Common Core evens playing field for LWSD

When a student moves from one school to another, one of the biggest adjustments he or she must make — aside from meeting and making new friends — is academically.

A student lights a small piece of paper on fire to see how it burns as part of a science lesson at Stella Schola Middle School.

When a student moves from one school to another, one of the biggest adjustments he or she must make — aside from meeting and making new friends — is academically.

Their new school may be covering a topic the student has already learned or they may not be ready for as the topic may be more advanced than what they have learned up to that point. This issue is magnified when a student moves states.

“How much would he or she have to make up or how much is he or she ahead?” asked Nathan Olson, communication manager for Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

So, in an effort to provide students throughout the country with a more consistent education, 45 states — including Washington — have adopted a Common Core of standards for English/language arts and math.

An even deeper playing field

Olson said in addition to providing a more consistent education for students nationwide, one of the goals of the Common Core — which applies to grades K-12 — is to help students be college and career ready after high school.

“The learning is a lot more rigorous,” said Shannon Leonard, who teaches second grade at Horace Mann Elementary School in Redmond.

She said with the new standards, students need to think more deeply about what they are reading and pull evidence from the text to show how they arrived at their answers. Leonard, who has been teaching for 15 years, admits that this was a “big shift” for her as she has younger students. However, she has seen her students improving on this skill and realizing the benefits of re-reading text for different purposes.

“I think this is going to lead to future success,” Leonard said.

Brigitte Tennis (above), founder and headmistress of Stella Schola Middle School — a Lake Washington School District (LWSD) choice middle school in Redmond — said she thinks the Common Core is “fabulous” because it puts everyone on an even playing field.

“Every kid has the opportunity to learn the same standards,” she said.

With the new Common Core, students must meet fewer standards but they delve deeper into concepts and topics. Olson described the previous structure as a “mile wide, inch deep,” in that curriculum would cover many different topics, but only as a brief overview. Under the Common Core, students will be learning more about fewer topics, giving them an opportunity to think and process information more critically. Olson said Common Core is more about providing context for the facts students learn rather than rote memorization.

For example, he said, instead of just learning the date of the Pearl Harbor attacks during World War II, students would now learn more about what led up to that day and what prompted the attack.

Tennis said Common Core also integrates subjects so students are learning more than one subject at a time.

A recent science lesson with Tennis’s eighth graders illustrated this as it integrated science, math and English. Students compared and contrasted the properties of two different types of papers. They used the scientific method to come up with a hypothesis and prediction about the differences in the papers, utilized math through logical thinking and were asked to write a paper about their findings for English.

Tennis said this is more like real life as people don’t sit down for an hour just to do math. There is more crossover among subjects.

A many-year process

Common Core was initially adopted in Washington in 2010. Olson said a law was written that allowed state Superintendent Randy Dorn to provisionally adopt the standards that year and if state lawmakers took no action during the following year’s legislative session, Common Core would be formally adopted by the state in 2011 — which is what happened.

Matt Manobianco, associate superintendent for LWSD, said when the Common Core was adopted, they began training school principals in the 2011-12 school year.

“We really were starting two years ago and prepping for it,” he said.

The principals learned about what Common Core was, why the new standards were being implemented, the purpose and more. Manobianco said the principals then went on to train their staff and faculty on the subject. The following school year — 2012-13 — administration, faculty and staff at the schools began learning more about what the actual standards are and how they are different or similar to past standards.

In preparing to implement the Common Core, Manobianco said LWSD was in the middle of renewing its language arts materials, and the newly adopted materials align with the new standards.

As the lead on the elementary literacy adoption committee, Manobianco said the response to the Common Core standards was overwhelmingly positive and people appreciated how detailed and specific they were.

“They felt the standards were better written (than the previous ones),” he said.

Leonard said now that the standards have been implemented, she is more intentional in her teaching. In the past, she has touched on many of the standards, but now, she allows for more opportunities for students to practice these skills.

“I’m just a lot more aware of the importance that we hit these areas,” Leonard said.

A couple of concerns

While the Common Core has been met mostly with enthusiasm — Manobianco said some teachers wanted to implement them right away — there are some concerns.

Olson said implementing the new standards has and will take a lot of work but there has not been much money added to the budget for it. There have also been concerns about the additional workload for educators.

Tennis acknowledged this, saying the work she does to meet Common Core standards is done outside the classroom because she doesn’t want to take time away from students. She said the new standards are a good thing, but they will take time.

“We will need some training and staff development,” she said.

In addition, Olson said there have been some concerns about the federal government intruding and forcing the standards on people.

“We don’t believe that is the case,” Olson said.

Although the state has adopted the new standards, he said, they “don’t determine curriculum. Curriculum is determined locally.” Basically, he said, the state determines what students need to know, but local districts determine how they learn it.

This is one of the reasons Tennis likes the Common Core standards.

“We can teach it whatever way works in our classroom,” she said. “It allows teachers to be themselves…The teachers can bring their own personality into the lesson.”

Parents who would like more information about the Common Core standards can visit the LWSD website and click on the “For Parents” link on the left to learn more. Leonard encourages them to talk to their children’s teachers, as well.

“We’d be happy to help parents understand,” she said.


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