Manatee County teachers face Common Core challenge

eearl@bradenton.comJanuary 20, 2014 

MANATEE -- A student has seven apples, and his sister brings over 13. How many apples does he have now?

Samantha Hart, a teacher at Ballard Elementary, asks her second-grade classroom for the solution. To meet Common Core standards, however, they can't just give the simple one-word answer -- 20 -- to the addition problem.

They must explain their reasoning, come up with more than one strategy to reach the answer and compare their work with a partner's. For example, students draw math problems or relate an addition problem to a subtraction set they know.

"It is exposure of different ways to solve problems," Hart said. "They all don't have to solve the problem the same way."

And it's a move away from the current Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, which relies heavily on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and toward more national standards of learning known as Common Core.

Hart favors Common Core State Standards over Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, but the transition, like any classroom change, can be difficult.

"It is the same standards from K through 12th grade, and each year the levels of expectations increase," Hart said. "It's like a ladder, and each year students progress with the same standard. It gets more difficult until they reach the full standard."

Math standards include explaining how to reach a solution, constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others and then applying the lessons to an "everyday life" situation.

Hart revisits lessons often to improve her students' long-term memory of what they have learned.

"With Common Core, we are diving in deeper," Hart said.

Manatee County plans to fully implement Common Core in the 2014-15 school year for grades 3-12, said Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instruction.

But Gov. Rick Scott has opposed adopting reading and writing benchmarks in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers used in Common Core.

"By March, we will know if the education commissioner will delay it," Greene said.

Joe Follick, Florida Department of Education spokesman, said misconception about Common Core can be

confusing and most people don't understand lessons can be individualized for school districts or classrooms. Each school district decides what materials it will use to teach Common Core standards.

Common Core standards for math include: algebraic thinking, numbers and operations in base 10, fractions, measurement and data, geometry and statistics and probability.

Common Core language arts standards include reading informational texts, writing, literature, measuring text complexity and science and technical subjects.

"Change is difficult. People are passionate about education, and that is great," Follick said. "These standards have been developed by a wide variety of educators and teachers."

What is Common Core?

Common Core State Standards were started by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bring uniformity in education across the 50 states.

Adopting Common Core is not a federal mandate, but the federal government provides incentives for states that embrace the new standards.

Implementing or preparing to adopt Common Core was a requirement this year on applications for President Obama's Race to the Top grant, a $1.35-billion program designed to help turn around low-performing schools.

The Manatee County School District was a finalist for a $28.7 million grant to expand Manatee Technical Institute, in part because it has already implemented some Common Core Standards, even though the state has not officially adopted them. Manatee County schools did not win the grant, but came close by placing seventh nationwide.

"Teachers have been using the standards in the classroom since 2010. The new standards are no surprise," Follick said. "They had three years to know new standards are coming."

Among educators, emotions run high about Common Core.

While Common Core has been adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C., Florida is still reluctant to fully embrace the concept.

Maria Voles Ferguson and Diane Stark Retner from the Center on Education Policy said there is enough flexibility for states to customize the standards. Maryland has adopted Common Core standards, for example, but uses a different name. Minnesota adopted Common Core State Standards for reading only.

"Common Core is a more rigorous set of standards for our students," Greene said. "Our one-year plan is to make sure all of our schools are ranked either an A, B or C."

For the 2012-13 school year, 17 Manatee County schools received a grade of D or F from the state based on FCAT scores.

Greene said there is no particular textbook series associated with Common Core.

"It is not a curriculum, but it tells us what our students have to learn," Greene said.

Florida has yet to decide several Common Core issues, including what type assessment will replace the FCAT.

"It will need to be specifically suited for Florida," Follick said.

Looking for vendors

Vendors are attentively watching as Florida chooses its new assessment test.

"Vendors get an invitation to negotiate, and there are 100 pages of what is expected of someone who bids to provide the test for Florida students," Follick said.

Bidding closed Dec. 12. The state expects to choose a vendor by March.

"We need a test that measures new standards," Follick said. "Private vendors are coming to Florida to provide a replacement" for FCAT.

The ideal assessment will have both computer and paper-and-pencil options. The ideal assessment is designed to gauge whether students are thinking, rather than memorizing information, he said.

"It will not be statewide 100 percent done on the computer, and it should take about the same amount of time to complete as the FCAT," Follick said. "The reality is you can teach how to memorize or you can teach how to think. There might be debate about the details, but the premise of deeper thinking is one we can all agree on."

Forty states use the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessment for Common Core. While PARCC claims not to be a test, it is still used as a measurement of student performance and growth.

PARCC is for grades 3 through 12, the same grades now taking the FCAT. Hart said PARCC assessments contain higher-order thinking questions and more text-dependent questions than FCAT.

"The closer to test time, it will be the same as FCAT. There will be a shift in providing students with the opportunity to see what questions would look like on the test," Hart said. "It is kind of like how you take prep classes before the SAT and ACT."

Controversy exists around PARCC in Florida because it is costly. Schools also need more bandwidth to administer online assessments.

Teachers do not know what to expect from Common Core assessments, McLeod said.

"We have no idea what test the students are going to take, nor do we know what it is going to look like," McLeod said. "However, we are preparing students for more multistep questions and opportunities to explain their thinking."

The Manatee County School District uses rubrics for performance-based assessments to determine if students are mastering subject units. The assessments do not count against student grades.

Hart supports the current assessments, saying they help teachers know where students are at a given time and help determine future instruction.

"The push with Manatee County is for teachers to use ongoing assessments to guide their instruction," Hart said. "It helps to close the achievement gap and provide enrichment for students who need acceleration and remediation."

Sarah Hansford, Florida Department of Education spokeswoman, said while the assessment chosen is statewide, curriculum and instructional material decisions are made by local school districts.

"We emphasize that decision-making is best made in the classrooms and districts," Hansford said.

'Overwhelming' standards

Some teachers say implementing Common Core can be overwhelming.

Alison McLeod, a second-grade teacher at Freedom Elementary, favors such a unified standard, but said she is concerned about rushing to implement Common Core by next school year. Because the state is still debating what Common Core elements it will adopt, she said, teachers don't yet have clear expectations of what they will be teaching.

"The teachers have not had nearly enough time to prepare for Common Core," McLeod said. "Teachers are very overwhelmed. We want the best for our students and that usually means putting hours of our personal time and money into our classroom."

Still, McLeod said, once the decisions are made, she believes they will benefit the students.

"One pro is that students across the nation will finally be on the same page," McLeod said. "I think this is a concept that should have been done a long time ago. Why should different states hold their students accountable for different things? Shouldn't education look the same across the nation?"

Standards provide equity from state to state and district to district, Hart noted.

"Each student will have the same high expectation of learning, not a watered-down version of academics," she said.

Transitioning into the Common Core standards is a challenge, but McLeod is optimistic.

"They didn't re-invent the wheel. They just altered it," McLeod said. "There are many things that are the same with Common Core. It is, however, a great opportunity to fix what really wasn't working in the first place."

Even though the state hasn't finalized plans for adopting Common Core, the Manatee County School District continues to introduce teachers to Common Core Standards through professional learning sessions monthly on early release Wednesdays.

The state goal is to adopt Common Core Standards this year, and the district should be prepared for possible adoption by the 2014-15 school year, Greene said. Lesson plans from district to district will not be identical, but the goal is for the students to master the same overall standards of learning by the end of the grade level.

Michelle Bleicher, a reading coach and kindergarten teacher at Abel Elementary, said the 10 Common Core State Standards for reading and math are straightforward. Common Core baseline standards are listed on the official website.

"You get to know that standard, and it is spelled out for you," Bleicher said.

Critical thinking key

Common Core, written from a K-12 perspective for Manatee County students, asks teachers to determine what students have learned and retained from previous grade levels.

"The county's curriculum department is doing an outstanding job backing teachers," Bleicher said. "It provides road maps throughout the entire year."

Bleicher said these "road maps" contain student standards and expectations. The plans indicate what standards students should have mastered by which part of the year.

"They support teachers with what to teach, when to teach it and how to teach it," Bleicher said. "There is a tremendous amount of training."

As a teacher, Bleicher said, she is expected to have her class at a certain place by the end of the school year.

"How do we get them there?" Bleicher said. "The standards that should be mastered are based on learning progressions. We are doing what is best for the kids."

Common Core State Standards are rigorous, most agree. The transition is expected to be difficult, at least for students who haven't already mastered state standards, which often rely on rote learning.

Common Core "requires deep understanding and deep thinking. It will be a big shift for teachers, parents and students," Hart said. "They may not find that they are succeeding as they were before, but through time and each grade level, they will become experts at the standards and thinking critically and analyzing."

Hart said some teachers may have to teach such rigorous standards at a slower pace.

"There may be times where you are aware that what you are seeing in fourth grade is what is taught in third grade," Hart said. "The purpose to slowing the pace down is to have a deep understanding and mastering of the standards."

Still, she said, focusing on critical thinking skills allows teachers to slow the pace without letting students fall below grade level in required learning.

Stacey Porter, an elementary school teacher in Jefferson County, Ky., said she teaches her fourth-grade students the Common Core standards for place values using her own visual methods. Porter said finding a place value on a number line is below the fourth-grade level, but she makes sure her students understand the concept at the beginning of the year to make sure they understand the standards.

While the state of Florida is moving away from Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and FCAT testing, what comes next is still in question.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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