EAST COUNTY — Upstairs in the Professional Support Center, filled with open desks and conference tables, the Manatee County School District’s Common Core Design and Innovation Team — “Team” for short — works to institute the latest state learning standards.
The group, made up of Joe McNaughton, Maidie Meckley, Lindy Carlson, Caroline Hoffner, Beth Severson and Michelle Compton, brings together wide-ranging expertise. They are curriculum experts in science and math, English language arts, assessment and literacy.
They operate with little guidance or money from the state, leading the creation of unique curriculum road maps and learning targets for each subject in each grade to meet the specific standards ordered by Common Core.
The group, which meets 50 to 60 hours a week, acknowledges that before now, they never collaborated like this, sharing information and insight from different pockets of the district.
It all started in June 2010, when Florida officially adopted the Common Core State Standards, a research-based, state-led initiative that established a single set of educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts (ELA) and math. States voluntarily adopt the standards.
The Jan. 29 meeting at First Baptist Church in Bradenton, was canceled because the crowd of 5,000 people, more than the 80 to 100 people expected, wouldn’t fit in the venue. It was to be the first local town hall meeting since the standards were adopted.
The following is a break down of what the new state standards mean for the classroom.
Standards and shifts
The state assigns specific standards to each unit in a subject in every grade.
The standards reflect intended learning shifts within English language arts (ELA) and math.
Beyond those standards and shifts, the state leaves it up to the district to craft a roadmap on how to teach and measure them.
Manatee’s Team decided to further break down standards into learning targets. For example, in meeting a third-grade math standard, a student should be able to “round numbers to the nearest 10 and 100,” and “identify the smallest and largest number that can be rounded to a given 10 or 100.”
“Instead of just saying here is a standard and it’s broad, flexible and open to interpretation, this tells us, what does that look like?” said McNaughton, math curriculum specialist. “It’s the behavior students should be having in the classroom.”
In a traditional grading scheme on a 20-question test, a teacher would add up correct answers and divide by the number of questions, and assign it, in the Team’s example, an 85%.
A child proudly brings home the 85%; his parent sticks in on the fridge, and it’s on to the next test.
But what does the 85% actually mean?
The learning targets serve as a convenient grading tool — the staircase steps needed to reach the end goal, the standard.
“Now, the teacher can take items correct and incorrect and compare them to the learning targets and say, ‘Well, this is the thing that student doesn’t know how to do,’” said Meckley, elementary math and science curriculum specialist. “It provides a more focused way of measuring where students fall for that standard and then making a decision as teacher, ‘Now what do I do to get them there if they’re not already?’”
A test would represent, in the case of this unit, eight standards. A teacher can better focus on the individual needs of a student by pinpointing which standard or, even more specifically, learning targets to which wrong answers apply. That breakdown allows a student to get remediation only on concepts with which they’re struggling.
It promotes differentiated instruction.
If 80% of students achieve all of the learning targets on the unit test, teachers should move on the next unit and build a small group intervention for students not meeting them — no more As handed out for returning field trip permission slips or following the line leader.
It’s all about meeting rigorous standards.
“Looking at an 85% before it was, ‘Well, you’re good enough,’” McNaughton said. “That’s complacency. That’s where we’ve been and we’re getting over that.”
The classroom: ELA
Braden River Elementary School students sit at their teacher’s feet, each wielding miniature white dry-erase boards.
The class discusses a book about a boy who plays baseball.
One child raises his board and reveals a question written in black marker: Why does the boy play ball and not sit and color?
The moment represents a major Common Core shift in ELA, away from analyzing literature from a “How does it relate to me?” standpoint, to being critical about how literature itself works; how an argument is arranged; and understanding why the tone of a piece brings out a certain emotion.
“It’s about analyzing writing, looking at bias behind writing and making them good citizens,” said Carlson, an ELA curriculum specialist. “There’s a lot of thought with everything.”
Alison den Boggende, SAC chairperson at Braden River Elementary, watches her younger son, a first-grader at the school, approach learning differently.
“It’s not just paring information back,” den Boggende said. “The atmosphere in the class is different. There’s more interaction. My older son (a fifth-grader) had the same first-grade teacher as my younger one. She was a terrific teacher then and still is. The kids are just better learners now.”
The white-board moment also functions as a “dipstick,” checkpoints throughout a unit leading up to the ultimate test.
They tell teachers whether they can move on to a new standard.
In another change, one ELA shift calls for more focus on non-fiction reading.
Through research, Meckley, a former dean of student services at Iowa Western Community College, saw employers struggling to find students who could understand fact-based writing.
The non-fiction literature will cut across subject matter and sometimes relate back to math, social studies and science, an integration that defines Common Core.
“That’s what a lot of us have to read and comprehend to do our jobs,” Meckley said.
The classroom: math
McNaughton, the math curriculum specialist, sees a society set up to hate math.
“We have a society that says it’s OK to be innumerate,” McNaughton said. “But we don’t like being illiterate.”
That goes back to the old way of doing things: spreadsheets, drills and flashcards.
Common Core math focuses on a few topics, rather than the whole gauntlet.
It’s about interconnectivity and sense making. How is the geometry connected to the numbers? How do you know what you know? Are you sure you know it? What’s your evidence that you know it?
Multiple paths lead to a solution.
“If you look at the majority of parents who go to parent conferences, most do not like math,” McNaughton said. “The research to get around that is learning: When you multiply two numbers? What does that actually look like? What pictures come into student’s head?”
In June 2010, when Florida adopted Common Core, Bob Gagnon, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning; Dr. Robin Thompson, executive director of teaching and learning; and Dr. Chuck Fradley, director of professional learning, decided the Team would spend half its time on professional development, providing support to teachers who would be the force behind the changes.
That meant talking to every teacher in the district, finding out his or her needs and recruiting some to lead Common Core Design Teams.
Those teams consist of six to eight teachers, with a separate team assigned to each grade and content area. So, for example, eighth-grade algebra and geometry has its own team.
With the guidance of a Team member, the teacher-led design teams create curriculum roadmaps and, then, units.
Teachers design the roadmaps during the school day and are not paid more for that. However, the district contracts with teachers to develop units outside of their school day.
Each team meets five to eight times to make the roadmaps.
Substitute teachers take over classes design-team members miss.
All roadmaps will be completed by the end of this school year, while units for second grade will be completed by the end of this summer. All other units will be finished by the end of next year.
After units are written, the design team meets once a quarter to review what went right and wrong; the process is called refinement, and it’s happening now for kindergarten and first grade.
The Team recommends instructional strategies, but says teachers now have more flexibility to teach the standards how they choose.
Thompson and Fradley won’t put a number on the cost of implementing Common Core, but they admit the district doesn’t have the resources it needs.
“Even though it’s expensive, we feel like we’re being proactive,” Fradley said. “We should be spending a whole lot more money than we are, but it’s not there. We have to be creative and we’ve done that.”
“Common Core puts the focus on what’s important and that’s the student,” McNaughton said. “Do you have a love of learning? That’s what it’s really about.”
Contact Josh Siegel at email@example.com.
What is Common Core?
To develop the Common Core program, the nation’s governors and education commissioners, with the backing of the College Board, ACT and the National Teacher Association, among other organizations, determined what students need to know to be successful in college and careers.
Teachers, parents and school administrators from across the country provided input on the standards, of which 45 states, four territories and the District of Columbia have adopted.
Across Florida, K-1 students started their Common Core education this school year. By next year, the standards will be fully implemented in second grade, with phasing in for grades three through 12.
The 2014-15 school year will bring full implementation and assessment for all kindergartners through 12th-graders, including the new PARCC assessment, which will replace the FCAT.