Children in Elizabeth Smith's class are learning common core for math. Her 24 students are working on books they've created by stapling pages together.
In the corner kindergarten classroom at Hayestown Avenue School, Smith visited her students as they worked, encouraging them to illustrate what they saw, what they did. Four were asked to share their stories.
"How many?" she asked. A couple of kids shot up their hands with four fingers. "Show me another way to say four," she prodded.
A couple of the children raised two fingers on each hand. Smith offered yet another way, one finger on one hand and three fingers on the other.
It was a moment in the middle of writing class that reflected the dramatically different approach Common Core for math standards bring to elementary math instruction. But even the writing lesson by Danbury's Teacher of the Year also demonstrated the standards' new demands.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is one of the most far-reaching -- and controversial -- reform movements in the history of American public education.
This is the first year that Connecticut has fully implemented the Common Core. It joins 44 other states that have adopted the reform, altering the nation's public-school landscape.
By now, most people have heard of the Common Core. But for such a sweeping change, many keep asking themselves, "What is Common Core?". The name indicates all children will be taught the same things, but that's not it -- at least not exactly.
Released in their final form in June 2010, Common Core's English/language-arts and common core for math standards do not mandate what schools must teach. Instead, they outline the body of skills and knowledge that students are expected to develop each year in kindergarten through 12th grade, with the ultimate goal of ensuring they are ready to succeed in college and eventually the workforce after they graduate from high school.
For example, the standards do not say that fifth-grade students must read "Treasure Island." But they do say students of that age should be able to "determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in (a) text."
Likewise, the standards do not dictate which math curriculum school districts will use. But they do spell out mathematical concepts and functions that students should be able to master by each grade level.
A Game Changer
In the Danbury kindergarten classroom last week, 5-year old Eric Patino was one of the students asked to sit on chairs in front of the class and relay his story.
Very quietly, Eric told his classmates about the pictures, about how his father was pushing him in his car he had drawn, how they walked together to CTown and bought food and then walked home.
"We used to be happy when the kids would draw a picture in kindergarten. Now they are writing a story, with pictures, using the elements of a story," Smith said.
"It's a changing world," said Smith, who improved her teaching of reading and writing last summer at Columbia University. "It's how are we as teachers going to use tools to reach our children? It's slowly bringing things in so it's fun for them."
Not everyone is on board with the Common Core.
Some worry the uniformity of standards will diminish or end local control or that they represent federal government overreach.
Some argue the standards have not proven to increase student achievement.
But area educators said they think the Common Core Standards are valuable because they will deepen the learning and critical thinking.
"Common core is a game changer," Bethel Superintendent Kevin Smith said, because it's much more rigorous and deeper than the current standards. "It will teach students to think critically, be collaborative and problem solve in ways the old approach could never do."
Educators agree the Common Core standards were more dramatically different in math than in literacy. When Common Core standards came out three years ago, Danbury made minor changes to its literacy program.
The old way of teaching writing was a formula. The first paragraph made three points. The next three paragraphs explained each point and the final paragraph summarized, Danbury's Deputy Superintendent William Glass said, but now, writing will be more of a process.
"What do I want to say? How do I want to say it? Do I want to make a point, to persuade, tell a story or inform?" Glass said.
Math has gone through major changes, he said.
"Before, students memorized the math procedures -- how to add and subtract and multiply -- but didn't understand why it worked," Glass said. "Now, they are decomposing numbers, breaking them down to basic elements. They are starting to think like mathematicians so they will develop problem solving skills."
New Milford Assistant Superintendent Josh Smith said the math changes are "huge." It's a major shift in what we teach in kindergarten through fifth grade," he said. "This (Common Core) makes us reevaluate our curriculum and programs, invest in teacher development and it demands a higher level of engagement from our students."
Training of teachers is the district's biggest challenge in common core for math.
"All of our (math) curriculum has been rewritten at the elementary level but our elementary teachers took only one or two math courses during their teacher training programs," he said. So Danbury will have math coaches in the classroom shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers, he said.
They have nine math specialists, are poised to hire another and will have three more next year.
In Bethel, teachers spent a couple of years working to understand the standards before incorporating them into the curriculum.
The district incorporated math standards and bought new materials and now is moving to common core literacy standards in science and social studies.
"Now, not only does it require us to increase the complexity of the texts that students read in science and social studies, but to teach them how to pull out the main ideas and use evidence to defend their ideas," Smith of Bethel, said. "It's a higher standard.''
Non-ficiton emphasis source of contention and the standards can be an equalizer.
"The concept is that students will do fewer things, deeper, and with greater rigor," said Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, Connecticut's chief academic officer. "A lot of times, our curriculum was described as mile wide but an inch deep. This is a contrast between us and countries that tend to outperform us."