March 20, 2012
As three of the region’s education policy heavyweights said last week that they were rolling out new curriculum standards with “incredible urgency,” educators asked them to slow things down.
The conversation took place Friday at WNET’s annual Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference, where State Education Commissioner John King, New Jersey schools chief Christopher Cerf, and city Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky spoke on a panel discussion about new Common Core curriculum standards. GothamSchools editor Elizabeth Green moderated the panel.
Both New York and New Jersey are in the process of rolling out the new standards, which emphasize analytical skills, non-fiction literature, and mathematical word-problems. Every city school devoted a training day before the school year started to the standards, and all teachers are supposed to teach one unit this spring aligned to them.
But educators who attended the panel — some of whom cut out of school early to be there — said the Core’s introduction this year had become a point of anxiety as teachers are juggling multiple sets of expectations. They said the new standards were increasing pressure on them to revise their teaching methods at a time when they are already gearing up for performance evaluations tied to their students’ test scores for the first time.
Noah Heller, a high school math teacher, said he struggled to decide how to adjust to the new standards when the state is years from tying high school Regents exam scores to the Common Core.
“When we talk about teacher evaluations being tied more and more to high stakes testing, it seems not a tad bit problematic that we don’t know about the tests,” Heller said.
The state is scheduled to roll out Common Core-aligned tests in grades 3 through 8 next year. Regents exams are supposed to start reflecting the Common Core’s focus on real-world situations, problem-solving, and informational texts in the 2013-2014 school year. The state is also weighing whether to adopt brand-new, Common Core-aligned tests for the 2014-2015 school year that are being developed by a consortium of states that have adopted the new standards. If the state adopts those tests, students in grades 3 through 11 could face reading and math assessments as many as nine times a year.
Acknowledging the teachers’ concerns, King stressed that standards and assessments “must change together,” and said he wished the state tests could change faster.
“It’s true Regents exams are not as rigorous as we want,” King said. “We’re trying to make those exam changes quickly.”
A teacher who introduced himself as Mitch compared King’s approach to “putting down the train tracks while the train is going through.”
“What you guys are doing is a little comical,” he said, eliciting applause from the audience. “How do we not pilot this system for two or three years before we put in place? We can’t do it all at once. We have to pilot it, and then really make it successful.”
Other teachers who attended the panel said they still had little sense of how the standards would affect instruction in science and social studies classes or where to find materials to help them incorporate the standards into their classrooms. One said that the sample lessons provided by the city were only of limited use because they are not tailored to every grade level 0r subject area.
In response, King noted that as a city teacher, he once had a physical and mental “file cabinet” full of lessons he and his colleagues had prepared in years past. But teachers have few such resources to draw from now because of the newness of the curriculum.
“We at the department need to develop more materials,” King said.
Until the state develops more assessment and instructional materials, Polakow-Suransky said the city is discouraging educators from buying books and lessons that claim to be Common Core-aligned. Instead, he points them toward the Common Core Library, an online trove of teaching materials hosted by the city. He said the city is also encouraging teachers to get creative, and write their own lessons inspired by the Common Core guidelines the city has provided. And the city hired 100 teachers to serve as Common Core Fellows, guiding instructional changes inside their school buildings.
Polakow-Suransky said the city is trying to be cautious by introducing the new standards to schools relatively slowly to make up for shortfalls. This year, teachers were asked to align just one unit per class to the new standards, which city and state officials said would privilege critical thinking over rote learning. He said some of those changes are already visible.
Thanks to the emphasis on analytical essay-writing and non-fiction reading, he said, ”We’re seeing kids writing much more, and being asked to defend their ideas.”