Parents study to learn Common Core
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Parents across Long Island are doing their homework to help even the youngest schoolchildren navigate the challenges and complexities of the Common Core.
The learning curve is steep -- and the opposition to the implementation of Common Core academic standards has intensified -- but parents are coming to terms with it by educating themselves on the techniques and terminology of a tougher curriculum that is intended to better prepare children to compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
Hundreds of parents in school districts across Long Island this autumn attended workshops about the standards in English and math being taught to children in kindergarten through second grade, the age group likely to go through their entire primary and secondary school experience with curricula and testing driven by the Common Core.
"I think a lot of frustrations with the parents are . . . people don't like change," said Peter Carter of Lindenhurst, who has sons in kindergarten and third grade. "When I went to school, I didn't have a computer. When my kid was 3 years old, he knew how to log on to look at something. There's advancements, and it's time to advance."
Kim Hardwick, principal at Clayton Huey Elementary School in Center Moriches, has held informal "teas" to discuss the standards with parents.
"Right now, a kindergarten student can talk to you about the dilation of their pupil and . . . my first-graders have a sense of the different systems within the human body," Hardwick said. "That's what Common Core is trying to do, to expose students to nonfiction that will build prior knowledge for future learning."
The standards set English and math learning objectives for each level through the 12th grade, emphasizing analytical reading in fiction and nonfiction, and in-depth mathematical problem-solving.
The Common Core is an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education commissioners. It was released in 2010 and subsequently adopted by New York, 44 other states and the District of Columbia.
New York State a pacesetter
New York outpaced many other states in introducing curricula aligned with the standards. Students in grades 3-8 took more rigorous Core-based state tests last spring, resulting in a steep drop in scores. Education officials had predicted that outcome, but it was still difficult for teachers, parents and students to swallow.
School administrators in Nassau and Suffolk said the workshops have been aimed at combating misinformation and providing resources to parents, some of whom are just as bewildered by the curricula as their children.
"I think parents' perception of the standards is that the state is dictating to us . . . but how we meet those standards is really up to the district," said Jill Gierasch, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Plainview-Old Bethpage schools.
Michael Nagler, superintendent of the Mineola school district, cited changes in math instruction as a point of confusion.
"The language and techniques in the math curriculum are completely different from when we went to school," Nagler said. "If you don't know what the terminology means, you can't help your child with the homework."
Maria Collins, 43, of Amityville, said she attended a recent workshop at Northwest Elementary School to learn the meaning of "number bonds" -- different pairs of numbers that add up to the same sum, usually represented by a picture of three circles connected by two lines.
"Once I get it, he'll get it," said Collins, who wanted to explain the method to her first-grade son.
About 100 parents attended a K-4 Common Core math session at Howard B. Mattlin Middle School in Plainview.
Before the Common Core, "there was only one method to solve a problem, and there was one solution to the problem," said Alison Clark, principal of Plainview's Stratford Road Elementary School. With the new standards, she said, "there are fewer topics, more depth . . . multiple strategies and multiple solutions."
Multiple math methods
One parent lamented that her second-grade daughter had trouble using multiple strategies for simple arithmetic problems. A homework assignment had required students to solve 24 plus 33 by separately adding figures as 10s and single digits, she said.
"It's 20 plus 4 plus 30 plus 3, and then you add the 20 and 30, and 3 and 4, and she has to then explain that for the next four questions on the page and she gets frustrated," the woman said. "She gets the 57, but doesn't understand why it has to be broken down that way."
Recent workshops in Kings Park and Lindenhurst focused on English language arts standards.
Susan Ballarano, a reading teacher at Ralph J. Osgood Intermediate School in Kings Park, gave parents a sample text and described the "close reading" method of reading slowly and rereading. Such skills are necessary to support students' answers to questions with text-based evidence, she said.
In Lindenhurst, during a K-5 literacy workshop at Daniel Street Elementary School, Audrey Gottlieb of The OWL Teacher Center, an organization that provides professional development to teachers, encouraged more than 80 parents to read books at home and allow children to "struggle safely" in their reading efforts.
"There's more expected of the child, which means they'll say, 'Mommy, Daddy, I don't understand this. Could you read this to me?' " Gottlieb said. "You have to be careful of that, because you want to teach them how to be independent."
Gottlieb recommended that parents use Post-it notes for reading books to have their children mark passages or words to return to that they don't understand or to discuss further at home with their children -- particularly those in second grade and higher -- and to ask the child what he or she is thinking after every few pages.
"If you can think about what you're reading, you're starting to make sense of it," she said.
Several districts offered websites to learn more about the standards and find resources for homework assistance.
To parents worried about their children's laboring for lengthy periods over math homework, sometimes leading to tears, educators often advised returning the assignment to the teacher with a note.
"It's critical for the teacher to know, because homework reinforces what is taught during the day," Hardwick said.
The Garden City school district this year started its own YouTube channel, GCMath Mania, in which teachers provide step-by-step video instruction on Common Core math concepts for primary grade levels. Each new lesson is promoted via Twitter and email, Superintendent Robert Feirsen said.
'No role' in development
Michael Mensch, chief operating officer of Western Suffolk BOCES, said an issue in implementing the standards is that districts did not create them.
"They didn't select the information, the content. They played no role in developing the testing instruments," Mensch said. "No one saw what parents and kids were going to be asked to do" until two years after the standards' release in 2010 and adoption by the state.
But Charles Russo, superintendent of the East Moriches school district, said younger students, over time, "are going to be provided a much stronger education than kids are provided today in the older grades. . . . They're going to interpret and decipher information much better."
Mike Messineo, 37, of Lindenhurst, said after attending a workshop that he felt gratified to be able to give support to his son, a kindergartner.
"That's definitely the one thing that's making me feel better in general. We're kind of the guinea pigs of Common Core," said Messineo, referring to primary-school students. "If he's stuck with it, I'm not going to let him fail."