, Newburyport, MA

October 10, 2013

Officials probe progress with state standards

By Greg Phipps

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Assistant Superintendent Angela Bik and Nock Middle School faculty members Emily Russin and Liz Kinzly addressed the School Committee’s questions and concerns Monday about the Common Core state standards, and the ways in which they will be — and are being — implemented.

The federally supported Common Core was adopted in the state three years ago.

The stated mission of Common Core is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.”

Advocates of Common Core say they are designed to be relevant to the real world and are meant to reflect the knowledge and skills needed for future success.

Bik told committee members that fully integrating into this new system will be a gradual transition and not an overnight undertaking.

“It will be a multi-year process, but the ultimate goal is to higher our expectations and build stronger learning and thinking in our students.” she said. “The objective is to have students reach their highest potential.”

She provided examples of grade-level standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, science and technical subjects, as well as grade-level standards for mathematics.

Under CCSS, by fourth grade ability-level students should be able to “explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historic, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why based on specific information in the text.” By seventh grade, students are expected to be able to “analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text.”

Sixth-graders should know learning ratios and proportional relationships by creating ratio tables and corresponding graphs, which will prepare them for algebra and geometry.

Committee vice chairman Cheryl Sweeney said the new standards posed a major adjustment for teachers who now have added responsibilities — especially with the increased focus on literacy.

“It’s a big leap for science teachers to have to focus on teaching reading,” she said. “I’m wondering about the area of writing, too, and how (non-language arts) teachers are being trained to handle these areas.”

Committee member Steven Cole said that, overall, he has no problem with the Common Core curriculum and realizes it’s here to stay. He said he liked its emphasis on collaboration, but voiced concern about its potential negative effect on faculty morale.

“It’s important to do what’s necessary to make sure these policy changes do not cause the passion for teaching to subside in any teacher,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that as a result.”

Committee member Daniel Koen brought up the potential for the standards to create an increase in the number of students at risk academically.

“Is there a projected downside we need to consider here?” he asked. “There are a number of kids who are struggling and don’t like school now. By implementing these higher expectations, could we be making that situation worse?”

Russin, the literacy coordinator, responded by saying “the goal’s not to push students forward but to make learning and education more accessible for them.” She added that the district is examining and improving tiered intervention support for at-risk students so that each student is able to access the curriculum.

Kinzly, who works as a Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) coordinator, also argued that there was less of a risk to lose students because they prefer the types of learning methods promoted in the CCSS as opposed to more traditional, drill-like practices.

“The kids really hate the drills, but they like the collaborative methods of learning and different strategies to problem solving this (curriculum) provides,” she said.

Committee member Bruce Menin reinforced the CCSS objectives by citing his own experience as a Montessori teacher.

“The Common Core (standards) are not necessarily re-inventing the wheel,” he said. “It’s very familiar to the curriculum we used at the Montessori School. It’s amazing the remarkable manipulatives kids are able to use to become advanced in math, for example. As these kids advance, they’re able to apply, just by instinct, something they learned in first grade to solve a third-grade problem.”

Committee member Nick deKanter also expressed full support for the new standards.

“It makes learning relevant for these kids,” he said. “The way we think and operate today is truly different. It gives us what we need educationally to provide for our kids.”