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Written by:  Beth Shugg
Date: August 1, 2012

August 2012

North Carolina public school students — and their parents — have heard it before: A curriculum change is coming. This time, however, the change aligns with one that 44 other states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands are also making.  The internationally benchmarked Common Core State Standards are coming to a public school near you.

Adopting a new, national K-12 math and English language arts curriculum may unnerve students, parents and possibly teachers, but state and local education administrators say it's crucial.

"We live in a mobile society now," says Maria Pitre-Martin, director of curriculum and instruction for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. "Having a more consistent set of common standards provides a level playing field. All of our teachers will now be asked to provide students with the same level of instruction — a more consistent level."

North Carolina adopted the CCSS in June 2010. While most states started integrating some aspects of the standards into classrooms last year, NCDPI used that time to train teachers, align assessments and purchase resources. Now North Carolina is one of only a few states fully implementing all standards in public school classrooms this school year.

Math: More focused and coherent
The CCSS for Mathematics moves away from a curriculum that is "a mile wide and an inch deep" and toward fewer standards that "aim for clarity and specificity," according to the "Common Core State Standards for Mathematics" introduction.

"The current set of math standards we have is every extensive and very thick," Pitre-Martin says. "Now the standards will be developed across grade levels at a higher level of rigor each year, so by the time [students] are ready to exit, they have a better knowledge of the subject."

There will be three main changes in CCSS math:
1.   Narrowed focus — Students will more deeply explore the concepts emphasized in the standards.
2.   More coherence — Students will link major topics throughout the grades.
3.   Redefined rigor — Rigor is defined as conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application.

The eight standards for mathematical practice require that students be taught to:
1.   Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
2.   Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
3.   Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
4.   Model with mathematics.
5.   Use appropriate tools strategically.
6.   Look for and make use of structure.
7.   Attend to precision.
8.   Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

"The rigorous common core math standards focus on process and content. Students will go beyond just memorizing facts and rote steps — they'll have to explain and justify their thinking and apply mathematics to real word scenarios in order to become flexible problem solvers," says Velvet Simington, the program manager for mathematics for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (WS/FC) Schools. "It's a whole new world for mathematics education."

English language arts: integrated and informational
The CCSS for English Language Arts will also be integrated into reading history/social studies, science and technical subjects starting at grade 6. For students in grades K-5, these subjects will be integrated into reading lessons. The standards are "intended to be a living work," so as new and better evidence emerges, the standards will be revised accordingly, the "Common Core Standards for English Language Arts" introduction states.

The three main changes in the CCSS for English Language Arts are:

1.   Grounding reading and writing in evidence — Students will be required to support what they're writing about and will answer more text-dependent questions.
2.   More regular practice with complex text and vocabulary — Teachers will collaborate on lesson plans to make this happen.
3.   Building knowledge through nonfiction and informational text — Students will continue reading fiction and novels, but there will be an increased emphasis on reading nonfiction and informational text.

Students who meet the CCSS for English Language Arts will:
1.   Demonstrate independence.
2.   Build strong content knowledge.
3.   Respond to varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline.
4.   Comprehend as well as critique.
5.   Value evidence.
6.   Use technology and digital media strategically and capably.
7.   Come to understand other perspectives and cultures.

Educators believe students who meet these standards will be college-ready and employable nationwide.

"The Common Core State Standards are designed to help students across the country meet the rising demands of the 21st-century global marketplace," says Dr. Barbara Zwadyk, chief curriculum and organizational development officer for Guilford County Schools. "The curriculum and experiences in the classroom may look and feel different than in years past, because our students will be learning and achieving at a deeper level, applying 21st-century skills, which ultimately will help them compete with other students nationally and internationally."

Essential changes
Released by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core State Standards increase academic rigor for students in math and language arts. But North Carolina educators also wanted to strengthen the curriculum for other subjects as well, so North Carolina educators developed the North Carolina Essential Standards, which focus on science, social studies, information and technology skills, career and technical education, the arts, healthful living, and world languages.

"For the past year, our teachers and staff have been expanding their knowledge and skills through frequent trainings and professional development so that they will be prepared to instruct students in the new curriculum this fall," says Zwadyk. "We also have teams of educators working together this summer to write both unit plans and lesson plans that focus on building connections between classroom knowledge and real-world applications, which is what Common Core is all about. In turn, our students will graduate truly college and career ready, and, in so doing, will widen the scope of opportunities available to them."

Tests, training and benchmarks
To prepare teachers for the new standards, NCDPI developed Race to the Top Professional Development Teams of 18-20 individuals who specialize in all content areas. These teams attended six cumulative two-day summer institutes and regionally based training in the fall and spring, as well as specific subject-based sessions. The purpose, Pitre-Martin says, was to place content experts in each district who would, in turn, train teachers there.

Pitre-Martin says NCDPI began implementing the N.C. Teacher Evaluation Instrument and Process two years ago to track teachers' performance and is in the process of developing "measures of student learning" or MSLs, that will provide teachers and administrators with data about how students are learning.

"As we phase MSLs in and use growth data, we'll look at student data over time," Pitre-Martin says. "One year's worth of data isn't sufficient to track teachers' progress."

How will end-of-grade and end-of-course tests change as a result of adopting the CCSS? Pitre-Martin says North Carolina public schools will test students with modified EOGs and EOCs that align with the new standards until 2014-15, when the state will adopt final versions of the tests that a consortium of several states, including North Carolina, are collaborating on. This group, called the Smarter Balanced Assessments Consortium, aims to develop valid, reliable and fair next-generation assessments aligned to the CCSS that all participating states can use consistently.

"The standards are going to force students to be use higher-level thinking. Instead of just knowing what happened, students will have to explain why it happened and how it may apply to other fields," says Bud Harrelson, the program manager for school improvement for WS/FC Schools. "It will make them much better thinkers."

Beth Shugg is a mom of three and associate editor of Carolina Parent magazine.

1.   Common Core State Standards:
2.   NCDPI CCSS and North Carolina Essential Standards wiki page:
3.   State testing calendar:
4.   Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium:


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