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Schools in York County have joined others across the nation preparing for whats expected to be the most significant shift in American education since 2001, when the No Child Left Behind law ushered in an era of accountability and high stakes testing.
Forty-five states and three U.S. territories are adopting new learning requirements, which are expected to redefine the classroom experience for most of the nations school children.
Coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core standards are uniform guides for English language arts and math detailing what students should know and be tested on.
Theyre intended to strengthen, simplify and standardize the hodgepodge of requirements among states. The goal is to produce high school graduating classes of critical thinkers who are ready for college and careers.
Parents and students can expect:
• More nonfiction reading
• Less rote memorization
• Emphasis on analysis and problem-solving
• Tougher work at younger ages, but more time to focus on lessons.
Proponents say the Common Core carries fewer standards, but more depth and rigor.
The change means that for the first time, most states will be able to compare their students scores on annual standardized tests. Students moving out of state should get a similar learning experience no matter where in the country they go.
This is going to be as close to a national curriculum as we have had, said Mildred Rowland, York schools director of curriculum and instruction. It allows that playing field to be much more level than it was.
A childs ZIP code should not determine the level education he or she receives.
South Carolina schools have been training for the changes since 2010, when state education officials signed on to adopt the Common Core. Since then, districts have working toward full implementation in 2014.
Educators welcome the change, characterizing the Common Core as an upgrade from South Carolinas current standards.
Theyre great, said Marty McGinn, Fort Mill schools assistant superintendent for curriculum. Its all about students thinking about what they do. Its definitely a higher level of thinking and more application.
I absolutely endorse the path that Common Core is taking us down, said Marc Swygert, principal at Independence Elementary in Rock Hill. I want our students to understand that theyre competing around the world, state and country. That will absolutely open some eyes.
Teachers in most districts including Rock Hill, York and Fort Mill are using Common Core in kindergarten, first and second grade this school year.
Clover schools are ahead of most.
The district rolled out the Common Core in all elementary school grades, K-5.
With significant changes, particularly in math, Clover school officials thought it was crucial to dive in, assistant superintendent Sheila Huckabee said.
Its a gamble. The early adoption could hurt Clover at the end of the school year when third-, fourth- and fifth-graders take the PASS standardized test thats aligned with the states current standards.
Student scores could dip, Huckabee said, but officials hope Common Cores rigor will prepare students to excel on the exam.
A new standardized test in line with the Common Core will replace PASS in 2014. South Carolina is part of a 25-state team known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium developing that exam.
Dissecting the Core
What is in the Core?
The standards lay out what knowledge and skills students should have in each grade for math and English language arts. They dont specify how those should be taught or what materials teachers should use.
For instance, one of the English standards for reading literature says, With prompting and support, (kindergarteners should be able to) identify characters, settings and major events in a story.
High school juniors and seniors should be able to read an informational text and analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.
In math class, sixth-graders should be able to reason about and solve one-variable equations and inequalities and solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area and volume.
Judy Basie has been teaching the Core to her kindergartner students at Bethany Elementary in Clover.
It boils down to fewer topics and greater depth, she said. Thats what younger children need. I have more time to teach. Ive been very pleased with it.
Carrie Wise, a fourth grade teacher at Bethany, said she likes that the math standards which dont box her in to teaching a single way to solve equations. The point is to show children there are multiple ways.
Wise sees how the new standards push her students academically.
Instead of just looking for the answer, theyre thinking about what theyre doing, she said.
Teachers are learning the Core as well. Some have concerns.
In Fort Mill, several English teachers were worried the emphasis on nonfiction would force them to give up important pieces of literature, McGinn said. They were relieved to learn they could continue teaching the same works while supplementing them with nonfiction, such as a critique of the story.
The biggest challenge is the angst of our teachers, said Christie Reid, Clover schools math supervisor. It is truly a new day. Everybody has a learning curve.
Winthrop University students training to be educators are already learning the Common Core.
The standards are raising the rigor of what is taught and encouraging higher order thinking skills, said Jennie Rakestraw, dean of Winthrops Richard W. Riley College of Education. But its not going to have the impact if teachers dont know how to use them.
Split over standards
The Common Core hasnt been without strife.
When the effort to create national standards was announced in 2009, four states Virginia, Texas, Alaska and Nebraska turned away.
While the federal government wasnt involved in developing the standards, President Obama touted college and career-ready standards and tied the concept to education grant money.
Later, states seeking waivers from portions of the federal No Child Left Behind law were required to adopt either the Common Core or similar standards.
That sparked an uproar among conservatives, who charged the government was all but ramming national standards down states throats.
Last February in South Carolina, state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, introduced a bill to block the Common Core from coming to the Palmetto State.
Gov. Nikki Haley supported him, arguing that the state should set its own education policy.
Just as we should not relinquish control of education to the federal government, neither should we cede it to the consensus of other states, she wrote in a letter to Fair.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan fired back.
The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy, he wrote in a statement. Duncan pointed to Republican leaders who supported the standards, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
They realize states must stop dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools, Duncan said. In fact, South Carolina lowered the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Fairs effort failed after educators from across the state argued in support of the new standards.
Educators expect the new standards to have a ripple effect.
In addition to training, schools are already making changes.
In the last year, Swygert said, we spent a lot of money building our classroom libraries with nonfiction texts.
Fort Mill school officials developed a mobile app to evaluate how well the new standards are applied.
Harriet Jaworowski, Rock Hill schools associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the standards will force states to look hard at deficiencies in early childhood programs, because too many children arrive in kindergarten lacking foundational knowledge. That wont fly under tougher standards.
It raises expectations, Jaworowski said. If we want to reach those expectations, were going to have to put support toward strengthening early childhood education.
The Associated Press contributed