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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published January 13 2014

Schools raising the bar with Common Core

GRAND FORKS – A confession to stealing sparked a spirited debate among students at South Middle School in Grand Forks.

With only three lines of dialogue to rely on, eighth-graders recently spent several minutes analyzing the narrator’s self-interest, experience, moral values and gender. English teacher Andrea Simon asked the class if the narrator felt bad.

“I say no, she didn’t really care about what she did,” said Isaac Burger.

“What evidence is there in this excerpt that she doesn’t care about what she did?” asked Simon. “I think you’re right, Isaac, but show me why you feel that way.”

This kind of exchange repeated itself over and over that hour as Simon asked students a series of questions that encouraged a deeper understanding. That discussion model is also fostered by the Common Core State Standards, which have increased the academic expectations for students in English and math across 45 states, including North Dakota.

Common Core has stirred up much confusion since states started adopting the standards in 2010. State and local education officials say they expect student grades to initially drop as teachers and students adjust, but some find the risk worth it.

Many teachers in Grand Forks appreciate the higher rigor and pedagogical shifts advanced by the standards, which are in keeping with research over the past two or three decades, said Cathy Williams, an instructional coach who works with teachers.

An adjustment

Common Core’s basic premise is to help students become prepared for college and the workplace, according to CoreStandards.org.

This means students this year have been tackling harder material, sometimes at two or three grade levels higher, local school officials said. In eighth grade, students are learning some math standards that were formerly taught in 11th grade, Williams said.

However, students aren’t always confronted with hard material in every math and English class, nor have they consistently been thrust into class unprepared, said district curriculum staff. Some material in the elementary math program, for instance, has already aligned with the standards, so it won’t be a big shift for those kids, Williams said.

“They’ve already received new materials with Common Core supplements, and are incorporating those with little difficulty, I think,” she said.

Teachers nationwide helped develop the English and math standards, which were chosen because students build skill sets in these areas that are used in other subjects, according to CoreStandards.org.

North Dakota adopted the standards in 2010, but full implementation of the standards only began this year, so they’ve had some time to acclimate, school officials have said. Williams said teachers here have so far embraced the process.

“We’re trying to teach all of these new Common Core concepts but also include concepts we had previously taught,” she said. “We need some time for grade levels to catch up.”

Past vs. present

This year, teachers have been using methods new to them to incorporate the standards, but the difference can be subtle.

The Common Core English standards push students to study more nonfiction texts and focus less on their personal experience with it. In the past, teachers would ask students to relate to a text as a way to engage them, but now students have to look more at the text itself, said Williams.

“It’s not expressing opinions as much as stating arguments and supporting those with the text,” she said.

In Simon’s class, students challenged, questioned and built off the statements of others. They gave reasons for their disagreements and made an effort to respect speakers. Throughout the hour, Simon pushed students to take an objective viewpoint.

“When we read anything, really, we should always be wondering what perspective it’s coming from,” she said. “Sometimes, that influences us as readers.”

In math, Common Core standards ask students to strike a better balance between being accurate, being fast and understanding the procedure. In the process, students view math as an exploratory science, not as a catalogue of rule-bound procedures, said Williams.

“The automaticity of knowing multiplication facts is great and kids need to know that,” said instructional coach Anne Compton. “But they also need to understand what it is they’re doing and why they’re multiplying, what’s the point. If they don’t understand why they’re doing it, then that’s a problem in itself.”