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Columbia Missourian

New Common Core standards stress deeper learning, practical skills

By Shaina Cavazos
December 11, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Columbia Public Schools are transitioning to Common Core State Standards, which focuses on teaching students skill-based curriculum.

Editor's note: The second in a series of three stories on Columbia Public Schools' new academic standards, this installment deals with how the new academic standards are affecting teachers and students in the classroom and how classroom learning formats could change as the standards are implemented.

COLUMBIA — Maria Kalaitzandonakes remembers when she made the decision to start taking classes that reminded her why she loved learning.


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It was finals week during her junior year at Rock Bridge High School, and she said it was not uncommon to walk into the nurse's office and see students crying from the stress of looming deadlines and exams.

After taking her honors world history final, Kalaitzandonakes, 18, knew she still had five exams to take before the week was through. She especially didn't feel prepared for her math final.

She remembers being so overwhelmed that she couldn't stop shaking, so a teacher told her to go to the nurse. When Kalaitzandonakes got there, there were not even enough beds to accommodate all the students who she said were "freaking out."

"I learned my lesson after that," she said. "I take school seriously, ... but I really learned that, first of all, you need to give yourself some space, and you also have to learn how to be a human being and not just a student."

Expectations and emphasis on higher-level thinking and practical skills in Advanced Placement and honors classes are high, and they're becoming the new norm for all class levels as schools begin to implement the Common Core State Standards.

The new standards replace an old system in which each state developed its own standards and measures of accountability, said Sally Beth Lyon, chief academic officer for Columbia Public Schools. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them.

"Common Core is simply saying we'll all agree to the same common set of frameworks," Superintendent Chris Belcher said. "So now, instead of having (45) states with their own standards and frameworks, we all have one we're buying into, but the issue is what the big change is — the Common Core State Standards aren't hung up on content as much as process."

Jolene Yoakum, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said having common standards eliminates the guesswork that comes from educators and students moving around to different states with different assessment schedules and levels of rigor. It also helps students have a better chance at being competitive outside of and across the U.S.

There's also an efficiency element, she said. In a society increasingly expected "to do more with less," it makes sense to bring the experts together and agree on one set of standards and tests.

"Rather than spending our time developing (individual state standards), we can spend our time actually doing something with the information," Yoakum said. "We can spend the resources that we have focusing on how we can improve and get kids up to that standard."

Mixing old and new

Rock Bridge and Hickman high school teachers said their schools already have a largely skills-based approach to learning. Some of their goals surpass what Common Core expects, Rock Bridge social studies teacher David Graham said.

But at the district level, it's a step forward.

"The fact of the matter is that the world that these students are going into is completely and totally different than the world that industrial America went into," Graham said. "We're no longer an industrial system, but our school is built on an industrial model."

In Graham’s Advanced Placement world history class, co-taught with English teacher Katherine Sasser, the students' assignments and class work involve a balance of creativity and structure, skills-based learning and traditional lectures.

Sasser said that in this first year of testing the standards, she and Graham are looking for overlap in the skills they've already identified as necessary and what Common Core is asking them to include.

"We have conversations about Common Core all the time, mostly about how we don't want the work that's been done at Rock Bridge in our department to be forgotten for this wave of testing and standards that is being brought down to us," Sasser said.

Fitting in all the content has always been a challenge, Graham said. The real importance lies in teaching students to collaborate, show initiative, adapt and be agile when finding information, which he feels he and Sasser already emphasize in their teaching.

For a lesson on learning metaphors and identifying the big picture of the conflict in the African epic tale "Sundiata," Graham and Sasser had their Advanced Placement world history students stage a rap battle. Each rap had to include examples of metaphors as well as keep the essence of the fight between Sundiata and his enemy, the sorcerer king of Mali.

The raps showed a mixture of students' bravado and nerves. Some students donned baseball caps and poker faces before they rapped, while others got up in front of the class and performed solo, surprising even the teachers with their rapid-fire speech and rhyming skills.

One group of girls was so proud of their "Lion King" dubstep creation that they asked to perform it a second time.

"Look up danger, I'm the definition," one girl rapped. "I'm Mali’s king, a brand new addition."

"New is just wack, old school's where it's at," another fired back. "I'm gonna take the kingdom by attack."

The atmosphere in the room was casual, with students laughing as their peers rapped and beat-boxed. But each rap demonstrated an understanding of the text.

Dealing with increased rigor

Activities that highlight a process rather than memorizing a discrete bit of information go a long way toward promoting student understanding, Belcher said. The reason multiple choice tests aren't a good measure of learning is because they don't test much more than memorization skills.

"Just because I can tell you what the verb and the adjective are and those kinds of things doesn't mean I read better or understand more, but we make assumptions that they do," Belcher said.

Part of the increased rigor of Common Core comes from the emphasis on skills that are already a part of Advanced Placement curriculum — for instance, close reading, writing from evidence and mathematical reasoning. This makes sense because Advanced Placement courses are based on college-level expectations, which were taken into consideration when Common Core was developed.

But with increased rigor, Yoakum said, there also needs to be more support for students who are coming into this curriculum in high school for the first time.

In September, the School Board approved a partnership with a nonprofit organization called Equal Opportunity Schools to help analyze data to identify students who should be recruited to take Advanced Placement classes, Yoakum said.

The organization also will help with professional development for teachers about how to make sure those students feel supported and have resources for dealing with more difficult work.

One way to help students deal with higher academic demands is to make sure teachers continue to be educated on new methods of instructing practical skills and also to emphasize tutoring resources already in place. At Rock Bridge, students have one period of unstructured free time each day to use for tutoring, studying or other activities, Graham said.

Higher academic demands also mean an increased need for remediation efforts, Hickman biology teacher Dan Miller said.

There isn't necessarily time for every classroom teacher to repeat a lesson some students didn't understand, he said, but one option could be for classes to split up among biology teachers. For example, one teacher might take the students who are behind and reteach, while the other teachers use the time for an enrichment activity.

"Yes, it takes more time, but you can't really go on or those kids are behind," Miller said. "There's the question that if it's really rigorous, why are you slowing down? It's a double-edged sword."

Challenges that pay off

This year, as part of her schooling at Rock Bridge, Tasha Brooks is studying at the Columbia Area Career Center to be a certified nursing assistant. Students in the district can take classes at the career center for credit in addition to their high school courses. Although she's a little scared, she knows she has a real chance to succeed and eventually become an occupational therapist.

But Brooks has had her share of struggles. She moved to Columbia at the beginning of her junior year from North Callaway R-1 School District and had to adjust to a bigger town and a bigger school while recovering from ankle surgery.

"My little school would've never allowed me to take none of these classes," Brooks, 18, said. "I have so much opportunity now, and I'm kind of thankful I moved up here even though I miss all my friends back home."

Every morning, Brooks spends three hours at the career center taking class to prepare for the state Certified Nursing Assistant exam. She has to dress in scrubs or else she can't do her clinical hours, which are essential for being eligible to sit for the exam. She can recite the qualifications for the test from memory, ticking off each one on her fingers as she goes.

Trying to meet the already rigorous standards that Rock Bridge employs has been a challenge for Brooks, especially when it comes to her algebra II class. But she likes the challenge. She uses time from her daily free period to get tutoring in Rock Bridge's resource center, where she feels a bond with some of the teachers. She said she's not going to forget all the work it has taken for her to get where she is.

Brooks said that if it takes every breath in her mother's body, her mother will make sure she graduates from high school this year.

"That’s what all my teachers told me — if it takes every breath in their body, I’m going to graduate," Brooks said. "If it takes every breath in my own body, I’m going to graduate this year."

Moving beyond just facts

Kalaitzandonakes said she prefers to take courses that combine skills from across disciplines.

She thinks the classes she's chosen to take in high school, especially those at the career center, help her apply her skills to real life and not just force her to memorize facts that will be regurgitated on an Advanced Placement exam.

"We need to know how to learn," Kalaitzandonakes said. "They need to teach us how to learn rather than teaching us facts."

For Rock Bridge biology teacher Kerri Graham, taking the focus off the content frees her up to make her classes more significant for her students.

"It really changes what you are doing in the classroom," said Kerri Graham, who is married to social studies teacher David Graham. "I no longer have to drill silly little facts that will leave heads when they leave the classroom. It's so exciting because it lets us do stuff that's meaningful beyond class."

Kerri Graham hopes that going forward, she'll have more freedom to have her students do research projects where they have the latitude to learn about subjects that interest them. She wants to help them find something to be passionate about so they can build up more intrinsic motivation about learning.

Because Kerri Graham teaches science, she is not directly beholden to the Common Core standards. But she tries to incorporate Common Core objectives in her classes to support her colleagues trying to teach them in other content areas.

Graham will eventually follow the Next Generation Science Standards, developed by science professionals and an organization called Achieve.. States will be able to adopt the science standards in 2013. .

District science coordinator Mike Szydlowski said that in a typical biology class, a teacher has 180 topics to teach in 176 days. The new science standards were written with this in mind, so many topics were cut out so teachers could let their students go deeper in the subject matter and take on more real-world situations in their learning.

For example, he said, in the past a chemistry test might ask a student to recall the equation for density and calculate density given a few values. But Szydlowski stressed that this doesn't really get at the heart of what density means.

Looking forward, questions might ask students to explain how a metal ship can float. This requires a student to not only know what density is but also how it affects different types of materials.

Adjusting teaching styles

Miller, the Hickman biology teacher, said he thinks that teachers all strive for their classes to be "rigorous and relevant" and that to get there, traditional lecture methods might have to be abandoned as the primary mode of instruction.

"If someone walked into your room, what does a rigorous and relevant high school course look like, feel like, sound like?" Miller said. "I think one thing a classroom would look like is you walk in, the kids are doing something as opposed to the teacher doing something. You can lecture but not all the time."

Sometimes, a lecture can be a quicker way to give students information, Miller said. Language arts and science teachers could have more leeway in how they choose to teach if content in their areas has been cut as new standards were developed.

Lisa Holt, a teacher in Rock Bridge’s math department, said that though the language arts and science standards have the general overtone of taking a more global approach and cutting out content, the math standards went in the opposite direction.

Holt explained that the topics have been "pushed down" — with subjects normally covered in pre-calculus moved down to algebra II, ones from algebra II moved to algebra I, and so on.

This means that an algebra II teacher has to get through all of her normal content and the pre-calculus topics that have been pushed down so that her students are prepared for the more rigorous lessons in pre-calculus the next year.

"I have no logical explanation for it at all," Holt said. "And lots of people are very happy with the way the new standards look and all of that and are excited to be moving in that direction. Generally, math is just kind of petrified by the whole thing."

Going forward realistically

For the new standards to be successful and really address the gaps in literacy in students, teachers must have time to learn and collaborate, Kerri Graham said.

"Generally, we need a lot more than what we've got," Holt said.

Nick Kremer, the district's language arts and social studies curriculum coordinator for grades six through 12, said it's reasonable that teachers feel some level of anxiety or fear that they haven't been teaching this way before.

A gap will continue to exist until this year's kindergartners make it to high school and the effects of the new curriculum can be seen better, he said.

"It will take awhile to really get it, so certainly there will be growing pains and challenges to work through," Kremer said. "But it will get easier each year as kids are exposed to it."

Kalaitzandonakes said that when it comes down to it, she thinks it's good that the new standards don't require rote memorization because in a world where anything can be found on the Internet, it's more important to think.

"I have always felt like (memorizing facts) was kind of a waste of time because I have a bad memory," she said. "I'm not good at it, but also because I don't feel like that's what defines smart."

David Graham said his students are definitely capable of more difficult work, but it's a problem if standards are expected to be successful in a vacuum without further help for teachers or students.

"I think that there are some tremendously intelligent educators out there," David Graham said. "I think that the potential right now and the possibility of education is exciting, but I fear that we’re going to not go as far as the kids need us to go. Because at the end of the day, it's about them and about preparing them."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.