Education

Schools of Thought

RI public schools incorporate a new, standardized curriculum

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The Common Core State Standards is a national initiative that provides detailed standards in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics for kindergarten through 12th grades. These standards, released in 2010, will be fully adopted in Rhode Island (and 45 other states) next fall, in the 2013-2014 school year.

The Common Core represents national agreements about what young people should learn. This is a radical departure from previous practice, in which each state developed its own standards and corresponding assessments. To better understand this, I talked with teachers at Nathan Bishop Middle School to get their perspectives on what this change means for curriculum, assessment and possible student outcomes.

Nicole Broadmeadow teaches math at Nathan Bishop. She describes a fundamentally reshaped math curriculum, noting, “Instead of brushing over content in math in earlier grades, the reworked math curriculum provides a more focused in-depth knowledge at every grade.” This approach changes what students are expected to learn; there’s now more rigor and higher expectations. Algebraic language and concepts, for example, are infused throughout the curriculum, which provides a stronger base for algebra study and mastery. “What was taught in seventh grade is now taught in sixth, where we really start to get into vocabulary and concepts of algebra, which is the relationship between variables,” Broadmeadow says.

“The earlier that kids are exposed to this kind of thinking the better,” Broadmeadow continues. “The Common Core makes algebraic thinking a norm, and also provides standards for mathematical practice, which help students understand how to think like a mathematician.

Broadmeadow noted that because the implementation effort has been happening district-wide for several years, entering sixth grade students should be fairly well prepared, and that the district has provided ample opportunities for professional development to support teachers to teach the revamped curriculum. She noted that while teachers and students may be ready, technological skills and infrastructure are potential areas of weakness in some schools.

I also talked with Theresa Fox, an English teacher at Nathan Bishop. “I am feeling pretty great about it,” says Fox. ”We are aligning with something that makes sense, and I am pleased with the increase in rigor that is showing up in the types and amount of reading and writing that is expected.”

Asked whether she thought students and teachers would be reading for fall implementation, Fox noted that she and other middle school English teachers haven’t yet had in-depth support and training, though she has had opportunities to review possible ELA curricula that the Providence Public Schools would adopt and is excited about what they offer.

Fox says that the Common Core ELA standards provide a framework that will allow her to “be the teacher that I want to be. The Common Core provides lots of opportunities for differentiation. Even though we will be able to pick our own literature, the Common Core provides a common language for content, writing and thinking, all reinforced. Working on outlining or a certain type of essay language to use across the curriculum. Right now, when I think about this, I am almost joyful.“

Not everyone is a Common Core supporter. Critics include educational historian Diane Ravitch, who worries that the standards and assessments are being implemented nationwide without meaningful field-testing. Others worry that the focus on math and ELA imply that other subjects, especially the arts, are less significant and will continue to be treated as such in many schools’ curricula.

As a parent who knows how different my children are not only from each other but from every other kid, I tend to fret about standards in general. I worry about the tension between the benefits of holding all young people (and their parents and teachers) to high expectations and the reality that we cannot all be expected to learn at the same pace. Despite these concerns, we’re off to the races, and Fox and Broadmeadow’s thoughtful observations provide reasons for hope. Rhode Island will need fortitude to stay the course, because we’re unlikely to see instant great results from such a seismic shift.