New standards ask more from students
New standards ask more from students By Brian Wallace, Staff Writer email@example.com
Beginning in the fall, public school students will be encouraged to think more critically, write more convincingly and spend more time discussing the "why" of a math problem instead of just the "how-to."
The new approach to teaching and learning will take hold under the new Pennsylvania Common Core Standards in mathematics and English/language arts.
The state Board of Education last month gave final approval to the new standards, which have been in the planning stages for years.
Common Core is being adopted by 45 states in an effort to increase academic rigor and establish consistent benchmarks on the skills America's students should acquire by graduation.
The standards are not without controversy, with some opponents calling them a federal intrusion into local education decisions.
Missouri, Michigan, Kansas, Indiana and Alabama recently have considered repealing or delaying implementation of the standards, and critics say Common Core is untested and might not boost student achievement as promised.
But school officials here say they're not aware of any pushback, and they believe the new academic standards will better prepare students for success after graduation.
"They are more rigorous, there's an increased level of relevance and they reflect real knowledge and skills that students need to acquire to be college- and career-ready," said Drue Feilmeier, director of curriculum at Hempfield School District. "We're excited about that."
Common Core is not a curriculum, but a blueprint of the skills and processes students are expected to master by a specific grade.
The Pennsylvania standards also incorporate specifics on the student academic skills that will be measured by standardized tests.
It's up to schools to incorporate those benchmarks into their own curricula, a process districts began more than a year ago.
In September, the rubber hits the road.
"The biggest change overall is the focus on conceptual understanding rather than procedural skills," said Diane Hurst, staff development and training specialist for mathematics at Lancaster-Lebanon IU 13.
"It's not about a new way of doing math. It's deepening our thinking on it," said Hurst, who trains teachers on implementing the new standards.
Parents next year may see their children doing more advanced math problems at an earlier age, she said. Students in grade five, for instance, will be expected to add, subtract and multiply fractions; previously they had learned only to add and subtract them.
"There will be more emphasis on error analysis -- looking at something and being able to say, 'That's not right, this is why it's not, and here's how to do it,' " Hurst said.
For homework, students may be asked to solve fewer math problems but be required to justify, in writing, the answers they get.
"The difference parents may see is they're going to have to do some extra thinking with their kids," Hurst said.
The English/language arts standards call for more reading of nonfiction texts and more critical writing across the curriculum.
The standards more explicitly spell out what literacy skills students in early grades are expected to demonstrate in phonics, phonemic awareness, reading comprehension, vocabulary and fluent reading, said Cindy Anderson, IU 13 curriculum and instruction specialist for literacy and English as a Second Language.
In upper grades, students will be expected to read and respond to a wider variety of texts rather than primarily reading and writing about fiction. For example, they may be asked to compare and contrast a piece of fiction with a nonfiction passage.
"The amount of writing in and out of the classroom will increase," Anderson said. "Some of that comes from 'show me your learning' -- writing that demonstrates what students have learned."
The emphasis on writing will help students develop skills in reading and analyzing documents and other texts, Anderson said.
"When you think about real-life writing, what does the text say? What's my understanding of it? How do I apply that?" she said.
Common Core also encourages teachers to collaborate with their peers in the grades above and below theirs to ensure they're addressing student needs as they move through the system, local educators said.
Previously, teachers worked primarily with their grade-level peers.
"It kind of forces us to think in that manner, and that's only going to benefit our students," Hurst said.
Feilmeier said she believes the new standards, if implemented well, will improve students' academic outcomes. They also will help pupils develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they can use long after graduation.
"These are sophisticated lifetime skills. We need [students] to be deep thinkers and problem solvers," Feilmeier said.
Will teachers and students be able to accomplish everything Common Core asks of them within the confines of the school day?
Feilmeier said it's too early to tell if that may be an issue; educators should get a sense of that by the middle of next year. But she said the standards don't necessarily require students to learn more topics, only to understand them more thoroughly.
Anderson pointed out that the vertical alignment of the standards from one grade to the next should reduce the need for reteaching at the start of the school year, providing more time for covering new material.
In addition to approving Common Core, the Board of Education also finalized an implementation plan for Keystone Exams aligned with the new standards.
Students graduating in 2017 will be required to pass the standardized tests in algebra I, biology and literature to receive a diploma. In 2019, a composition exam will be added; the following year, a physics and government exam will be required.
Those last two tests will be implemented based on available state funding.
Schools also will have the option of adding nonmandatory Keystone Exams in geometry, U.S. history, algebra II, chemistry and world history beginning in 2017, depending on funding.
For students in grades three through eight, PSSA tests aligned with the Common Core curriculum will be implemented in 2015.
More specifics on the Common Core standards are available at corestandards.org.
Common Core uses new approach to teaching.