News Column

Santa Fe Educators Take Common Core Workshop

Jan 29, 2013

Robert Nott

New Mexico is among states that have adopted a single set of standards -- developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and experts around the country -- designed to emphasize critical thinking skills and ensure students leave high school with the necessary skills for college and/or a career.

The initial emphasis is on English language arts and math, though the benchmarks will affect all disciplines, including history, science and visual and performing arts.

All but five states have adopted the standards. Kentucky was the first to incorporate them in the classroom in 2010. New Mexico, which began implementing them in grades K-3 this year, will continue to phase them in through 2015.

About 20 Santa Fe public school teachers of grades seven to 12 took part in a recent workshop to review the Common Core State Standards, an initiative of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Sheryl White, a K-12 educational consultant for the state, ran the workshop. She is part of New Mexico's Educator Leader Cadre, a group of K-16 (meaning through the college years) educators who are working to help adopt the standards in the state.

Late last year news reports -- including one from Education Week -- indicated that 2011-12 test results from Kentucky revealed that reading and math proficiency scores dropped after the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. However, the reports also noted that the percentage of students deemed ready for college and the workforce rose by about 10 percent within that one year.

White said the transition is going to be bumpy in all states adopting the standards. "We are seeing and hearing a lot about initial growing pains," she said. "A lot of teachers tell me they love the structure [of the standards] but they have a deep concern about how to get their students up to the level required."

For students entering their final year of high school, or for teachers nearing retirement, the experience might be particularly frustrating, White acknowledged. She said she has come across veteran teachers who, upon being asked how they plan to adapt to the standards, reply, "retirement."

But she said in her work around the state, Santa Fe is actually "prepping better than a lot of other districts" when it comes to teacher training. The district hosted a two-week introductory session for about 120 education leaders who will help mentor their colleagues as they apply them.

During Friday's session, many of the educators present expressed enthusiasm -- or at least acceptance -- of the standards. But many have questions. After receiving a brief overview of texts that seventh-grade students are expected to master -- Ovid's Metamorphoses, for instance -- one English teacher said, "This seems too much for them to learn. I need two hours for ELA [English language arts] ... to get deep."

Upon seeing a chart on high school reading standards, another teacher asked whether current textbooks have been dumbed down -- perhaps explaining the gap in what students now learn and will need to learn under the new standards. White basically said yes, and was backed in her theory by Trina Raper, literacy coordinator for the district, who said, "Textbook publishers react to the customers. When they hear their books are difficult to understand, the answer is not to help students learn to read challenging works but to make the book simpler to read."

Under the Common Core Standards, for example, a sixth-grade language-arts student is expected to study in detail the main character of a work of fiction or a piece of nonfiction writing (Amelia Earhart was referenced in Friday's workshop) and then, by seventh grade, explain how and why that character acts the way he/she does, and how those actions impact others within the text.

Common Core, as has been pointed out, will require students to read more informational, nonfiction pieces in all classes. At the seventh-grade level, it will be about a 50/50 ratio between literary and informational works before ultimately reaching a 70/30 ratio in favor of informational texts by the 12th grade. Raper noted that today's teens need to comprehend informational writing to prepare for the real world: "You can't fix a car without reading a computer manual," she said.

White touted another positive -- the fact that all but four states will be working with the same curriculum. Thus, a 10th-grade student transferring from New Mexico to, say, Arizona, will be right at home.

Yet more details and more training need to be made available to incorporate E 20-20 (computer) training as well as the needs of both special education and English as a second language (ESL) students, some teachers said Friday. The district hopes to host another five-day workshop at the start of summer to work on some of these issues.

The participating teachers also want more administrative support and training for teachers who deal with subjects other than English language arts and math.

School-board member Glenn Wikle, who acknowledged he does not know a lot about Common Core, said in comparing sixth- and seventh-grade math Common Core Standards against existing state math standards, "it seemed to me that students will be required to learn more math at a younger age: It's another raising of the bar and heaping more requirements on students to graduate. I just don't know if it is good or bad in the long run. ...

"Teachers are working hard to adapt to the new standards along with all the other reform-based initiatives they are subjected to. I think during the transition years, standardized test scores will be even less reliable."

According to Larry Behrens, spokesman for the state's Public Education Department, the PED will ask the legislature for $7.2 million to implement Common Core, with $2 million of that amount earmarked for professional development for teachers.

Source: (c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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