By Amanda Wyatt
As local schools contend with a host of new mandates from New York State this year, they are keeping in mind what may be the mother of all current educational reform — Common Core Learning Standards.
This school year, school districts are charging ahead in the implementation of New York State pre-kindergarten through 12th grade Common Core Learning Standards. Designed to help get students “college and career-ready,” these new standards involve a number of educational shifts in English Language Arts (ELA) & Literacy, as well as in mathematics and pre-school education.
New York is one of 45 states that have formally adopted the standards put forth by the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). The CCSS, led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, developed the standards in 2010.
While Common Core has been somewhat controversial, local educators were optimistic about the initiative.
“Anytime you’re teaching skills that are going to be worthwhile to students when they leave here — whether it’s in college or in the workplace — I think that’s a positive move,” said Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso of Sag Harbor agreed, calling the standards “one of the more positive and productive reforms that have come down the pike.”
“[The standards] have been shown to be valuable goals and set valuable objectives for what should happen in the 21st century classroom,” he added.
One of the major changes advocated by Common Core is the inclusion of more nonfiction into the curriculum. While some classes have focused heavily on fiction in the past, Common Core requires students work closely with challenging informational texts, drawing conclusions and making evidence-based decisions from the reading.
“In the real world, that’s what you have to do,” said Dr. Bonuso. “People need to be able to look at nonfiction works and make some decisions…[and] to look for the evidence in the text instead of just taking an opinion without supporting it.”
Being able to write from informational sources and building vocabulary are also key components of the new ELA & Literacy standards. These standards will be adopted not only in English classes, but also in history, social studies, science and other subjects that require students to engage with informational texts.
In mathematics, there is an added focus on problem solving and real world application. Perhaps most important, however, is an emphasis on depth, rather than breadth. By studying fewer units but in greater detail, students are expected to gain a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts.
According to Bridgehampton Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre, “In mathematics, the shifts seem to be to digging deeper into skill areas at each grade level, assuring that basic skills are brought to mastery for all students. With these basic skills in place, there is a belief that students will be able to master more complex tasks.”
For Sag Harbor Elementary Principal Matthew Malone, this is a major plus.
“In math, one of the struggles that teachers have had for a very long time is our past curriculum asked for so many different topics to be covered within the course of a year. Too much was being addressed, so there wasn’t enough time to really dig into the content,” he said.
While Malone was “pleased” with certain reforms, he was concerned about the pace of implementing the Common Core Learning standards, especially at a time when schools are dealing with other government initiatives and mandates.
“Change is always hard, no matter what, but it feels like we’re juggling a lot of balls in the air,” he said.
Dr. Favre agreed.
“My concern is the speed at which all of this is coming at us,” she said. “This is a major shift from teacher-directed learning to student-centered learning and inquiry that will require professional development, practice, and a commitment to fidelity to implement.”
“Whenever there’s a new educational initiative, there are financial implications related to staff development and the resources you need to provide to teachers and to kids to make sure they’re successful,” Nichols said.
Since last year, Sag Harbor has been bringing in outside consultants and sending staff to conferences to learn about Common Core, along with other new mandates and programs. Funding for training comes from monies set aside every year for professional development, Nichols explained.
According to Dr. Favre, faculty members in Bridgehampton have been developing curriculum maps based on Common Core and teachers have been attending special workshops on the new standards to prepare themselves. At the same time, they are also contending with state mandates that require their own outside training and curriculum writing — all of which cost the district.
“These costs are coming at a time when budgets are extremely tight, so we will send teachers to training who will come back and turnkey the training for others,” said Dr. Favre.
But, she added, “I am confident that our teachers will embrace and support the changes, provided they have the time and the training to adjust their curriculum and their strategies.”
While curriculum shifts are being implemented in schools, Nichols suggested the speed of such changes may not be as noticeable until new state assessments enter the picture.
“The speed at which change happens will somewhat be tied to when those assessments come down the pike,” he explained. “Until that assessment changes, [teachers] are going to focus on what the old one asked students to do.”
When asked about the format of the upcoming Common Core-aligned student testing, Malone said, “I think you’ll see more open-ended type questions, even in mathematics.”
In the meantime, even classroom exams and quizzes in Sag Harbor will start to “reflect some of the new strands that are in the Common Core,” Nichols said.
He added that even with the challenges posed by Common Core, he hopes the school can “go above and beyond what the state asks our students to do.”
“The playing field in the United States is such that in order to access the best colleges and universities, you have to go above and beyond what the state offers,” he said.