The Common Core: Coming Soon to a School Near You

John Mooney | June 1, 2011 | Education
Expect to see major changes in what kids are taught, when they're taught it, and how they're tested -- long before full launch in 2014

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The Common Core is being touted as the next national wave in school improvement, one that will reshape how public schools in New Jersey and elsewhere teach and test students.

That helps explain why a conference on the Common Core State Standards, to use the full name, was enough to bring an estimated 700 New Jersey school officials to the East Brunswick Hilton yesterday.

They were hoping for a crash course in what the new language arts and math standards will mean for their schools — especially in the immediate future, as both the standards and the testing component are phased in for full launch in 2014.

In some ways they got it. The Common Core will address what students are taught, when they’re taught it and how they are tested. Elementary education, for example, will focus on whole numbers and computation, while skills like algebra and probability won’t be addressed until the middle grades.

Language arts, meanwhile, will also be heavily revised. For instance, more complex reading will be required earlier, and more emphasis will be put on persuasive writing.

But the most significant changes will be in the new testing that will coincide with the new standards: Evaluations will be conducted far more often, and computers will be used to ensure that teachers get test results in a timely manner.

And how will New Jersey’s schools and school officials deal with these changes, even in the best of circumstances?

“I don’t think we’ll just hit the toggle switch in 2014,” said acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. “It will be a bit of an untidy transition.”

A National Enterprise

Cerf called the standards effort now adopted by 44 states a “mammoth enterprise,” and asked that districts begin building a schedule for reviewing their curricula.

“If you are running a district and want to get from here to there in 2014, what does that look like? Where should I be in six months? Where should I be in a year?” Cerf asked the ballroom crowded with school administrators.

The Common Core is the product of years of development by Achieve Inc., a national group born out of early work in the standards movement in the 1990’s by a collection of governors who led the effort.

Achieve’s other initiatives gained traction, including proposals for stricter graduation requirements and a renewed emphasis on algebra for all students. Working with states, the group developed the Common Core, may be the closest thing yet to national education standards.

The Common Core is voluminous, and focuses not just on lesson content but also on the skills being taught, with particular emphasis on critical thinking, research skills, and applying knowledge to real-world situations.

The New Jersey Curriculum

New Jersey’s current Core Curriculum Content Standards, first adopted in 1996 and since revised a few times, are said to be not too far from the new standards. By one comparison, conducted by Achieve, 90 percent of the Common Core math standards are in New Jersey’s current standards — somewhere.

But the difference is in where much of the content and many of the skills are to be taught. Thus, only about 60 percent of the new standards refer to topics taught in the same grades as New Jersey’s standards, according to Achieve’s comparison.

“It’s sometimes not what you do include, but what you don’t,” said Laura Slover, senior vice president for Achieve. “Early on, the focus is building the strong foundations on the numbers that then get you to the algebra. And in the middle schools, that’s when you start seeing them go deep.” (Geometric shapes and probability would also be left to the middle grades.)

Equally extensive changes are planned for language arts.

“It’s not just getting them to write, but at the appropriate level of complexity and quality,” Slover said.

And the biggest change — and one that drives much of the instruction — will be in how students will be tested. New Jersey has joined a companion effort led by Achieve that would call for more frequent testing of skills as part of the ongoing instruction, much of it done by computer to return results to teachers faster.

State officials said that testing is already starting to influence New Jersey’s existing tests, with items from the new exams starting to be incorporated on a trial basis.

A New Way of Thinking

Several school officials said it is a new mindset for their schools and teachers, and ones that every district will need to pay close attention to immediately.

“In order to address the gap, we will need to start creating these bridges to get there,” said Roger Leon, secondary schools supervisor in Newark. “This challenges everything we are doing.”

Others said they had begun to make these changes already, as the national push toward tougher standards grew apparent. One marker of these changes was Achieve’s American Diploma Project, which sought to boost graduation requirements.

“We’ve been working toward this, so we’re delighted that we have at least been moving in the right direction,” said Robert Gratz, superintendent of Hackettstown schools.

Willa Spicer, assistant superintendent in Montgomery schools, was deputy commissioner last year when the state first adopted the new standards. She acknowledges her own letter to districts a year ago that put off some of the toughest decisions. But yesterday she acknowledged it is today’s kindergarteners who will be taking the first tests.

“The idea of not doing anything until full implementation was an interesting thought,” Spicer said. “It was a sentiment throughout the state, that this too may change.”

But she said it is here, or will be soon, and there is a lot of hard work to be done. “It is going to be tough, because of lot of people are tied to their ways of doing things,” she said.