In South Florida, changing the core of the classroom

At just 5 years old, Peter Grigas had a relatively hefty kindergarten workload last year at Oakridge Elementary in Hollywood.

“Peter had to do oral presentations ... He had writing assignments every week,” said his mother, Gay Lynn Grigas. “There was a monthly schedule that came home and every night there were homework assignments that had to be turned in the next day, and those assignments were given points. It wasn’t just ‘read through with your child for 30 minutes.’”

Peter’s teacher told Grigas her son’s seemingly intense class work was due to new expectations of what a kindergartner should know and learn as laid out by the Common Core State Standards, the latest savior — or bogeyman — of public education in the United States.

The new K-12 learning benchmarks aim to change the way students are taught and learn, and to produce high school graduates who are better prepared for college and careers. They have been adopted by almost every state in the nation. Florida schools during the last two years have slowly phased in the standards among their lowest grades.

And come Monday, when South Florida’s students return to class, all public schools in the state are expected to teach to the standards across all grade levels in what state education officials have dubbed a “full frontal assault” on Common Core. That means teachers and students are entering what proponents say is a tougher, more intense age of education, despite widespread hand-wringing about whether schools will be ready to teach the standards — or whether they should be tossed out.

“We’re improving education,” said William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor who served on a Common Core validation committee. “It’s more demanding. It’s more rigorous. It’s going to take deeper thought, and it’s going to be tougher on the kids.”

State officials say the standards, which are a new barometer for what students should be able to accomplish in English-language-arts and mathematics as they move from grade to grade, are fewer and deeper than what’s been required under Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. There’s less requirements for what teachers must cover, but a greater demand to encourage critical thinking and analysis, and to link reading and arithmetic to the skills students will need as they enter the global marketplace.

Literature and fiction will remain a part of the classroom, but will be scaled back to include more nonfiction and texts, like a presidential address or a research paper. Writing, reading and communication skills are heavily woven throughout all subjects, including mathematics, which will lean more heavily on projects and word-based questions. And computer skills become increasingly critical.

“For students, it’s taking a deeper look into the work they’re doing and relying more on themselves and the knowledge they have and finding sources to get their work done, as opposed to just memorizing,” said Mary Jane Tappen, Florida’s deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction and student services.

Expectations are that many students will struggle initially, though Tappen said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing:

“If finding an answer is very simple then probably they need more of a challenge.”

Behind the scholastic shift is the concern that education in the United States has become a hodgepodge of systems that have spread students too far and thin compared to their counterparts in other countries. English classes have focused too much on story-telling and persuasive essays. Math lessons, which should build upon each other, have become segmented and beg the ubiquitous student question: “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”

The most recent available results of the Program for International Student Assessment, in 2009, when the Common Core was in its infancy, show the average U.S. student was 10th in the world in reading, 19th in science and 24th in math. Meanwhile, as many as 40 percent of first-time college students require one remedial course, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Florida, the percentage is even higher, with the Florida College System reporting in 2011 that 57 percent of first-time students needed remedial math.

So about five years ago, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers developed new, national expectations based on what students were learning in other countries with better systems. The creators identified what high school graduates need to know to succeed in college-level courses and earn career-level jobs, and then set what they say are internationally benchmarked expectations by working backward through grade levels.

So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have bought in, and the standards have been encouraged by the Obama Administration.

“This is our best effort to put forth a realistic picture of what it takes to be successful as you leave high school and move into the next phase of life,” said Gene Wilhoit, who served as the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers during the crafting of Common Core. “It’s really clear now that these standards in most cases are going to be higher expectations than what we had in the past.”

Florida joined in 2010, with the expectation that Common Core would be taught and tested by the spring of 2015.

As that date approaches, uncertainty and political controversy have swelled. Pressure is mounting from tea party pols and conservative moms to pull back on a shift they worry will strip local control from schools. Questions abound about whether Florida will pull out of a major consortium creating a Common Core-aligned test. Critics have also warned about data mining, costs and time associated with coming assessments.

Perhaps the most cited concern: the risk of most the country buying into an untested, seemingly top-down system.

“It hasn’t been tested. It hasn’t been validated,” Suzette Lopez said during one of two protests held this month outside school board meetings in Broward and Miami-Dade. Lopez is the mother of two sons, 9 and 11, attending Vineland K-8 Center.

For many schools and teachers, however, Common Core is a positive change. Florida school districts began teaching it to younger students during the last two years. And this summer, as many as 14,000 teachers attended state-led training sessions, and thousands more were trained in South Florida, including 4,000 in Miami-Dade, according to senior district officials. That includes teachers in social studies and science, whose subjects won’t be tested under Common Core but remain part of the education transformation.

In an English-language arts training for hundreds at Terra Environmental Research Institute this summer, two dozen fifth-grade teachers sat in groups at desks in a tropical-themed classroom and broke down Seymour Simon’s Gorillas. Their instructor, Nanette Raska, read the book aloud as part of a mock lesson she said could be repeated in classrooms.

Raska, a reading curriculum support specialist who has helped craft sample Common Core lessons for the district, said one of the ways Common Core differs is that students must be able to explain not just an author’s intentions, but how he or she got their point across and whether they agree with it, citing the text. She had her pupils answer that by analyzing sentence structure, examining writing methods and levels of meaning, and finding vocabulary words, which they analyzed and discussed together over several hours.

“We do it deeper. And if it takes longer, that’s better,” Raska said. “We’re not in a rush. We’re here for meaning.”

Raska told the teachers that their students’ writing requirements would change from responding to prompts, like describing an imaginary camelback ride, to referring back to texts and using citations. She said “front-loading” students with information to support what they read should be minimized to force students to analyze texts, and teachers’ job description would also change to require them to be more of a facilitator than ever before.

“They seem to really like that it’s not something pulled out of the air,” she said about the teachers she has trained. “It’s all about evidence, evidence, evidence.”

Ydania Alonso, a fifth-grade teacher at Gateway Environmental K-8 Learning Center in Homestead who attended the training, said she’s excited about the freedom offered by the new standards, which despite criticisms to the contrary don’t mandate how educators teach or what materials they use. She taught Common Core last year in third grade.

“I loved it because I was able to get more creative with it,” she said. “But we did find some children took a little longer to grasp that I didn’t just want this superficial information. That transition was the hardest for children who aren’t exposed to it. But If you set the bar high they’ll get it,” she said.

Alonso said parents also found the new material and class work foreign.

“I had to have a lot more conferences,” she said. “ Parents wanted to know, ‘This is totally different. I’ve never seen this.’”

Early indications are that the learning curve may be steep.

Results from one of the first Common Core-aligned tests released this month in New York showed just 31 percent of students across the state were proficient in math and English-language arts. Those scores reflected a huge drop, which was also the experience in Kentucky when the state became the first in the country to assess its students under the new standards several years ago.

While some teachers say they feel they’ve already been teaching in a manner aligned to Common Core, the plummeting scores have fueled questions of whether students and teachers will be ready for the change. That remains a chief concern among teacher unions at the local and state level, who support the concept of Common Core but question whether Florida has moved too swiftly.

Also fueling angst: The state wants teachers to implement Common Core in their classrooms but also blend in Florida’s old standards due to plans to continue assessing students’ performance one final time with the FCAT. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who supports Common Core, warned the State Board of Education earlier this year that teachers, whose evaluations rely on test results, may have a hard time buying in.

“Teachers are asked to teach Common Core standards but will be tested on Next Generation Sunshine State Standards,” he said. “Right off the bat, that tells you there’s going to be a disconnect.”

Fedrick Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade, said, “Everybody has anxiety right now.”

The implementation of Common Core is also a concern for the creators and writers of the new standards, who say a fumbling by schools, districts or states would undercut better standards. Still, few expect a seismic shift in education to go off without at least a few hitches.

“I’d be concerned if teachers felt totally prepared because it’s a different challenge,” Wilhoit said. “I think there are going to be places where they haven’t paid attention to this and they’re leaving it up to the individual efforts of the teachers, which is unfair.”

That’s not happening in South Florida, say district officials in Broward and Miami-Dade, who must also address new requirements for greater access to computers and the Internet. They insist they’re doing what they can to train teachers and prepare schools in a process that began years ago in lower grade levels. They’ve set up web pages for professional development, established working groups to review lessons and work, and trained school-site trainers, like Alonso.

But many acknowledge it will take time.

“Common Core is a long-term process,” said Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie. “You don’t just go through some training and then all of a sudden you’ve basically got it down pat.”

For Gay Lynn Grigas, the mother of Peter, the Oakridge Elementary kindergartner last year, she’s confident her son and two other children still in grade school will be better off with the shift, even if it takes time for schools to get comfortable. She said that point was hammered home recently when her family hosted two Japanese foreign exchange students who were so far ahead in math they were asked to tutor their classmates.

“It’s not the same marketplace anymore. It’s not just more competitive, it’s changing rapidly,” she said. “Our kids have to change and evolve with it.”

Miami Herald reporter Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.

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