RIDGELAND, Miss. — Nearly two dozen kindergarten students sat neatly on a carpet one sunny December morning at Ann Smith Elementary School here, studying vocabulary words related to timing and sequence.
Their teacher, Charlotte McNeese, chose a timely example to illustrate the meaning of such words as next and finally, asking her students to outline the steps they would take to decorate a Christmas tree.
“Before I do anything else, what do I have to do first?” McNeese asked her students.
Hands shot up and a few students blurted out the answer before McNeese had a chance to call on anyone.
“You have to buy a tree!”
McNeese’s students are ahead of the curve in more than one respect this winter. In past school years, McNeese would not have taught her students the concept of sequence — and the associated vocabulary — until well after their Christmas trees had been tossed out. This “is so much more than we’ve ever done at a kindergarten level,” she said.
It’s just one of many changes McNeese has made to meet a set of ambitious new educational standards known as the Common Core, which are slowly transforming the approach to teaching and learning across Mississippi. The new standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, do not constitute a curriculum. But they do lay out skills students should master in different grades, like in second grade adding two-digit numbers or in seventh grade contrasting a fictional and non-fictional portrayal of the same time period.
Most Mississippi districts have opted to roll out the standards just in kindergarten, first- and second-grades over the past two years. That way teachers and students can grapple with them free of the pressure of standardized testing, which begins in third grade. The state expects schools to start teaching the standards in all grades next fall, however, since students will be tested on the Common Core in 2015.
Mississippi is likely to have a particularly challenging — even jarring — adjustment to the Common Core since its old standards are so weak compared to those in other states.
In 2010, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. that supports the Common Core, scrutinized how old state standards compared to the Core. While about 15 states had English standards that were the same or better than the Common Core, Fordham concluded that Mississippi’s were far weaker. The report described the English standards as “mysterious,” “repetitive” and among “the worst in the country.” It concluded that the Common Core standards are “significantly superior to what the Magnolia state has in place today.”
A view from the classroom
The Common Core-inspired changes in McNeese’s classroom this year offer a glimpse of how the controversial and more demanding approach could reshape education across Mississippi — a state that has ranked near the bottom of the country on national standardized tests for decades. Fewer than 13 percent of adults 25 years and older have a bachelor’s degree, below the national average of nearly 18 percent.
McNeese, who has taught elementary school for 19 years, says the standards have raised expectations for her students. In the past, for instance, kindergarteners were expected to draw a picture and write a single sentence explaining the picture. Under Common Core, they are expected to write several sentences about a specific topic and draw a picture that reflects what they wrote. Instead of spending between 15 and 30 minutes on writing each day, McNeese’s students now write for more than an hour throughout the day. In math, her students will be expected to count to 100 by the end of this year instead of 20 (the requirement under the old standards).
Common Core aims to introduce students to more challenging concepts in earlier grades so they will build a strong foundation for higher-level English and math courses.
As a result, McNeese’s kindergarten students will learn skills that used to be taught in first grade, like plural nouns and three-dimensional shapes.
Across grades, the new math standards require students to show their thinking while working through problems, while the English standards require them to include specific examples from their readings.
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“We’re moving away from those worksheets into more critical thinking,” said Vincent Segalini, director of English language arts for the Mississippi Department of Education. That means students may read more difficult texts, but will spend longer on each piece to build a strong understanding of the author’s techniques. “Instead of reading ten books every grading period, you’re reading one or two, but you’re spending so much time really getting deep into the text,” he said.
In several districts that have made the transition to the Common Core, elementary grade teachers say they have been surprised by how well the students have grasped the more challenging material. And the first-grade teachers at Madison Crossing Elementary School in Canton say a new emphasis on non-fiction — prompted by the Common Core — has piqued the interest of their male students in particular, who have embraced the opportunity to write about their hobbies and interests. Under the old standards, the first-grade teachers focused more on narrative and creative writing.
“We’ve gotten rid of a lot of fluff,” said Martha D’Amico, principal of Madison Crossing about 25 miles north of Jackson.
In the past, D’Amico says there was more of an emphasis on rote learning: Teachers might have asked students to copy down basic facts about insects as part of a science lesson, for instance. Now, kindergarteners at Madison Crossing will learn about insects by reading books, researching facts, and writing short responses.
Meeting a new standard
Despite the encouraging start at many elementary schools, Mississippi educators remain anxious about making the transition in the older grades. Starting in 2015, middle and high school students who did not grow up with the Common Core standards will nonetheless be tested on them. In the meantime, middle and high schools are in a sort of limbo since students will still be tested on Mississippi’s old standards one last time this spring. (Mississippi is one of 18 states plus the District of Columbia that helped develop Common Core-aligned exams through a consortium called PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of readiness for College and Careers.)
In some subjects, the gap between the old and new standards is especially wide. For example, middle school students now enrolled in Mississippi’s pre-Algebra course will not have been taught many of the skills and concepts considered a prerequisite for Algebra I courses that will be aligned with the Common Core next year.
Linda Downing, the curriculum director at the Clarksdale Municipal School District in the Mississippi Delta region of the state, says that some instructors are teaching both sets of standards to prepare students for exams, but also expose them to the new, more challenging material. “Our teachers have been trying to create a crosswalk between the [old standards] and the Common Core,” Downing said. “We’re trying to see where we can make them meet each other.”
For example, about 10 miles west of Jackson in Clinton, veteran fourth-grade teacher Kerri Burnside has started teaching the new standards. But she still fits in lessons on topics like the stem and leaf plot, a type of chart that was part of the old math standards and will be included on the state test in the spring.
Burnside says the Common Core emphasizes depth over breadth. Instead of her typical three-week multiplication unit, she spent five weeks on the topic this fall. In previous years she taught two ways to solve double-digit multiplication problems. This year, she taught her students five different strategies, including the “standard algorithm” method that most adults learned in school. Under that method, students line up the numbers vertically and multiply, then add two products together. (Burnside and her students call it the “old-fashioned way.”) One of the new methods, known as “partial product” involves creating a complex chart to map out two-digit multiplication problems, like 23 x 17.
“It’s opened up a lot more doors and showed me so many more ways to meet different learning styles,” Burnside said, adding that more students are mastering the concepts because they can choose the method that makes the most sense to them. “It doesn’t matter how the children work out a problem or how they find an answer — whatever way works for them.”
A growing controversy
While teachers across Mississippi have been busy rolling out the standards in their classrooms, Common Core opponents, led by conservative and Tea Party groups in the state, have become increasingly vocal.
In August, the Mississippi Senate Conservative Coalition sent a letter to the former state superintendent, Lynn House, questioning the rigor of the standards and the involvement of the federal government in their adoption. (The Obama administration made adopting new, more rigorous standards a requirement for states that wanted waivers from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. Most states chose to adopt Common Core as their new standards.)
In a written response to the Coalition, House said that the standards were set to be revised in 2011, and adopting Common Core “saved the state time, money, and effort associated with creating our own standards that would not have been as rigorous.”
Some critics of Common Core have taken issue with materials that they say are being advertised or promoted as aligned to Common Core. “Just about anybody can stamp ‘Common Core-aligned’ on their materials and sell it,” said Senator Angela Hill, R-Picayune. “There’s not really any oversight.”
In a speech earlier this fall, Hill said she is also concerned by books that have appeared on suggested Common Core book lists compiled by bookstores like Barnes & Noble. “You will find some of the classics, some of the things you were reading when you were coming up through school. But you will also find some highly objectionable material that does not paint the U.S. in a very good light,” Hill said. For instance, she says one Common Core appendix that lists examples of texts appropriate for different grade levels includes “Dreaming in Cuban,” a National Book Award finalist which was banned in September by an Arizona school district for sexual content. The book is suggested as an eleventh-grade text.
But educators say that books and materials used to teach Common Core are selected by the teachers and schools; they are not mandated by the standards. The Common Core “doesn’t dictate how we teach,” said Cindy Hamil, principal of Eastside Elementary.
In the Forrest County School District outside of Hattiesburg, assistant superintendent Jennifer Ward says that some critiques of Common Core stem from misconceptions over what the standards contain. “Before people say ‘Common Core’s not good for kids,’ they really need to stop and look at what it is that’s being taught, regardless of the politics that have been attached to it,” Ward said.
McNeese spends very little time worrying about the politics swirling around Common Core. She says the work her students are producing shows that they are capable of more challenging instruction. “Getting them to believe that they can do this stuff is what’s going to make the difference,” McNeese said. “As a teacher, I now know they can — even at age five.”
Emily LeCoz contributed to this story.