New curriculum change in Manatee County schools welcomed by teachers

MANATEE -- When Dana Mills first began teaching in the Manatee school district 16 years ago, she remembers being handed a huge binder and told, "Here, cover all of this stuff."

"My initial reaction was, 'Oh my goodness!'" Mills remembers.

Since then, Manatee County has undergone two updates to its curriculum in conjunction with state-required changes in what students are expected to learn as they progress through each grade level.

Now, Manatee is embarking on a third change. This time, the adjustments it is making are in tandem with not only the rest of Florida, but 46 other states.

Called the "Common Core State Standards," this latest curriculum evolution is intended to make sure all students are learning the same basic skills at each grade level, no matter what school they attend or in what state.

Manatee began focusing on the new standards in earnest last week with the first meeting of two committees that will map out curriculum timelines and discuss what additional teaching material the district needs. So far, the new standards are earning support from teachers throughout Manatee.

"The national standards are a lot more teacher-friendly," says Mills. "They are written from more of a teaching

perspective than a business perspective. And they indicate a lot more freedom and broad expectations."

"If you read the core standards as a layperson, you would say, 'This makes sense,'" says Maria Cuffaro, a teacher at Sea Breeze Elementary who is part of the language arts "revision team" focusing on the new curriculum.

And Tom Housa, a Lakewood Ranch High teacher who was involved in implementing new world history standards in 2009, says he supports the idea of "making sure everybody is roughly on the same page, from school to school."

The new standards were created by a coalition that included testing entities like the College Board and ACT, state government representatives, parent-teacher organizations, teaching advocacy groups, school administrators and business leaders.

The new standards, for now, are focused on math and language arts because those two broad subject areas also are the basis for learning in other subject areas like science and technology. They'll be implemented next year starting with kindergarten and first grade, expanding to second grade in 2013-2014, and then to grades 3 through 12 by 2014-2015.

Overall, the new language arts standards focus more on the ability to write and speak clearly, and on better understanding informational text, says Linda Guilfoyle, Manatee's director of curriculum.

The new math standards involve more hands-on activities and stress students' abilities to apply what they have learned, and are intended to lessen the likelihood that kids are learning just to get through a test. The new math standards also incorporate more writing, Guilfoyle says.

Overall, the goal of the new standards is not only to ensure students are learning the same key skills no matter where they go to school, but also to better prepare them for college and jobs. And that's a formidable challenge, Guilfoyle emphasizes. One study conducted in 2011 showed that only 25 percent of college graduates nationwide were "college-ready" in all four key subject areas, meaning English, reading, math and science.

One key aspect of the new standards that is drawing positive comments from Manatee teachers is that they provide suggestions and examples of appropriate reading and instructional material, but do not prescribe them.

"Teachers will still have the flexibility to use their creativity and expertise to bring this to life in the classroom," Guilfoyle said, in terms of which materials they choose and how they use technology.

Teachers will be required, as always, to use material approved by the state, but have the leeway to decide which state-approved material they will use. Cuffaro said figuring out which material the district is lacking is one of the key responsibilities of the "revision team" to which she belongs, which will be meeting every Tuesday and Thursday through the school year, and then during key times over the summer.

While the Common Core State Standards haven't triggered any local objections, a coalition of national conservative groups is pressing states to buck the new standards. The American Principles Project said last week that the standards are too highly influenced by "private interests and trade associations" and won't help improve students' college-readiness.

In a paper presented Friday, the coalition concluded that the consequences of Common Core Standards "include national Standards that -- contrary to the creators' claims of academic rigor -- are of inferior academic quality, that rest on a philosophy of education contrary to our founding, that undermine state autonomy and parental involvement, that intrude on student and family privacy, and that will impose enormous costs on state taxpayers."

But Manatee teachers have initially embraced the standards, and are supportive of some key differences in how the curriculum change is happening compared with the last one, which started in 2007 and continued through 2009.

Last time, the district hired Kaplan Learning Services to lead the curriculum change, leaving many teachers feeling left out of the process and wary of "outsiders." The 2007 curriculum change also started in middle school and branched upward to high school and downward to elementaries.

This time, teachers are guiding the overall curriculum change at every step. Guilfoyle said the decision was made to involve teachers fully even though it means pulling about 30 teachers away from the classroom to participate in the curriculum planning, and hiring substitutes to take their places.

Also, this curriculum change is starting at the lower grades and branching upward, a method Cuffaro avidly supports.

"I'm head over heels that we need to start from the beginning," she says, "because that's where we need to close the gap."

Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.