Jennifer Robinson is no dummy.
Robinson was an honor student at Northview High School, graduated magna cum laude from Troy University and has a master’s degree.
Nevertheless, changes in instruction resulting from the adoption of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards, Alabama’s version of Common Core, are making it a little tougher for her to help her son, a Montana Magnet School student, with his homework.
“My child is actually getting it, it’s just hard for me to work with him and try to help him do math because the way they’re teaching it is not how I learned to do it,” she said.
Robinson isn’t the only parent to struggle with the new standards and how they’re being taught. Anthony Stewart, Houston County Schools director of elementary curriculum, said his office and school systems across the state have been getting calls from concerned parents about dips in student grades and difficulty in helping their children with school work. Stewart and other education officials say some user shock is to be expected as students and teachers alike adapt to the new standards, which are intended to be more rigorous than previous standards.
The Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states and developed by the National Governor’s Association, are intended to get states on the same page with regard to what they’re expected to learn. States that have adopted the Common Core are still free to develop their own curriculum to help students meet the standards.
The standards have been controversial, with conservative activists protesting what they feel is an end run by the federal government into states’ rights to set their own standards and curriculum. Concerns have also been raised about the content of the standards and whether assessments used to judge student achievement will herd states into adopting certain texts and materials, tightening centralized control of curriculum.
In Alabama, the state is in its second year of phasing in the new standards. Last year, the state implemented the new math standards and curriculum used to teach those standards. This year, schools are phasing in English and language arts. Next year, they will phase in social studies and will tackle science the year after.
It’s tough to understand exactly how the new Common Core standards and the changes in curriculum they’ve inspired are changing how students are learning. Words like “rigor” and “vertical alignment” get thrown around a lot, but grasping their meaning can be like trying to catch smoke with your hands. Susan Loftin, Dothan City Schools elementary curriculum director, said the new standards are intended to be more application based, requiring students to think about the skills they’ve learned and apply them to relevant, real-life problems.
For a concrete example of the changes in instruction resulting from Common Core, consider spelling words. In the past, third grade students at Hidden Lake Elementary School were given a list of 15 spelling words and five challenge words to study and later be tested on. Now, students get 15 words to study and are tested on those words along with five challenge words they’ve never seen before. The students should apply lessons they’ve learned about phonics to figure out how to spell the challenge words, making the spelling test a little tougher than it once was.
Another example involves how math is taught. While in the past, students were expected to memorize how to multiply numbers, today teachers discuss multiple strategies for performing complicated multiplication problems, such as breaking apart the problem into smaller, easier to accomplish problems or using visual aides to solve the problem. In classes, students are also encouraged to work together to master concepts.
Amanda Hodges, a third grade teacher at Hidden Lake Elementary, said these methods were helpful to students struggling in math, but were more time intensive to teach to students. Sue Vernon, a fourth grade teacher, said some of the initial extra investment in time spent teaching the more process-heavy method to students was made up for in less re-teaching time as students more thoroughly mastered concepts.
Cindy Freeman, Alabama college and career ready rollout coordinator, helps supervise efforts to implement Common Core in Alabama’s schools. Freeman said teacher training is an important part of properly implementing the new standards and using them to get results in better student achievement. Freeman has been working with school administrators around the state to help them better train their staff in Common Core Standards. Freeman said the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative has also put together teams to help better facilitate the implementation of Common Core. Freeman said Alabama teachers must complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year to maintain certification and that many are using those hours to receive Common Core instruction.
Freeman said the Dothan City Schools are doing a particularly good job of getting educators up to speed on Common Core. Loftin heads up the city schools’ Common Core implementation efforts and said the city schools system has set up a good model of using implementation teams to gather and provide information about the new standards to educators at each school. Loftin said the ongoing process to implement Common Core has its ups and downs, but is moving forward.
“We’re not going to be there tomorrow, and we’re not going to be there next month, but we will be there,” she said.
Loftin said keeping parents abreast of the changes will help them adjust to the new standards and help their children adjust as well. Loftin said the city schools are working to keep parents up to speed with the new changes by having informational sessions at PTO meetings.
Freeman said the state has a website where parents can learn more about the standards on their own at http://alex.state.al.us/ccrs/.
Wanda Bullic is a grandmother of a Girard Middle School student and says she and her daughter have struggled to adapt to the new standards, but the school has been helpful in supporting them.
“I’m impressed, I can’t give enough credit to the teachers for making sure it works out,” she said.