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NJ's Participation in Common Core Standards Sees Early Test

One district’s changes and challenges start with earliest grades and simplest skills -- like counting.

As New Jersey and dozens of other states join a national effort to redefine academic standards for public schools, Cherry Hill's Joseph D. Sharp Elementary School is a good place to see those new standards taking shape.

In Sarah Anderson's first-grade classroom, for instance, her students are already seeing the number bar raised.

"We've never gone above 100 in first grade in the state of New Jersey before, and now we're 120," said the veteran teacher yesterday. "It's a whole paradigm shift."

Cherry Hill started revamping its curriculum in anticipation of the Common Core State Standards, a national project to clarify and increase expectations for students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Gov. Christie was at Sharp Elementary yesterday to promote the state's participation, the second leg of his latest campaign to push his education reform agenda.

He and his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, spoke in broad terms about the need to demand more of both students and their teachers. But the specific changes and challenges could be seen firsthand in the in the classrooms of the small one-story school.

Cherry Hill has tried to keep up with the Common Core effort by starting with elementary school math, the first of the standards that will be released this year.

That included training sessions for teachers over the summer and again this fall. That has meant new books and materials. A new test is being launched as well for the earliest grades.

The challenges? "Tight budgets and a lot to do," said Michelle Smith, the district's curriculum supervisor. "Because of the budgets, we're going to have to phase it in, with kindergarten and first grades first."

But she was among several administrators and teachers who said it has been a worthwhile project so far, with praise for the national standards that put more emphasis on depth than breadth.

According to Anderson, "It's a more focused, deeper level under the new standards. For example, we teach a little about length and that is the only measurement we teach. Instead of teaching a little bit of number sense, a little bit of measurement, a little bit of fractions, we go a lot deeper in certain things."

For instance, the Common Core start the youngest students on basic math operations before moving on to more complicated concepts. Same with measurement, starting with length before moving to mass and volume, and more abstract ideas.

"I think teachers have welcomed it," Smith said. "I think teachers very much felt stressed in trying to fit everything in, and now they are able to go deeper."

Following the Common Core, the school also has toughened up expectations, even in the earliest grades. Kindergarteners are now being taught to count to 100, which was once strictly the realm of the big kids in first grade.

"Just the whole sense of numbers is being ramped up earlier," said Patrick McHenry, the district's elementary math coach.

Another big change is a more inquiry-based approach, he said, in which students are expected to know both the content and the ways of getting there.

"It's not just counting numbers, but what kind of patterns do you see," said Smith. "Now it's just as important for children to see the how and why."

Still, it's a learning process for the teachers as well as the students. Anderson, the first-grade teacher, said she appreciates the changes as well.

Teaching this grade for eight years, Anderson has seen the different pressures between teaching content and teaching practice, debates that have played out in math as well as reading.

"Education is a balancing act," she said. "I've seen the focus on paper and pencil, and then swing the other way where almost nothing is written down. A good curriculum should involve them both."

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