When the state’s 1.5 million public school students head back to the classroom this week, they will encounter a markedly different environment: When and how they learn will be redefined under a new set of education standards.
They’ll still have math, but it won’t be called algebra. Instruction in statistics and probability will start in middle school. Students will be asked to think and reason more, to read more nonfiction and less fiction.
North Carolina is one of 45 states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a prescription to raise the academic bar for American students. The standards establish a clear and consistent map for what students should learn from kindergarten through high school to better prepare them for college and career.
Governing English language arts and math, the standards are meant to be more rigorous, with a goal of producing high school graduates who are critical thinkers, effective communicators and problem solvers. At the same time, North Carolina has adopted its own standards for other subjects such as science, social studies and the arts.
The shift has been in the works for several years, with teacher training occurring in the past two summers. New state tests will be used this school year with North Carolina potentially switching to new national exams in 2014-2015. Testing would eventually be online.
But this fall, for the first time, students across the state will be exposed to the new standards in what has been described as the biggest change in U.S. classrooms in a generation.
“Our standards have not been high enough,” said former Gov. Jim Hunt, a proponent of the common core and other education initiatives over the years. “Students in other countries are learning more than ours are.”
That has left the United States economically vulnerable, Hunt said, as other nations have raised standards in their education systems. U.S. students have fallen behind those in Korea, Finland, Singapore, Japan and others in international math, science and reading exams.
More nonfiction reading
The idea of launching a common set of standards began in 2009 as an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Though some have criticized the move to national standards, the initiative did not come from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant competition did spur many states to reform curriculum and embrace the common core.
North Carolina was one of the first states to do so, and it won a $400 million Race to the Top grant in 2010, which was used in part to train teachers for the new standards.
The mantra of common core advocates is “fewer and deeper.” There may be fewer items on the learning checklist, but students will be expected to dig deeper and become higher-order thinkers.
For example, in language arts, children will dive into nonfiction texts in addition to stories, and they will hone reading through other subjects such as history, science and social studies. They will be expected to infer, analyze and cite evidence to back up ideas they glean from reading. There will be more research projects, more writing and more speaking to develop students’ communication skills.
“It’s this added layer of dimension and depth in the skills that we’re asking our students to develop and how those thought processes will help them be college and career ready,” said Sarah Henchey, a sixth-grade language arts teacher in Orange County.
The common core pushes a 50-50 split between fiction and informational texts in elementary school. In later grades, nonfiction accounts for the majority of reading.
“We want students to be able to understand a novel, as well as picking up a Microsoft manual and reading it and understanding what to do with it,” said Maria Pitre-Martin, director of curriculum and instruction at the state Department of Public Instruction. “We need for our students to be able to go out in the world and be able to do that the minute they leave high school.”
‘Eye opener’ in math
The math changes are likely to get more attention as the new era dawns.
Mathematical concepts will be woven through grade levels, and students will be exposed to skills on average two grades earlier. Place values in a number will be taught in kindergarten, for example. Middle-schoolers will be taught statistics and probability, and algebra will be the focus of at least one-third of the eighth-grade year for all students.
“For parents, I think that will definitely be an eye-opener,” said Pitre-Martin. “We’re going for rigor.”
In early grades, students will be expected to do key calculations with speed and accuracy. There will be more conversation in math classes, so that students can explain how they got an answer and how to apply the math in real-world situations.
Even the course names are changing. New high school courses will be called common core math I, II and III, which will blend algebra, geometry and other math rather than putting students in separate courses on those areas.
That will no doubt confuse parents. Neil Riemann, a parent of two Wake County students, said most parents don’t realize the change is happening. Those who do probably noticed the new course names and started asking questions.
“They believe common core I is sort of a dumbed down version of algebra I,” he said. “They’re worried about it.”
Already, some parents in Wake County have complained that for high-achieving students, there may be fewer options to accelerate because of the common core. School districts are reluctant to move children ahead in math until they see how the changes will play out.
There will inevitably be gaps as students switch from the current curriculum to the common core. Teachers may have to adapt to that if students aren’t getting the concepts.
“Middle grades are likely to be the place where we’re going to see the crunch,” said Jere Confrey, professor of math education at N.C. State University, who served on a national committee that validated the standards.
Anxiety over testing
Some states chose to phase in the common core over several years to avoid such problems. North Carolina officials decided to implement it all at once.
Nearly everything in North Carolina public education is changing, from the new standards to the testing program and accountability policies. Teachers will be evaluated in part based on student performance, which will be measured by the new tests.
Common core states have joined two consortia that received federal money to develop new tests for the 2014-15 school year. Those tests are being written now.
Ultimately, the test will be the key to whether the common core is accepted, said Karen Wixson, dean of the School of Education at UNC Greensboro.
“It has the potential to be a very big deal,” Wixson said of the standards. “I think the jury’s still out on what will actually come to pass. I personally believe the rubber will hit the road with assessments. We’ve known for years in this high-stakes, accountability era that we live in, that assessments really do drive curriculum and instruction.”
Most experts agree that whatever test is developed, proficiency scores will drop. But some fear it could be much worse.
“A lot of us are just wondering what the heck is going to happen here,” Wixson said. “I don’t think the general populace or legislators or anybody is going to find it very palatable to sit still and see everybody failing.”
Wixson said she likes the standards and thinks they move the country in the right direction. But, she wishes the implementation timeline was longer.
“We needed maybe to start in the primary grades and then add a year every year, or add two years every year,” she said, “so that the kids that were going to face these assessments were the ones who had a steady diet of this from the time they first started school.”
Confrey, the math education professor, said officials and parents should not be too alarmed when the initial test scores are a disappointment.
“The question is,” she said, “when we see that happen are we going to lower the standards or blame teachers, or are we going to bite the bullet and up our game?”
Changes for teachers
Some teachers and parents have been concerned that national standards translate to standardization, said Nancy Gardner, an English teacher at Mooresville High School in Iredell County.
But that’s not the case, she said. Teachers will have the freedom to choose content that best fits their lessons. And good teachers have always pushed students to develop skills in communication and problem solving, Gardner said.
“Our kids have facts and figures at their fingertips,” she said. “What they’re missing are the skills of analyzing.”
The common core frees teachers to slow down and focus, said Angela Farthing, director of programs and policy for the N.C. Association of Educators. But that doesn’t mean the coming year won’t be stressful, she added.
Teachers have had online and face-to-face training, Farthing said, but many found that they didn’t have enough time to practice the new standards and make them their own. And they will be dealing with the transformation during a budget crunch with larger class sizes in upper grades.
Students won’t suddenly bring home failing grades, said Kris Kohl, policy associate with the Carrboro-based Center for Teaching Quality. And eventually, he said, there will be “more critical-thinking, problem-solving students.”
“There will be some challenges for students and for teachers as the transition is completed, but it’s ultimately where our students nationwide need to go to be competitive in the 21st century global marketplace,” Kohl said.
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.