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Schools implementing new math, English standards

By Cindy Davis - Correspondent - | Feb 26, 2012
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Students in a fifth-grade class at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove work on an English assignment Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. Utah is one of more than 45 states and territories that has agreed to transition its core standards for English Language Arts and mathematics to a set of standards common to all states. John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove has implemented the English language arts and has added the increased writing requirements. It is preparing students to begin the new math standards in the fall. MARK JOHNSTON/Daily Herald

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Students in a fifth-grade class at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove work on an English assignment Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. Utah is one of more than 45 states and territories that has agreed to transition its core standards for English Language Arts and mathematics to a set of standards common to all states. John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove has implemented the English language arts and has added the increased writing requirements. It is preparing students to begin the new math standards in the fall. MARK JOHNSTON/Daily Herald

Utah schools are part of a nationwide movement to create a common set of standards for language arts and mathematics.

This initiative, the Common Core State Standards, is organized and supported by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Utah is one of more than 45 states and territories that is transitioning its core standards for English language arts and mathematics to a set of standards common to all states. The purpose is to increase the quality of education American public schools offer.

“Utah’s Common Core is a state-initiated, state-designed effort to raise the bar on public education outcomes and ensure Utah’s school children can compete post-graduation in a global economy. We owe it to our kids to demand higher standards and more competitive outcomes,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said.

Common Core, which will be fully operational in Utah public schools by the 2014-2015 school year, does not define curriculum, just the standards that individual schools must meet, including stronger writing and math performance. State associate superintendent Brenda Hales used the analogy that houses in a neighborhood can follow the same building code but look different. The standards are like building codes that will be similar across the board, but the curriculum will look different in each school.

Hales said the impetus to review state core standards happened after the Fordham Foundation, a conservative education think tank, released a report that graded states’ standards, tests and accountability policies. In 2007 the Utah Legislature gave the USOE a charge to look at high-performing states like Massachusetts and high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore. During this same time, other states began to look for ways to close the achievement gaps the Fordham report exposed. The governor’s association and school officers’ council were talking about it.

In April 2009, Utah education officials met with their counterparts in other states to discuss the standards.

“The group was excited, because this was our initiative as opposed to the federal government,” Hales said. “We all went back to our governors and state school boards to get permission to work together. We agreed that after the standards were complete, then we would decide if we wanted to adopt them.”

The state got to work on the idea and the Utah board of education approved the standards in August 2010.

“High performing states and countries ask students to process more in all areas of the curriculum. They must have a basic understanding and then apply it. The old Utah standards tried to accomplish that but didn’t go far enough. The new core goes deeper and addresses what kids need today to go to college or post high school training. There is nothing new in concepts. It’s how far in depth you go … depth versus breadth. They basically started with grade 13 and back mapped, asking what the gap was from Massachusetts and Singapore and what did colleges want? They back mapped to a progression that made sense all the way back to kindergarten,” Hales said.

John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove already has implemented the English language arts, including the increased writing requirements, and is incorporating the rest of the curriculum. Principal Julie Adamic said the new, more focused curriculum is better preparing students to begin math this fall.

“We are accelerating our students this year in math, so they will be ready for full implementation next year,” she said. “The old core was objective and didn’t include many specifics. The new core adds more detail and really bumps everyone up a grade, especially in math. It’s pushing college-bound kids to take four years of higher level math to prepare. No more taking high school accounting for math credit and still wanting to go to college. By their senior year, students will now be taking AP statistics or calculus.”

Nebo school board president Dean Rowley said the school board started several training sessions on the Common Core.

“As I watch students, they seem to be picking it up well,” he said. “It’s a big change. This new core ups the ante and will better prepare students for higher education and the workforce. You’re going deeper rather than wider. The new core supports our vision of building 21st century skills.”

Nebo curriculum director Nedra Call said last year Nebo implemented the English language arts standard in kindergarten through fifth grade, which adds more writing and text complexity. This year it is implementing sixth-grade math and secondary Common Core Math I, which combines principles of algebra I, geometry and algebra II, which is earlier than these subjects have traditionally been introduced. This likely will mean more students struggle in the short run, but educators believe the more in-depth education will pay off in the long run.

“The math is based on the Integrated International Math Model, which includes more application in the teaching and intermixing concepts, so they are not taught in isolation,” Call said. “Over the next three years students and teachers will transition. All staff development and all courses taught will be designed around the Common Core. Teachers will have to work hard to fill gaps for students caused by the transition.”

Charter schools also are accountable to state core standards. Brooke Garrett, the assistant director of Odyssey Charter School in American Fork, said it implemented the English language arts Common Core this year.

“We love it,” she said. “I believe this is a healthy change and has been necessary for a long time because it is cohesive across grade levels, and there is more writing and factual reading. Common Core correlates well with core knowledge, so it wasn’t a big change for us. However, we have seen much more writing. We are still in the process of educating parents through newsletters, etc.”

Some Utah County schools have started training but have not started full classroom implementation. Alpine school board president Debbie Taylor said Alpine School District is set to begin a core-based curriculum in the fall.

“The implementation of new standards requires teacher preparation and parent notification,” she said. “District staff and board members are anxious to make this a collaborative process with parents, teachers and administration. Principals are being prepared to lead the change process at the school level, and some teachers have been trained to be resources to individual schools. Eighteen hundred teachers will be trained this summer. In addition, a parent meeting is planned for every school in the district. The principal will work very closely with the PTA and School Community Council, and parents will participate in choosing math materials for grades six through nine.”

Concerning the deferred start, Taylor said, “We are very comfortable with the process and timeline we are following. We visit schools every week, and as we meet with teacher teams, they are expressing their enthusiasm and support for the new core. We expect a successful implementation and increased student achievement.”

The curriculum specialist for Provo School District, Anne-Marie Harrison Paulson, said its principals have had discretion to begin early implementation of the new standards. However, all teachers have been trained and are implementing sixth- and ninth-grade math this year because it has the most changes. All Provo district math and language arts teachers will implement the new standards by next year.

“Prior to this, the core has had more recall,” she said. “It is now moving to a higher level of thinking. The bottom line is that it will be a long process to complete the philosophical shift in the way that we think about standards and assessment. We will provide professional development in an ongoing way.”

It hasn’t all been easy, though. Provo school board president Kristine Manwaring, who believes the more rigorous standards will help students achieve future success, acknowledged there have been some difficulties.

“It is hard,” she said. “Change is hard, but we have excellent teachers and an excellent staff. I have full confidence in them to implement this new core.”

Adamic also outlined some challenges with the standards like disparate school implementation timelines causing learning gaps. In addition, some parents have expressed concern about textbook alignment and political underpinnings.

“The textbook companies are not ready yet with books that support the Common Core,” Adamic said. “I think that they might be waiting for the assessments to be written. There was also a little bit of pushback from parents thinking that this was a federal mandate intruding on states’ rights. There will be myths surrounding it for a while until education takes place. I think it’s a good thing, but the transition can be difficult because of the new language and it’s just different from what we’re used to.”

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