New York is among 45 states to adopt the Common Core standards, which were developed across the United States as an initiative from the National Governors' Association to establish shared standards among states. The state requires that Common Core standards in English Language Arts and mathematics must be aligned with local school curricula in grades K-8 this year and grades 9-12 next year.
The mission of the Common Core is to establish standards that are internationally benchmarked, aligned with work and post-secondary education expectations, and inclusive of the higher order skills that students need.
The Common Core addresses math and English Language Arts specifically, with application across all disciplines. Gaps between the new standards and the existing curriculum in Byram Hills were identified in the summer of 2011 when teachers and administrators developed new units, which were piloted at various grade levels last year.
The district is now rolling out the new curricula. "Our teachers are well prepared for the increased level of rigor, and our students will be the better for it," says Dr. Kaltenecker, adding that "because of the existing high level of rigor in Byram Hills, the adjustment will not be as dramatic as it might be elsewhere."
So what does this mean for our students?
In the elementary schools the most noticeable change will be the inclusion of more reading and writing of non-fiction across all disciplines. In the past, 75 percent of K-5 reading material has been fiction; now half of all reading material must be non-fiction.
This means, for instance, that kindergarteners will read a text such as "A Tree Is a Plant", where before they might have read P. D. Eastman's "Are You My Mother?" Coman Hill Principal Peggy McInerney says the new requirement has been challenging because non-fiction texts are not as abundant as fiction, especially for early readers. "We're constantly looking for appropriate reading," she says.
She and Dr. Kaltenecker expect the change to help elevate reading levels because more non-fiction choices should enable teachers to engage more children. "Children will challenge themselves when they are really interested in the subject matter," says Dr. Kaltenecker.
The same principle is part of the Common Core's writing rubric, where expository, fact-based writing is emphasized over creative writing.
"Before, children were asked to do a lot of narrative writing, which can be hard if they haven't had many experiences to draw upon," says Mrs. McInerney. "Our job is to equip younger learners with good structured writing skills, and creative writing comes later."
"The Common Core is a fabulous standard," says Mrs. McInerney. "The approach to reading and writing is very linear, so that the children will have a thorough understanding of all different parts of speech and linguistics before moving on to different themes and genres," she explains.
A similar philosophy has been adopted in math where the Common Core standards are designed to develop deeper knowledge in fewer topics. The criticism of the old curriculum was that too many topics were covered at any one time. At the elementary level, the change means that "children will get a deep understanding of place value and number sense so they know how to apply it to other things like geometry, measurement and algebra," explains Principal McInerney.
The same is true for middle school students. "Fluency and memorization remain essential parts of mathematics with the Common Core standards, with emphasis on students understanding mathematical concepts and acquisition of fundamental reasoning habits," explains seventh grade math teacher Jill Berner.
One of the big changes is a focus on the application of knowledge: "Students need to believe that mathematics is sensible, meaningful, valuable, and doable. If implemented appropriately, the Common Core should help students develop a greater appreciation for mathematics and greater persistence and skill in handling mathematical challenges," she says.
While meaningful application has been incorporated into math classes for a number of years in Byram Hills, it will now be included in state assessments.
Noting that the Common Core standards are thorough and exemplary in many ways, Mrs. Berner admits that the change has been challenging for teachers. "Few dependable resources are currently available, so it's been challenging to develop new lessons, assignments, activities, and assessments," she says.
Dr. Kaltenecker applauds the district's teaching staff for absorbing all the changes at the same time as the state-imposed teacher evaluation changes, known as the APPR.
The district will be hosting a number of work sessions for parents to learn how they can help their children meet these more challenging standards.