Many school districts around the country and holding sessions to help educators learn about Common Core. At Fort Lewis College they held a three-day training on Colorado’s new academic standards.
These sessions are where very well attended even though this is a small college. Nearly 600 teachers where in attendance as everyone is interested to hear what Common Core has in store for the upcoming school year.
In the back of the room, six math teachers discussed the day’s first task: to brainstorm what they knew about Common Core State Standards, nationwide grade-level expectations in math and English that Colorado adopted in 2010.
“Our district hasn’t touched it at all,” admitted one teacher from western Colorado. Her colleague nodded in agreement.
But the two were an anomaly at the table, which mostly included teachers from districts that piloted the standards two years ago. Twenty minutes later, each group taped a large poster to the room’s bank of windows. As the two facilitators read each poster out loud, it was clear that at every table, the teachers’ knowledge of the Common Core varied greatly.
While some groups had drawn diagrams and written several sentences, others had written just a few words.
“What does this mean?” asked one of the facilitators, pointing to the words “curriculum” and “purchases.”
“We were just coming up with buzzwords,” a teacher called out.
This year, educators across Colorado are bracing themselves for a rocky road as districts introduce a host of school reforms, including new standards for 10 content areas, new tests, and new teacher evaluation systems.
The Common Core standards have sparked debate across the country over their quality and focus, and about the federal government’s role in classrooms. (The Obama administration made adopting new, more rigorous standards a requirement for states that wanted waivers from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which for most states has meant the Common Core.)
In Colorado, the transition has been relatively smooth, if slow, up until this year. Thirteen districts rolled out the new standards early, while at least one district rejected them and created its own comparable ones. The rest of the state’s 180 districts have transitioned more gradually to new standards or continued teaching previous versions of the state’s standards until this year, the deadline for all districts to switch.
“There’s heavily resourced districts that have been thinking about this for a while, and in some, other initiatives took some precedence,” said Brian Sevier, director of standards and instructional support for the Colorado Department of Education. “Now, it’s really starting to hit home.”
Even in the districts that have experimented with the new standards since 2011 and received extensive support from nonprofits like the Colorado Legacy Foundation, progress has varied. In Eagle County, outside of Vail, former superintendent Sandra Smyser said in a May interview that the district’s teachers have embraced the reforms. “It’s difficult for us to find advice on how to proceed because we’re so far ahead,” she said.
But in Durango, another pilot district in southwestern Colorado, the transition has been more gradual. District superintendent Dan Snowberger says teachers “dabbled” in the new standards for two years, but as recently as last year the district had “not shifted our thinking to the new standards to any complete degree.”
Despite the delays, the changes have been a long time coming. In 2009, the year before the nationwide Common Core standards were introduced, Colorado released its own new standards for math and English, as well as for less commonly taught subjects like dance and visual arts.
An independent review of Colorado’s math and English standards found them to be significantly aligned with the later-released Common Core. But in 2010, the state revised its standards yet again to further integrate the Common Core, while retaining Colorado-specific topics like state history, and standards on financial literacy.
The view from the classroom
As the reforms roll out across Colorado, the biggest impact will be felt inside classrooms, where under Common Core students will learn fewer topics and spend more time on key concepts. Younger students will learn the basics, such as counting to 100 and writing sentences, in earlier grades. Math teachers will move more slowly through mathematical operations to build a better background for higher math, like algebra. Lessons will be steeped in context and modeling real-world scenarios.
In one of the more controversial changes, the new English standards promote nonfiction as a way to prepare students for the types of reading they’ll encounter most in college and at work. In elementary school, students are supposed to read a mix of 50 percent literature and 50 percent informational texts, such as speeches and news articles, which will shift to 30 percent literature and 70 percent informational by high school.
Not all of the informational reading will happen in English classrooms, but the shift has sparked outcry from some educators concerned that traditional literature like The Great Gatsby will be replaced by nonfiction texts like the Gettysburg Address.