Saturday, June 23, 2018

Florida's new education standards to change teaching, testing


Amanda Iler told her kindergartners to close their eyes.

On a large white paper pad, she drew two grids of 10 squares. In one grid, she filled all 10 squares with green dots; in the other, just five dots.

When they opened their eyes, the children immediately shouted out, "15! There are 15!"

How do you know, their teacher asked.

One boy said he counted the dots. Another got more complex.

"You have 10, and you add 5 more, and you have 15," Anthony said.

"Fantastic. I couldn't have said it better myself," Iler responded, directing a third child to write the equation "10 + 5 = 15" below the grids.

Just two years ago, the educator at Sand Pine Elementary in Pasco County would not have gone that route. Math at this level — using basic addition, discussing the relationship of the tens place and the ones place — had been part of first grade.

But with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, students in Florida, 44 other states and the District of Columbia will be learning some concepts earlier than ever as schools rethink how to prepare children for life after high school. Some concepts have even been dropped because the standards push educators not to waste time on rarely used information.

The state launched Common Core in kindergarten and first grade over the past two years, and other grades are due to join next school year. The schedule calls for full implementation in all grades — and a new test to replace the FCAT — by 2014-15.

"Kindergarten is no longer coloring and counting and letters," Iler explained. "It's about applying what you know about those letters and numbers."

Those lessons then build into the subsequent grades, with the ultimate goal of having students capable of success in jobs or college after senior year.

It's a major change from what observers have seen as disconnected standards — often too many for deep comprehension — that didn't keep U.S. students competitive internationally.

"In my education career, it is one of the few initiatives that began with the concept of college and career readiness as the end in mind, and then mapped out how we got there," said Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, one of the nation's leading Common Core backers.

Getting there, however, is not without its pitfalls and critics.

There are the complaints that the federal government is trying to force a national curriculum on local schools. Beyond that, though, opponents contend that the move to what they consider an untested curriculum is too costly, and that schools and teachers are unprepared to make the switch by the state's self-imposed deadline of 2014.

Florida has spent close to $100 million in implementation already, and the price tag is expected to rise as the state trains teachers and purchases the texts, tests and technology needed to administer the assessments that would replace the FCAT.

Some states, including Indiana and Alabama, have begun walking away from the movement as skepticism rises. Others, including Texas, never joined.

Such concerns have grabbed the attention of Florida lawmakers and school district leaders, who are talking about delaying the full switch to Common Core and its tests until they feel confident the move will work.

Said state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs: "Making sure we do it right is more important than doing it now."

• • •

More than 80 Pasco County school principals and district leaders took copious notes as Tim Shanahan, one of the gurus of Common Core language arts standards, tried to demystify the new system.

Shanahan, director of the University of Illinois-Chicago Center for Literacy, told the gathering that schools have failed to demand enough of students in reading.

Generally speaking, he said, universities and employers expect high school graduates to be reading texts two to three difficulty levels higher than students now leaving the country's best high schools.

"We've been so protective to make sure we don't hurt them that we hurt them," he said.

With the Common Core, Shanahan explained, the entire classroom experience changes.

Students will be required to read more difficult material in all courses, including a wider mix of literature and nonfiction. They will need to locate information, draw inferences, make conclusions, compare and contrast.

When writing, they will have to use the texts to justify answers, and not just give opinions — similar to showing their work in math. No more "did you like it?" or "how did it make you feel?"

Reading and writing tests will change as a result.

Students are likely to struggle, he said, requiring teachers to be prepared to help them — and not just by spoon-feeding answers. That will mean a lot of re-reading, and a willingness to accept that learning comes through making mistakes.

• • •

Iler, the kindergarten teacher, suggested that this notion could be one of the biggest hurdles to the Common Core.

Especially in the youngest grades, she said, teachers already walk a fine line between building confidence and building successful readers and writers. Push the children too hard and they might turn off. Ask them if they understand and, wanting to please, they might say "yes" just to prove they are behaving well.

Then there are parents who may not like seeing grades and test scores drop as expectations rise. Look no further than the 2012 FCAT writing results, which the State Board of Education hurriedly revised after new rules yielded plunging passing marks.

"Parents want them to excel," Iler said. "We have to tell parents it's okay if they make a mistake. That's how they learn. That's really important."

During the past decade under the No Child Left Behind law, teacher-guided instruction became the norm. Lessons became compartmentalized and strictly structured, said Amelia Larson, Pasco assistant superintendent for student achievement. Tests often drove decisions.

The complexity and rigor that the new standards demand simply were not present.

"With the Common Core, I see more project-based learning," Larson said. "Teachers will not be right there to answer everything. They will have to step back and let the kids struggle through the process of learning. This should have been all along."

Some teachers already teach this way, said Pinellas County executive director of core curriculum Pam Moore, a 40-year educator.

Others need time. Sometimes it's hard to teach the "old dogs new tricks," Moore said, particularly when they've seen so many education fads come and go.

But she said there's an excitement to this initiative, which gives teachers the opportunity to focus more in depth on fewer standards, helping students to think and learn. The goal is to get everyone on the same page, even if it takes time, as it did when the state moved to the FCAT-based accountability system.

"The big deal about this is the instructional shift that teachers are going to have to make to get kids ready for this," Moore said. "Teachers need to understand what the standards are, examine what they say and put it into the context of their lessons. … There has never been a harder time to be an educator."

Kindergarten teacher Iler, in her third year teaching in Pasco County, said she already can see her students rising to the new academic challenges.

To keep them moving forward, she said, she must work with other kindergarten teachers, and also the first grade team, to ensure her lessons are on target.

Some changes are simple but important, such as infusing history into calendar lessons. Iler puts president pictures on the days of the week then talks about them on those days. Sometimes teachers need to reassess entire lessons if their intended goal falls flat.

"It's a lot of work," Iler said, as she supervised children practicing different methods of adding and learning about numbers in the teens. "It's not a 9-to-5 job."

She expressed hope that the effort will pay off: "Time will tell as they go through elementary school how well they do."

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