest heavy set of demands from on already burdened teachers?
Spencer rejects the cynical view. He’s on board with the new standards.
Because his class in Earth Science isn’t just about rocks.
“It’s teaching them how to think,” Spencer said, “how to find information to support a thought process. It’s making sense of your environment. I think it’s essential.
“I think it should have been the focus before.”
At the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, part of the old Christopher Columbus High School, in the Bronx, I watch two 9th-grade classes tackle the same lesson on quadratic functions — the graphing of parabolas. (Remembering precious little of my own high school math, I’m stumped at the very first question: “Without using a graphing calculator, identify the roots of the function y= -(x-4). Is the graph opening upward or downward? How do you know?”)
One session is for regular students. The other is for “special learners,” and the only way I can tell is that it had so few students — nine — and an extra teacher on hand, for a total of three, to walk around and look over kids’ work and help them when they were stumped. The class material in both classes is just the same.
None of kids had ever encountered math material as challenging as this year’s Algebra I.
The teachers ask the kids questions. They answer by holding up colored cards: green if they have the answer, red if they don’t, yellow if they aren’t sure. It’s OK, in other words, to be unsure or to offer a wrong answer. Either way, the teachers ask the kids to get up and explain their thinking to the others. Some of the thinking is right and some is wrong. All the kids tru — even if haltingly. The teachers mediate the discussion and gauge how well the lesson is sinking in. Wrong answers are part of the learning process.
Afterwards, all the 9th-grade math teachers gt together over snacks of crackers, tortilla chips and grapes and talk over what they’re doing and grade papers together. They try to teach the same thing at the same time so they can swap notes on what students are understanding and what they aren’t.
“I get jealous that I’m not now a teacher and getting this kind of support,” says Xiomara Gonzalez, of the Bronx and Brandeis University, who taught for seven years before becoming an instructional specialist. Why do teachers listen to her as a coach?
“Because I’m a supporter and a co-teacher, and they know that any conversations we have are extremely confidential” — important if you’re worried that your shortcomings will be used by your supervisor against you. And because she travels to different school buildings and New Visions’ own West Village headquarters, “they know I have access to resources and can connect people.”
At one meeting of math teachers, Russell West Jr. says an ongoing mystery is for teachers to “assess what’s in a learner’s brain to find out what’s going on.”
“There should be only two reasons for asking students a question,” says West, who projects a bubbling idealism about teaching. “One, to make them think. Two, to find out what’s going on in their heads.” But, he says, 70 percent of questions are for something else: “to ask something we already know,” or “to control behavior.”
Later, I sit in on a meeting of teachers from 14 Bronx schools, who puzzle over a problem that might or not make it into the curriculum. It concerned the arc of a bus making a turn and crossing into a bike lane.
Students were supposed to realize that the problem could be solved with the Pythagorian theorem and an equation like r²=(r-x)² + w². But field tests of the problem, created by educators at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Nottingham, showed that many students misunderstood what the question was seeking, or couldn’t set up a sensible equation, or flubbed the computations.
As the teachers bend over their worksheets, puzzling out the problem for themselves, West cautions them to “keep kids focused on why you’d want to solve the problem in the real world — because the bus shouldn’t be in the bike lane, or else some kid is going to get hit. Otherwise, kids will get lost in the weeds of the math and tune out on the problem.”
Well-meant words, but soon teachers’ heads as shaking. This problem is just too hard for 9th grade math.
The Common Core standards are forcing teachers to stretch their students further. But this is one length it’s unlikely we’ll see them go.Story and photos by Howard Goodman Top photo: 7th Grade Language Arts class, The Young Women’s Leadership School, East Harlem