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This October many high school students around New York State are taking an Algebra I quiz with some unusual and very tough questions. In one, students are asked about how much water is used in the tallest skyscraper in the world during a 24-hour period.

But the problem set forth in this mid-unit exam doesn’t include any set amounts; students are asked to estimate the numbers for the equation themselves and solve the problem based on their guesses. There isn’t one correct answer. Students must also write explanations of why an equation is right or wrong, instead of just solving it.

The quiz is part of a new set of state-sponsored curriculum materials that many schools across New York are adopting in full for the first time this fall as they try to meet the new Common Core State Standards in math and English. (New York students were tested on the Common Core for the first time last spring, even though many schools had not yet connected all their lessons to the new standards.)

The curricula and the tests put New York ahead of the pack among the 45 states that have signed on to the standards, which are meant to increase critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools and prepare more students for college.

Common Core New York State
Assistant Principal Tracee Murren leads ninth-grade Algebra 1 students at the Kingsborough Early College Secondary School in Brooklyn in a discussion about how to make a graph. (Photo: Sarah Garland)

“We know that the Common Core is key,” John King, the New York education commissioner, told teachers at a training session in Albany this July. “This work is the bridge between what we hope for our students and where we are.”

But as the state’s educators move ahead full speed this fall on Common Core—and as many gain a complete picture of what the work will entail for the first time—teachers and administrators still have mixed feelings. Speaking in dozens of interviews, many educators said they’re excited about ways of teaching that they hope will be more interesting for students, but others are also worried that the work will be so hard it will leave their students further behind.

They also wish they’d had more time to work with the new curriculum materials; some schools didn’t get new books until after the first day of school, while the state’s curriculum units for some grades are still not ready.

“The general apprehension is palpable,” said Don O’Shea, a middle school English teacher at St. Joseph’s, a small parochial school in Kingston, N.Y. “I think we’re getting a lot thrown at us and we’re expected to rise to the challenge, which we will, but there’s a sense of there’s a lot going on and how do we digest that and how do we translate that for our students.”

Some of those apprehensive teachers gathered in a classroom at John Jay College in Manhattan this August to learn about the new Algebra I curriculum developed for the state by a nonprofit known as Common Core. To start, the teachers took the quiz with the skyscraper question, to see what their students would be expected to learn in the first month of school.

“Is it intense? Yeah. I’m interested to see how they’re going to do on that first assessment. But as far as, are the kids learning? It’s clear.” –Teacher Melissa Morrissey

Their trainer, Jacob Koehler, was a former teacher who was hired through a grant from the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation. After 20 minutes, he asked what they thought. The teachers—eyebrows raised, heads shaking—talked over each other as they responded.

“This is not for the middle of the year?”

“This is a good project—for students in their third or fourth semester of algebra.”

“Can you teach this to my kids? Because I can’t.”

“I was overwhelmed, so I can only imagine how my students are going to feel.”

Several said the content for the first few weeks of Algebra I included concepts that previously weren’t covered until Algebra II. Koehler, himself a skeptic of the Common Core, suggested teachers take the curriculum and “make it your own.”

“The claim is that it’s fewer standards and they’re deeper. The way they’ve accomplished that…all they’ve done is take four or five of them and put them in a single standard,” he said later.

The state’s curriculum developers say teachers just need time to adjust to the new ways of doing things under Common Core. “Every once in a while, you’ll hear someone is nervous about students being able to reach these new expectations,” said Lynne Munson, president of the organization, Common Core. “But I think these new materials have been very warmly embraced – almost joyously.”

Jane McNamara, a first grade teacher at Norwood Avenue Elementary in Northport, Long Island, is among those who are mostly enthusiastic. “I think this is a great thing,” McNamara, a 33-year classroom veteran, said. “I’ve always been a teacher of process and thinking, instead of rote memorization.”

Common Core New York State
An Algebra I class at Kingsborough Early College Secondary School in Brooklyn sounds more like an English class at times as students engage in small-group and whole-class discussion. (Photo: Sarah Garland)

Her only frustration is the rush to launch new curricula as schools worry about repeating the drastic test score drops that New York reported in August 2013, following the first Common Core state exams.  “It’s not a smooth implementation,” she said.

The extent of the changes—and how teachers are reacting to them—often depends on the grade and the subject. In elementary math, classes will move through adding and subtraction at a slower pace. Teachers will emphasize that fractions are points on a number line, rather than pizza slices. McNamara says her science lessons have also become more rigorous: Teachers at her school are covering the same units, but instead of talking about “how scientists think,” first graders will have to learn—and use—terms like “inquiry,” “observation” and “data.”

Middle school English classes will take on more of a social studies flavor to meet one of the main goals of the Common Core: introducing students to more of the types of nonfiction and informational reading they likely will encounter in college and at work. In eighth grade, for example, in a curriculum developed for the state by Expeditionary Learning, a nonprofit, students will spend several weeks studying refugees. In addition to reading poetry, they’ll study newspaper articles about the Vietnam War and the civil war in Sudan. As a final test, they’ll write a “research-based” poem.

For years, teachers have been encouraged to assign students “just-right” books at their reading level, so that they’re challenged but not frustrated. But under Common Core, English classrooms will revolve more around all students tackling the same difficult texts.

The shift is tricky for teachers like Tom Sjogren, who teaches English as a Second Language to eighth graders—many of them brand-new arrivals to the United States—at the International School for Liberal Arts in the Bronx. While testing out the new materials last year, he found that his students needed double the time allotted for each lesson.

“Instead of just a 45-minute lesson, which is what Expeditionary wants, I have a 90-minute block,” he said. (For many schools, the new curricula will not fill the entire amount of time set aside for English and math, allowing teachers some flexibility.)

Common Core New York State

The class spends a lot of time reading out loud. Students with a better grasp of English take turns reading paragraphs. But when Sjogren comes to a student who is new, he simply asks a question to make sure the student understands what’s going on.“If it’s a student who doesn’t read all that well, I don’t want to embarrass them,” he said.

And he hasn’t abandoned the just-right books. He bought a set of classics at different levels of difficulty, including “Charlotte’s Web” and “Huckleberry Finn,” which his students choose from during independent reading time he sets aside at the end of class.

Despite the challenges, Sjogren is optimistic that the new standards and curricula will be good for his students, as long “we’re going slow,” he said.

“There was a lot of initial worry about, ‘I don’t think my special education students can do this; my boys can’t do this,’” said Cheryl Dobbertin, the director for professional development for Expeditionary Learning. “I hear very consistently from teachers that ‘I can’t believe they’re learning.’”

A few days into the school year at the Kingsborough Early College Secondary School, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, a teacher who attended the Algebra I training at John Jay, Melissa Morrissey, was trying out one of the new lessons. It was going well.

The class—which included a mix of special education students—had watched a video of a man walking down several sets of staircases. Their task was to create a graph showing how his elevation had changed over time, but the classroom sounded more like an English lesson.

Students first conferred with their seatmates during a “pair-share,” a favorite tactic of elementary school reading teachers, and then chimed in during a whole-group discussion about where to put the points on the line. Students argued about whether the man had started at an elevation of 20 feet or 25 feet.

“When you’re going to be taking the Common Core test, you have to justify why it was 20,” Morrissey reminded the students.

Afterwards, Morrissey said her initial worries about the new standards had dissipated.

“Is it intense? Yeah,” she said. “I’m interested to see how they’re going to do on that first assessment. But as far as, are the kids learning? It’s clear.”

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