July 20, 2013

Back-to-school means facing tougher academic standards this fall

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Students and parents, take note: New, tougher academic standards for kindergartners through 12th-graders are kicking in this fall.

Instead of memorizing the times table or a mathematical formula, students must acquire deep understanding of how numbers work. Instead of a vocabulary test, they must explain what motivated an author to write a book a certain way.

Under the new Common Core standards adopted by Maine and 44 other states, students will need to understand material more deeply and work out problems on their own. It is aimed at ensuring high school graduates are ready for college or a job and can compete in a global market.

It also won't be easy. The new standards require a fundamental change in teaching methods, and when testing starts in 2015, the state will see an inevitable drop in student test scores, according to experts.

"It could be as high as 40 percent in some grades and some content areas," said David Galin, the chief academic officer in the Portland School District. "It's going to be shocking for some people."

The cost could be shocking, too. One national study said it will cost states $80 per student and $560 per teacher to make the switch.

Supporters say the new standards, which have garnered criticism from politicians and educators as well as support, are worth it if students end up with a more robust education.

"It's pulling the Band-Aid off, but you have to do it if you care about the kids," said Patrick Murphy, a University of San Francisco professor who has studied the cost and effect of the shift to Common Core.

At its most basic level, the standards are meant to enhance critical thinking and problem-solving. They were written and reviewed by dozens of people, including mathematics and English experts, university professors, state education representatives, teachers, school administrators and parents. The developers also looked at standards in high-performing U.S. states and foreign countries.

Each state now has its own standard, making it impossible to compare test scores directly by grade and subject matter. The patchwork approach also can create practical problems for families: If a student moves, there is no guarantee a seventh-grade mathematics course in one state prepares her for eighth-grade mathematics in another state.

For educators, the new standards mean students should be ready for college or a job after graduating from high school. College readiness is a significant issue. Maine's community colleges have reported that 50 percent of last year's freshmen from Maine high schools needed remedial courses.

"What we're finding in education is that teachers can become enablers for a student to seemingly master an area, but when they go to transfer the same concept, they can't do it," Lewiston Schools Superintendent Bill Webster said. "Common Core is part of the trend of students taking more ownership of their education and teachers becoming more facilitators and lecturers. Students will be in situations where they need to be figuring out things more on their own."

If a teacher steps in too fast to help a struggling student, it's not helping the student in the long run, said Jennifer Kelly, one of five Portland teachers who are on a special two-year assignment to train other teachers in the district on Common Core.

"As teachers, we have coddled kids too much because we want everyone to succeed; but we need to allow them the time to struggle a bit," Kelly said. "We need to push kids to dig deeper."

The new mathematics and English standards, released in 2010, were developed jointly by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, to end inconsistent standards from state to state. Within months, most states had adopted them.

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