The emphasis is on comprehension, critical thinking and analysis skills

Part II of our Common Core State Standards series

As students are settling into their school year, they along with parents may be noticing some differences in what is expected of them.

This fall, New Hampshire schools rolled out The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) — a uniform set of K-12 academic standards in Math and English Language Arts. New Hampshire is one of 46 states, including the District of Columbia, to adopt these standards and did so back in 2010. Since then, districts have been busy realigning curricula and training teachers to be able to deliver these standards.

What are the standards and what will they look like?

First, school districts are not required to adopt the standards. And though state officials are not aware of any districts opting out, not all schools are rolling out the standards at the same pace or in the same way.

"The Common Core is a set of standards, so how districts respond to those standards in terms of upgrading curriculum or revising instruction is really up to each district," said Nashua School District Superintendent Mark Conrad. "I don't think the standards are something you are going to see a shift in every classroom overnight. I think it's going to take some time to both update curricula and bring about the instructional shifts to bring students to the greater depth of knowledge and some of the expectations of the common core standards. …It's not going to happen all at once, it's going to be a process of I think professional development over years."

He went on to say that the standards themselves really are about getting students to a greater depth of knowledge in reading, writing and math and applying that across all content areas. And those increased expectations are really going to make educators rethink the way they teach, assess students, question students in the classroom and assess activities, Conrad said.

In broad strokes, the standards, developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, are aligned with another set of guidelines called College and Career Readiness. These guidelines are supposed to do as the name suggests, get students ready for higher education and/or a career. The CCR standards, "define general, cross-disciplinary literacy expectations that must be met for students to be prepared to enter college and workforce training programs ready to succeed."

The CCR is the backbone of the Common Core. The specific grade level objectives are the meat. And what those objectives do is set the K–12 grade-specific standards that each kid should master by the end of each year or at the very latest, the end of 12th grade. The goals laid out for grade levels for K–8 are very specific, whereas the high school goals are leave a little more wiggle room to allow schools, districts, and states flexibility in high school course design.

That does not mean the standards lay out curricula. They don't.

"By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached and what additional topics should be addressed," according to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects manual.

The standards do not mandate particular writing process, classroom strategies or even textbooks that teachers must use.

"Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards," according to the CCS manual.

The standards for the English Language Arts are divided into Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language segments, however it's expected that skills and concepts related to these subjects will be integrated. For example, one of the reading standards expects students to be able to write about what they read. The same standard is expected under the Speaking and Listening sections.

The standards also require students to, "gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and non-print texts in media forms old and new."

Maybe the most significant difference under Common Core is that there are fewer standards. However, the standards in place expect more comprehension, critical thinking and analysis than previous standards.

To that end, Dominic DiBenedetto, an eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher at Keene Middle School and an adjunct professor at Keene State College, said one change students might see is in the way they are asked to write.

If the lesson is on persuasive writing and the topic is whether to have school uniforms, under the old standard, it may have been acceptable for the student to use as fact that school uniforms restrict individuality, without necessarily showing proof. Under the common core standards, which put a value on evidence, persuasive writing becomes more about making an argument. Therefore to achieve that, DiBenedetto said, the students might be asked to do something like take a poll to find out the percentage of students who would actually be in favor of or against school uniforms.

In Nashua, Superintendent Conrad said one project his district is implementing is Beyond the Basal. He explained that typically students at the elementary level are reading short anthologies of literature in an attempt to build discreet reading skills.

"Everything we know about getting kids to greater comprehension skills in reading says they really should be doing more guided and independent reading in school," he said. "So we’re working to purchase classroom libraries so that students have a choice of books to read and can read many books over the course of the year."

The common core will still teach the basics, teachers and officials argued, but it will be a more organic part of a process of getting the kids to learn by thinking critically about what they are doing and reading.

Bethany Maynard, who teaches English at Monadnock Regional High School in Swanzey said though her school was already practicing the idea of students building on knowledge grade to grade instead of being re-taught the same information, there was some work to do when Common Core came around.

"Some of the things we really needed to improve were our focus on skill building and application of knowledge," Maynard said. "We were pretty strong overall."

One change she said she and colleagues had to make was to the way students are learning vocabulary. In the past, this was literature-based. Under Common Core, with an eye toward broader applications when it comes to vocabulary, the teachers in her department rolled out a program, Classical Roots, which teaches students the roots of words.

"We're not getting rid of literature-based (vocabulary learning) but adding in this foundational vocabulary building," she said. "Because with learning classical roots, you can take that and apply it to so many other words."

This multi-application of knowledge can be seen at lower grade levels as well. For example, younger students can read age-appropriate books to learn about how the body works. In this way, the student's focus may be on reading, but he or she is also getting a jump on science concepts they will revisit down the line in a science class.

When it comes to math, a similar approach applies. In essence the standards are attempting to get students to connect with the content. At the risk of oversimplifying, this will mean using more story problems that actually show math as it's used in the real world.

The thinking is somewhat common sense: "students who lack understanding of a topic may rely on procedures too heavily…. In short, a lack of understanding effectively prevents a student from engaging in the mathematical practices," according to the Common Core manual.

The standards are aimed at getting students to, "consider analogous problems, represent problems coherently, justify conclusions, apply the mathematics to practical situations, use technology mindfully to work with the mathematics, explain the mathematics accurately to other students, step back for an overview, (and) deviate from a known procedure to find a shortcut," according to the Common Core manual.

And in that vein, according to the manual, bridging the gap between concept and practice needs to be weighted toward those things, "that most merit the time, resources, innovative energies, and focus necessary to qualitatively improve the curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, and student achievement in mathematics."

For students this means asking questions about why math works the way that it does and finding routes to answers on their own, among other things.

And it's this idea that students will be learning concepts on a deeper, arguably more meaningful level, that officials and teachers argue make the standards more rigorous than those previously in place.

"I think they are more rigorous," Conrad said of Common Core. "And they are different from previous standards because they are intended to be applied across all content areas.

"Part of the challenge for us is to have conversations with teachers in science and social studies and math about how you move students toward being able to read more complex texts and articles or how to be able to prove a statement through being able to point back to what they've read in one or more sources of information. It really crosses all the content standards even though right now it really just focuses on reading and math."

Melanie Plenda of Alstead is a freelance journalist and mother.

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