Reading teacher Linda Unser is a little overwhelmed and a little worried. She has spent the new school year at Frankfort Elementary School pulling together books for the two units each grade is teaching under the state’s new common core standards.
The new standards are very different than what the state has had since 2005, and the books kids are expected to read are tough. “A lot of these materials are a lot more difficult than what we’re currently using,” Unser said. “It’s very overwhelming. It just kind of changes the way teachers will be teaching.”
The standards, created by teachers, school administrators and experts, have been adopted by almost every state and territory in the country. New York state adopted them in 2010.
“It’s very overwhelming. It just kind of changes the way teachers will be teaching.”
They’re based on one overarching goal – to make students college-and-career ready by the time they graduate from high school. That might seem obvious, but this summer the state determined that less than 40 percent of students across the state met that goal in 2010.
Teachers are being introduced to the new standards with example units – series of related lessons on a specific topic – and aided in building their lesson plans by teams from BOCES.
This year, schools are required to teach two units at each grade level to the new standards so teachers can try them out. Next year, more example units will be available, and during the 2013-14 school year they will be completely rolled out.
Sarah Indermill, coordinator of instructional support services at Herkimer BOCES, is part of a team that has been helping teachers start using the common core standards. Indermill has given them examples provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and helps teachers develop lesson plans based on those units. “We’ve shown them a lesson, we’ve talked them through it,” Indermill said. “We also go into districts and support the teachers.”
The new standards more or less start with what a college student needs to be able to do: study independently, glean information from complex textbooks without help and be ready to take college-level mathematics. The standards give suggested course pairings in math to get the best use of high school courses.
In reading and the other subjects, the common core suggests increasingly difficult books with speaking and writing tasks that demand students back up their arguments and answers to questions with evidence. “Really the breakdown comes in the type of text that we’re reading,” said Ken Slentz, deputy commissioner for P-12 Education.
Books are slightly more complex than what they read now, Indermill said. At the elementary level half are literature, half are informational text. At the secondary level, information texts make 70 percent of the reading.
Students are required to do “close reading” and provide answers based on what they’ve read. One example, she said, is if a student is shown a picture of a sad lion from a book, and asked to interpret it, the student has to give evidence-based reasons why he or she thinks the lion is sad. “They have to give you evidence. That’s very simplistic, but think of it at a higher level,” Indermill said.
Students are required to do “close reading” and provide answers based on what they’ve read.
Under the current standards, a student might be asked how he or she feels about what they just read. That’s “a very different setup” than asking a student why they believe their answer is correct based on evidence in a specific text, Slentz said.
This year’s standardized test will still be based on the old standards. Slentz believes that when the tests are rewritten to the new standards there will be some idea of how well the new curriculum is working. “When you see, next year, the first round of assessments come out, that will certainly be our first indication,” he said.
Unser won’t be alone trying to find appropriate reading materials. The new curriculum means new textbooks and supplementary materials, something each district will have to pay for.
Slentz, a former superintendent from the cash-strapped West Canada Valley Central School District, understands what that means. “Let’s be honest. There is a cost to this,” he said. “We have to help districts be creative in bringing this home.”