Schools making changes necessary to meet new state standards
In Anne Roth's kindergarten class at Bottenfield Elementary in Champaign, time studying math is a cacophony of voices and games. Her pupils make models of geometric shapes, choose dominoes and compare the number of dots on them and use dice to figure out how to combine different colors of cubes to make stacks of four.
The students are actually learning addition and subtraction and concepts of more, less, equal and most.
In the classroom, students are learning according to the Common Core State Standards, a new set of requirements that will be required for math and English in Illinois in 2014-15.
The new requirements are more in-depth, focus on college and career readiness and set goals for students and work backward to figure out how to achieve them.
Champaign is already adapting to some of the new requirements, and is focusing on kindergartners as it does. Urbana is working on implementing the new standards as well.
The new requirements will trade new tests for the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests. The new tests are still being worked out by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers.
What that means is that these kindergartners, so happily learning math with other students at their tables, will never take ISATs.
"This is how they'll learn," Roth said, referring to the new requirements. "This is what school will be. And they love it."
Changing what is taught
Roth, who has taught that grade for more than 20 years, said kindergarten has always been hands-on.
And that won't change with the new state standards. They don't really change how Roth teaches, she said. But they do change what she teaches.
For example, under current state standards, kindergartners just need to know the names of the shapes. But the new requirements will require them to identify them, draw them and describe them.
This requires a more specific vocabulary, Roth said, like teaching students that it's four equal sides that make a square, not just four sides.
Lessons like these will prepare students for a future of math classes, she said.
The new state requirements will also focus more on having students talk about not just the answers, but how they got there. They'll also need to learn the correct math terms to describe that process.
And they'll do things like they did recently in Roth's class — take a look back at their time in class and evaluate how focused they were on their lessons.
The new requirements encourage perseverance in math, as well, Roth said, which encourages students to "stick with work all the time."
School districts are preparing to put the new standards in place in the 2013-14 school year, so not every classroom and grade is already using the standards like Roth is.
In Champaign, they're being gradually put in place across all grade levels as curriculum is developed, said Director of Curriculum Trevor Nadrozny.
For language arts:
— This year, the school district is writing curriculum for kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades.
— Next year, it will pilot the new standards in kindergarten through second grade, and write curriculum for all other grades.
— In 2013-14, it will implement the new standards from kindergarten through 12th grade.
— Implementing the new standards in kindergarten and writing the curriculum for first, second, sixth, seventh and eighth grades this year.
— Next year, adding implementations in first and second grades, and writing curriculum third, fourth and fifth grades and high school, as well as piloting the standards in sixth through eighth grades.
— In 2013-14, implementing the new standards across all grades.
In Urbana, the school district last year started an awareness campaign to let the teachers in all buildings know the new standards are coming, said Jean Korder, the school district's director of curriculum, instruction and design.
"This year is our gear-up year," she said.
Teachers are looking over their classes and the materials they use to teach them, to see "what they're already doing to meet the rigor (of the new standards) and what they need to do."
A council of representatives from all buildings and departments that meet to talk about curriculum have been focusing on the new standards this year, and they help distribute information to and from all the school district's buildings, Korder said.
Three committees of teachers (one each for math, language arts and assessments) are looking through curricula to see what needs to be added and removed.
The process of going through their class materials can be challenging, "but it's one our teachers have, for the most part, embraced," said Don Owen, the school district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
It allows educators' input into the process, as well, he said.
Plus, Korder said, teachers are discovering that they're already teaching things that will work with the new state standards.
Some teachers are already implementing the new standards in their classrooms, Korder said.
"Next year, that expectation will be greater," Korder said.
As far as the testing aspect goes, Champaign's school district will study the requirements as they become available, and figure out how to provide students technology to take tests online.
Nadrozny said the tests, which are expected to measure students throughout the year instead of just once in the spring, focus on personal growth.
He said that if students don't meet standards, that will be reflected in the tests so teachers can go over the material again with students who struggle.
In Urbana, third- through eighth-graders already take tests online to evaluate their growth three times a year using the school's regular and mobile computer labs, which have computers on carts that teachers can use in their classrooms, Owen said.
"We don't anticipate any problems" with taking tests online as a part of the new standards, he said.
Korder said it's not clear how the new tests and No Child Left Behind (which asks schools to make certain benchmarks each year) will fit together. Illinois has applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, she said.
Consistency among districts
Though the new standards mean some big changes for school districts, teachers and students, officials from both Champaign and Urbana say the new, more rigorous standards will be good for students, because of their focus on analytical and critical thinking, preparing for college and careers and focus on solving real-world problems.
Nadrozny said the new state standards will give some consistency to students who move around, because they're being adopted across the country by all but a few states.
Champaign Superintendent Judy Wiegand said they'll also offer consistency for kindergarten through high school.
Right now, Wiegand said, to meet the goals of current high school math standards, students have to exceed ISAT standards when they're in elementary and middle school, which means they're "maybe not as rigorous" as they should be, Wigand said, even though teachers are following state guidelines.
"Students enter high school and they struggle," Wiegand said.
As far as what the Common Core standards mean for teachers, Wiegand said, professional development is "critical."
"It's one thing to have a written curriculum," she said, but another to make sure teachers are implementing the changes in the classroom.
They'll get help from instructional coaches in each building, and the school district is dedicated to making sure teachers learn about Common Core during school improvement or teacher institute days or during the summer.
The school district doesn't want to train teachers on school days and have a substitute teach their classes, Wiegand said.
The school district also received a grant from the Illinois State Board of Education for $280,000 to help it implement the new standards in math. It will pay for some teachers to attend training in the summer.
Other Champaign elementary teachers will attend summer academies to help them understand the new standards.
Similarly, Urbana will use its own professional development division and strategic plan to guide the transition process. The school district hosts after-school and weekend workshops, and Korder said teachers are already taking advantage of those.
This story appeared in print on March 18.