LI schools start using Common Core plan
Think of it as America's first national lesson plan -- coming soon to a public school near you.
Lessons based on the nation's new Common Core standards are being taught in Long Island's classrooms on a trial basis, and in ways rarely attempted before.
Math classes, for instance, are focusing more on concrete modeling and problem-solving of the sort recommended in Common Core guidelines. Example: estimating how much water and food would be needed for emergency relief of a devastated city of 3 million people, and how those supplies would be distributed.
English classes are tackling more works of nonfiction from Common Core's recommended lists, which include the philosophical writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, along with speeches by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.
At Ward Melville High School in Setauket, an 11th-grade English class recently spent five days studying Lincoln's Gettysburg Address -- a speech just three paragraphs long. Teacher Jessica DiIorio's goal was to analyze the landmark speech for both content and literary style, calling her students' attention to repetition of certain key words and the subtle transformation of a cemetery dedication into the dedication of a nation to the ideal of human equality.
"I doubt my English teachers would have done this in the past," said Brian McAuliffe, a department chairman at Ward Melville High, which is part of the Three Village district. "Common Core is making us do this."
While some academic experts question whether Common Core guidelines meet international standards, the emphasis on analytical thinking and high-quality texts is getting an enthusiastic reception from many local teachers and supervisors.
45 states opt to participate
The new academic standards -- scheduled to be phased into classrooms statewide over the next three years -- are a creation of the National Governors Association, working together with the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education commissioners.
New York is one of 45 states that have agreed to adopt the standards, which cover English and math from kindergarten through 12th grade. Recommended English readings include works that also can be used in history, science and technical courses.
It's the closest the United States has ever come to agreement on a uniform national school curriculum, though the project's organizers refer to their guidelines as state standards. Until now, setting such standards was mostly a responsibility of individual states. National standards are common in developed countries in Europe and Asia.
The push for Common Core reflects fears among America's business leaders and others that students -- including many in well-regarded suburban schools -- have fallen behind their counterparts overseas. Funding for establishing Core standards has come from private foundations, including one financed by software billionaire Bill Gates.
The effort is getting a powerful, though indirect, boost from President Barack Obama's administration, which is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in related projects, including the development of new, multistate tests meant to measure students' grasp of Core standards. Other presidents, Republican and Democratic, have endorsed the idea of setting national academic goals, starting with President George H.W. Bush, who convened an Education Summit with the nation's governors in 1989.
New York State has committed more than $26 million in federal aid to getting classes based on the Common Core up and running. A new state Education Department website -- engageNY.org, which allows teachers to view sample lessons online -- is drawing nationwide attention.
Money to develop units
New York, moreover, is funding development of lesson units, or modules, based on Core standards that cover the entire range of English and math studies from prekindergarten through high school. It's the state's first effort since 1998 to produce comprehensive curriculum guides.
"There are a number of sources of direct evidence that tell us we are behind our international competitors," said Ken Slentz, the state's deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education. "So what are we going to do about it? Not only are we setting a new target that will allow us to compete with international competitors, but we're also setting a timeline for getting there."
Still, some of the country's top academic experts involved in the Common Core project doubt that the new standards go far enough in transforming U.S. schools into worldbeaters. When the Core was drafted in 2010, five of 29 academicians sitting on a committee responsible for validating the standards refused to sign off on the project.
Some noted, for example, that reading lists accompanying the English standards were mostly only recommendations, with no guarantees that students actually would read the listed books. Common Core includes only four required texts: the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln's second inaugural address.
"Teachers choose what they like, they choose what they think the kids will like, and you wind up with an incoherent curriculum," said one dissenting committee member, Sandra Stotsky, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Moreover, skeptical experts say, the Core math standards list Algebra I as a high school subject, rather than a course that students must complete in eighth grade, as required in some other countries. Critics note that students who wait until ninth grade to take Algebra I are less likely than their more advanced classmates to complete courses in pre-calculus or calculus that are prerequisites for many college programs.
"When you compare the Core standards to international standards, and the international standards are at least a year-and-a-half ahead by eighth grade, I could only respond in the negative," said R. James Milgram, another committee member who refused to sign off on the project. Milgram is a math expert and professor emeritus at Stanford University in California.
How will books be paid for?
On Long Island, many educators wonder where school districts will find the extra money to buy Common Core textbooks that are being rushed out by publishers eager to capture an expanding national market. New textbooks are just one of the budget expenses, along with new commercial tests and teacher training, that local administrators say are being pushed on their districts in the drive for education reform.
Most Island districts will get increases in state financial aid averaging 4.35 percent for the 2012-13 school year, as part of a state budget adopted Friday in Albany. But new statewide caps on property taxes will limit districts' ability to raise revenue locally.
Mike Cohen, an adjunct math professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, quipped that the advent of Core standards provides publishers "an unprecedented opportunity to print mountains of textbooks and piles of cash."
Still, local educators generally like the Common Core's emphasis on studies that are relatively rigorous and more deeply focused than in the recent past.
"I really love that about Common Core," said Wafa Deeb-Westerveld, assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Freeport school district. "When I started teaching 25 years ago, it wasn't so much about testing and rushing through everything. It was more about slowing down and taking time to teach in-depth."