New year, new curriculum
by Kellen Moore
A new school year starts today in Watauga County Schools, and young students may not be the only ones with a slight case of nerves.
Across North Carolina, school districts will begin this fall teaching a new curriculum, called the Common Core and Essential Standards.
Watauga County teachers have been vigorously preparing for the transition, but administrators say they will have to keep a learner’s attitude as they open their lesson plans starting this week.
“It’s going to be a growing year for all of us with these new standards,” said Meredith Jones, K-8 curriculum director for Watauga County Schools.
The new North Carolina curriculum was adopted in 2010 after multiple rounds of feedback from teachers, students and the public. It sets specific objectives that students must master in each grade level or course.
The curriculum is essentially two parts. The Common Core, which pertains to math and language arts instruction, was developed nationally and has been adopted in 45 states. States that use the Common Core must follow it exactly but can add up to 15 percent of local content on top of the core.
The Essential Standards were developed at the state level and cover science, social studies, arts, career and technical education, second languages and other subjects besides math and language.
One criticism of the previous curriculum was that it was too broad but lacked depth. The Common Core and Essential Standards work to remedy that complaint by reducing the scope of what students learn while going more in-depth on key subjects.
The Common Core also should make it easier for students who move to a new state to stay on track and for school systems to save money by using textbooks and other materials produced en masse for nationwide use.
Teachers will still be able to choose their own examples, books and methods to help students understand each topic laid out in the curriculum.
“I think one of the best ways I’ve heard it explained is, we tell you the ‘what to teach’ but not the ‘how to teach it,’” Jones said.
While much of the work to move to the new standards will go on behind the scenes, Jones said parents and students may notice some changes.
“They should be seeing a lot of research. They should be seeing reading in every subject area, because there are new standards for literacy, particularly in grades six through 12,” Jones said. “… We’ve frankly never had actual written-down standards that show that every teacher should be a reading teacher, and we do for the first time.”
Other changes include greater integration of different strands of mathematics at the upper levels and numerous other adaptations, she said.
While the changes are broad, Watauga County teachers have been anticipating them for more than a year.
Five work days during the 2011-12 school year were set aside for teachers to dive into the new curriculum, Jones said.
The teachers have completed online learning modules from the Department of Public Instruction and had face-to-face training in small groups with Jones.
For two days in March, every teacher and teaching assistant in the system gathered at Watauga High School for an intensive session on the changes.
The school system also sent 15 teachers and three other staff to DPI’s summer institute in July, where they received additional training straight from the state on how to implement the standards.
“Many of them have gotten together in groups on their own, even without me calling them together,” Jones said.
She said that level of ownership among the teachers has created a relatively positive outlook on the new curriculum.
“There are some nervous people, but only because they want to do the very best they can for the students,” she said.
Kelley Wilson, a reading specialist at Cove Creek Elementary, was one who attended the DPI summer institute. She said she has been impressed with the collaboration happening locally.
“We’re a little unsure of how this is going to take place, but everyone knows that they’re going to be successful in it,” she said.
Instant success would be ideal, as standardized testing will not pause despite the curriculum change.
In the past, a curriculum change in a subject area often would mean that no standardized test was conducted the first year, followed by a field test the second year and a true test the third year.
That is not the case this year, Jones said. Unless plans change, students will continue to have End-of-Grade tests in math and reading for grades 3-8 and in science in grades five and eight.
High school students can expect tests in math I (formerly algebra I), English II and biology.
Despite the preparation, Jones acknowledged that the teachers will continue to adapt to the new curriculum as the year continues.
Superintendent David Kafitz said he’s excited to see more project-based learning, “where the teacher steps out of the role of the sole giver of knowledge into the role of facilitator, coach, mentor.”
“It’s a different paradigm in the classroom than a lot of times how our teachers have been trained to teach,” he said. “We’ve got to help our teachers successfully make that change.”