New standards change teaching methods in public schools

by Tori Hamby

As parents around the state review their child’s schoolwork this year, they might be noticing a key change in the ways reading, writing and arithmetic are being taught in public schools.

Less focus on simply understanding key academic concepts – such as fractions, reading comprehension and geometry – and more emphasis on how to apply them to the real-world situations, from making every-day household decisions to workplace scenarios.

The nationwide Common Core State Standards Initiative, which affects mathematics and language arts, and the North Carolina Essential Standards, which affects other subject areas, are behind the changes in teaching methods.

The North Carolina Board of Education adopted both in June 2010 to replace previous statewide academic standards.

“There’s going to be less of a focus on getting a certain answer and more of a focus why you’re doing a math problem the way you’re doing it to get that answer,” said Maria Pitre-Martin, director of K-12 Curriculum and Instruction for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and a former English teacher.

While 45 states have adopted the Common Core, North Carolina went a step further and developed its own North Carolina Essential Standards for academic subjects not covered by the Common Core, Pitre-Martin said.

Parents and students should see the following changes in their student’s language arts and math curriculum, she said.

• A greater use of informational text in addition to the literary text already taught in schools.

“We’re not doing away with literature by any means, but we want our students to be able understand a Microsoft user’s manual as well as a novel,” Pitre-Martin said.

• A focus on “academic vocabulary.” Students will learn vocabulary words outside of traditional English classrooms.

“In science classrooms, for example,” Pitre-Martin said, “we want our students to be using words as if they are scientists and know how these words relate to what they are learning.”

Kristie Ballard, a literacy facilitator at Hopewell High School in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said all teachers must focus on literacy and reading – an area that teacher education programs might not necessarily cover outside of English.

• Using evidence to support an argument in written essays. Instead of having students write about what they did the previous summer, for instance, students will be given assignments requiring them to reflect and write about their interpretation of text.

• Developing a “conceptual” understanding of math concepts. It won’t be enough to just determine the right answers. Students will have to know how and why they arrived at the correct – or incorrect – answer.

• Teaching and using math concepts across grade levels. “A lot of times before (the Common Core) you would hear students say something like ‘We’re doing fractions this year,’” Pitre-Martin said. “Students should be doing fractions each year. So you will be seeing a much more narrower curriculum where students will be exposed to skills multiple times.”

• Procedural skills and fluency. This means that students will be able to perform calculations with speed and accuracy.

The North Carolina Essential Standards also place a focus on listening and speaking. Students will be expected to not only to understand academic concepts and skills, but also to understand them well enough to teach them to fellow classmates, Pitre-Martin said.

Students will also be expected to evaluate the work of their classmates.

“If you listen to your peers talk about your essay and you’re thinking your feedback through, you’re at a higher level of thinking than just memorizing a few facts,” she said.

Newly revised End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests administered at the end of this school year will reflect these changes, she added. This will be how the state will measure the effectiveness of the new curriculum and teacher’s ability to adhere to the new standards.

The biggest concern going forward, she said, is that teachers have enough resources to support the new curriculum. NCDPI is addressing this next year by using Race to the Top money – competitive federal grants given to states for fostering creative innovation – to create a website where teaching resources will be compiled.

“If I need to teach a lesson on fractions, I can type in the key word ‘fractions’ and develop a nice lesson plan from the free resources on the site,” she said.

Ballard, a literary facilitator at Hopewell, said CMS began focusing on the standards before they were formally adopted by the state.

It will be many years, Ballard said, before North Carolina residents will be able to see the full effectiveness of the new curriculum.

“Current high school students are having to adjust to using higher order thinking skills inside the classroom,” she said. “We will be able to see the full results when kids who have grown up with the standards get to high school.”

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