As she wraps up class, fourth-grade teacher Rosalyn Bailey walks by each table, hovers over each child and points at the math assignment.
“What’s two-tenths plus four-tenths?” Bailey asks one of her students, who responds with a wrong answer.
On the other side of the room, nine-year-old Ken is one of the few students who have a better grasp of the material.
“We’re like decomposing the fractions,” he says. “Like breaking it apart.”
Vocabulary like ‘decomposing’ comes from the new Common Core Standards, says Bailey. Students at Hubbard Elementary School in Nash County use words like ‘decompose’ and ‘compose’ to talk about taking apart and putting together fractions.
“With the old standards, we wouldn’t have said ‘composing,’” says Bailey. “We would’ve just said adding two fractions.”
Elevated language in the classroom and on exams is one of the more obvious changes under the new Common Core standards, which are meant to challenge students to think more critically.
Bailey says under the old standards, she used to stop her lesson at addition and subtraction of fractions. She didn’t even touch on the idea of how fractions could be composed and thought of in different ways.
Under the new standards, she places a larger focus on critical thinking over simple memorization, and encourages things like collaborative thinking, speed and accuracy.
Bailey admits, however, that not every student meets those expectations.
“Even the students that are on grade level or where they should be, per se, still struggle with the rigor of the standards.”
Adopted by 45 states, the standards are supposed to set a clear, consistent blueprint for what students should learn from kindergarten through high school. They were first introduced to North Carolina in 2010, but went into effect during the 2012-13 school year.
“What we’re doing with the establishment of these new higher standards is to really raise the bar,” says Denning, state director of K-12 and Postsecondary Alignment Initiatives.
Denning says the old standards were heavy in the amount of things students were expected to know and required a lot more rote memorization. The new standards are fewer, but deeper; they focus on the fundamental areas, explains Denning.
“Previously we’ve thought about standards as being a lot of facts, and things we wanted our students to simply be able to show that they can do,” he says. “The Common Core standards really allow students to demonstrate what it is they know about Math and English and how they can apply them in real world settings.”
Many opponents of Common Core argue that the standards are not appropriate for children at certain grade levels, especially in elementary school. Supporters contend that those critics underestimate students’ potential.
North Carolina, along with many states, has seen a big Common Core backlash, driven by critics who argue that the standards were implemented too quickly, take control away from the state and place too much pressure on teachers.
Denning says he understands some of the concerns, at least about its implementation.
“I think that is not something that we’ll easily understand in the short order,” he says. “I think these kinds of instructional shifts really will demand and require some time.”
Understanding Common Core
A concerned parent and teacher, Karla Reynolds says she puts a lot of time into understanding Common Core.
The fourth-grade English teacher at Hubbard Elementary School shifted much of her instruction last school year to help her students meet the standards. She incorporates more history and science into her students' work, and encourages more nonfiction and informational texts.
"I don't ask for just the main idea anymore," Reynolds says. "I'll ask them to look back at the text, cite their evidence, to explain and make connections."
For example, instead of asking students to memorize simple facts about the sit-ins that took place during the civil rights movement, she now involves role-playing. “I would ask them maybe to put themselves in that person’s position. ‘What would you do?’ ‘How would you feel?’” she says.
Reynolds says the sit-ins assignment is not part of the Common Core standards -- she decided to teach the subject on her own. The standards only provide guidelines for what skills students need to acquire; teachers pick the actual curriculum and assignments. Reynolds says that critical difference is a huge source of confusion for many parents.
“I know a lot of parents are just floundering as to how to help their children because of not understanding or being alarmed by things they’ve heard, or not heard, about Common Core,” she says.
Concerned parents, critics and supporters of Common Core will have a chance to share their thoughts and questions at a legislative meeting in Raleigh today, where lawmakers are holding a public hearing about the standards.
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