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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 1, 2011

Fixing a “broken promise?”
GCSD makes minor shifts in teaching literacy,
bigger shifts in math to meet Common Core standards

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Students at Guilderland, like those across the state, will soon be hewing to the same standards as their peers across the nation.

All but two states — Texas and Alaska — have joined or are in the process of joining the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

New York State signed on as part of its effort to receive federal Race to the Top funding. On its second try, the state learned last year that it had received $700 million, half of which goes to the State Education Department. Since the other half was distributed based on need, districts like Guilderland didn’t get much.

“We got about $7,000 for each of the next four years,” said Demian Singleton, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for instruction. “This is largely an unfunded mandate for us.”

The Common Core initiative is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association and was launched after a 2004 report, “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” found the high school diploma in America was a “broken promise,” not preparing graduates to compete successfully in college or in jobs.

Changes in teaching literacy and math

Last year, Common Core Standards were released for math and English, and Singleton said this week that, since last January, Guilderland has been aligning its curriculum accordingly. “With English language arts, we were very close,” he said. “With math, there are more adjustments to make.”

The biggest change for Guilderland in teaching literacy, he said, will be “seeking balance between informational literature and fiction-based literature.” Singleton said Guilderland, particularly in the elementary grades, is now heavy on fiction.

In teaching math, he said,  “There needs to be greater depth and less breadth.”

The new curricula, aligned with the standards, must be implemented by the next school year.

Guilderland has been using the Everyday Math program, which uses a “spiraling approach, where topics are introduced and re-introduced,” said Singleton. However, he went on, “The main focus in the Common Core is mastery. Fluency is a big piece. It’s memory and application, all done quickly,” he said.

The six “shifts in mathematics” outlined by the State Education Department at its website, www.engageNY.org, are: focus, coherence, fluency, deep understanding, application, and dual intensity.

Under “fluency,” it says, “Students are expected to have speed and accuracy with simple calculations; teachers structure class time and/or homework time for students to memorize, through repetition, core functions…such as multiplication tables so that they are more able to understand and manipulate more complex concepts.”

Some of the explanations are less straightforward. Under the first shift, “focus,” for example, it says, “Teachers use the power of the eraser and significantly narrow and deepen the scope of how time and energy is spent in the math classroom.”

Asked what this means, Singleton said, “ ‘The power of the eraser’ means, before you move forward, you must master what you’re working on. You can take risks, make mistakes, but strengthen the foundational core.”

Starting this week at Guilderland, two different math programs — Envisions and Go Math — will be piloted in various classrooms. The Math Cabinet started looking at various programs in July and by early February, after the piloting is completed in December and January, will determine if the district will adopt a new math program or supplement the current Everyday Math program, to align with the new standards, Singleton said.

Currently, the English program at Guilderland is not a textbook program. “We will continue to have deep and rich classroom libraries,” said Singleton.

The six shifts outlined by the State Education Department for literacy are: In elementary school, balancing informational and literary texts; in secondary school, learning various disciplines from reading; handling increased complexity as the grades progress; finding text-based answers; writing from sources; and mastering an academic vocabulary.

The biggest change for Guilderland, Singleton said will be having students read more non-fiction. “One of the key findings in the research behind Common Core, especially at the elementary level, was that learning was based largely on fiction with little opportunity for kids to read for information,” said Singleton. “They extrapolated that to problems at the college level…That applies to Guilderland,” he said of the current emphasis on fiction in the lower grades. “We’ll have to adjust.”

He stressed that this approach will apply not just in teaching English but in teaching all subjects.

“The intent is to strike a better balance,” said Singleton, “to broaden the exposure…Over time, literacy has been so funneled into English language arts, it has not been embraced enough in other areas.”

Looking ahead

Overall, Singleton said, comparing the Common Core Standards to the New York State Standards adopted in 2005, “I think the Common Core Standards are more meaningful, more relevant…In time, they will be adopted with success. The question mark in my mind is how they will be assessed.”

The next phase of the reform is to have common assessments. New York State is part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, known as PARCC.

Asked if it is difficult for teachers to have to shift yet again to new standards, Singleton said, “Yes, it’s hard and somewhat frustrating….The fairly regular change in learning standards in New York State in the past 10 to 20 years makes if difficult for teachers to achieve their own instructional mastery. They have to keep re-inventing what they do.”

With its limited funding from Race to the Top, Guilderland is using specialists at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services to help make the transition, Singleton said, and relying heavily on in-house administrators and supervisors.

Singleton believes that, eventually, there will be Common Core Standards for other subjects like science and social studies as well, although there is no indication of when that might be.

However, the timeline for new English and math assessments is clear. For the next two school years, 2011-12 and 2012-13, Guilderland students will be given New York State tests based on Common Core Standards, he said; the following year, 2014-15, they will be given PARCC tests instead.

Twenty-three states are participating in PARCC, Singleton said, and 22 other states are participating in a different multi-state consortium.

“The part that gets people nervous is the term ‘common,’” Singleton concluded. “It implies that everything is standardized. That’s not the intent. Really, it’s just to give you a framework of outcomes. How you get to the outcomes is the art and craft of teaching.”

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