WESTFIELD - If you think teachers have had the summer off this year, think again.
This fall, schools in 45 states so far, including New York, will all have to follow the Common Core State Standards. Referred to more commonly as the Common Core, its purpose is to standardize what students should have learned by the end of each grade in English, social studies, math and science as special areas.
"There's certain knowledge, there's certain skills that the student needs to achieve at each grade level and content area in order to exit out," Secondary Principal Ivana Hite said. "They're more specific, there's more rigger and relevance in these standards."
"It used to be that the stated wanted the kids to know all this stuff, but just a little bit about it," Elementary Principal Paula Troutman said. "Now they want the to know fewer things, but they want them to know it deeper."
In order to prepare to meet these standards, a committee at Westfield Academy and Central School consisting of Troutman, Hite, second grade/Academic Intervention Services teacher Kendra Bills, third grade teacher Kathy Richmond, middle school English teacher Melissa Putney, high school art teacher Inta Damcott, high school English teacher Mary Jane Gloss and then Interim Superintendent Margaret Sauer met monthly last school year to coordinate the curriculum for the district. David Davison joined the committee once he took over as superintendent.
"We've been working really hard to implement those things here at WACS," Bills said. "Actually, we've doing a really good job leading the pack."
The Common Core has come about because colleges and employers did not believe students were ready for college or a career upon graduation from high school. Now, each grade level has specific requirements students must learn and each grade builds upon the next. The requirements will be the same across all participating states.
"They started at the end, where they need to be (upon graduation), and they worked backwards per grade level going all the way down to UPK (universal pre-kindergarten)," Troutman said.
"The beauty is that with kids transferring from place to place, to parent to parent, at times they're going into different states, ideally they should be looking at the same kinds of goals regardless of where they are in terms of their academic achievement," Sauer said. "It's still going to vary from state to state, but at least the ideas is that the basics are there."
"You're no longer teaching to a standard," Hite started.
"You're teaching a standard," Troutman finished.
Most teachers seem to like the concept of the Common Core. Putney said she likes the clarity of the expectations and how it builds. Damcott thinks the idea of the Common Core is good and helps as a teacher to look at where students are at the beginning, middle and end of each grade. For the administration, the standards finally align the kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum, an important thing for Hite.
"I really like the common core," Bills said. "I feel like they've hit all the big things I would always teach in second grade and because there's less, I can really teach those things well. I like being able to go deeper into the things the core has deemed important. ...You're not just covering topics anymore, you're getting in depth with them."
"I think overall there's much more of a push for application," Damcott said.
The switch to the Common Core Standards means teachers will have to completely redesign lesson plans. It has been a challenge at WACS to retrain staff, particularly veteran teachers, because instead of taking lesson plans and plugging in the standards, teachers now have to work backwards.
"You have to start with the standards and feed your units into the standards," Hite said.
"You cannot pull out the 10-year-old lesson plan and dust it off and it's not good to go anymore," Putney said. "You have to tweak it."
Therefore, WACS made sure it set aside time for its teachers to take necessary trainings and workshops last school year and this summer in order to be ready for this fall. While this meant time out of the classroom, the training was necessary in order to comply with the new requirements.
"We really have not had a choice in order to implement this," Sauer said.
"In order to do this, because it's so much more stringent, ... we (teachers) have been offered a lot of training, a lot of workshops, a lot of working, because it takes a lot of cooperative learning and teaching with everyone working together, so it has taken a great deal of time to do that," Damcott said.
The trainings have been run by BOCES staff, who were trained in Albany regarding the new Common Core requirements. Sauer complimented the work done by BOCES, giving an example that when one school asks a pertinent question, the BOCES trainer will share it and the answer with all schools.
"The workshops are phenomenal," Sauer said. "They're offering everything under the sun. It's been really well done."
Hite said the last thing her teachers want ed was to be out of the classroom, especially before assessments last spring, but they knew how much is involved in getting curriculum for this year. Troutman tried to make sure to provide the time for her teachers to work on aligning units and also for grade levels in the elementary levels to meet with each other, to have conversations. As a teacher, Bills said she appreciates the time she has been given because it has led to some great conversations and work sessions.
"I think that it's given departments and grade levels to have a lot of opportunities to talk to each other, to make, sure we're all looking at the same thing," she said. "It's difficult to be pulled out, but having the opportunity to be ready (is important). I feel like Westfield's really a great job of being ahead of the game."
These conversations have even reached the administration, as Hite finds herself checking in with Troutman.
"It's brought even the two principals together to have conversation of curriculum and what works and what doesn't work," Hite said.
In addition to different lesson plans, the type of assessments given to students will also be different with each discipline. For math and English, students should expect a more objective assessment, while students in arts, music and physical education should expect a more performance based assessment. In every unit, the teacher has to show what Common Core Standards are addressed and assessed in that unit and should be able to take the Common Core and say how they are addressing the standards with the work.
"We've put a lot of time into not only developing the units, two per teacher, ... they created rubrics to help score the writing pieces," Troutman said. "They've done a ton of work."
"We've proved now we assess that standard," Putney said. "Instead of being able to say, 'I do this because I do it,' now we can prove, "I check it this way, this way and this way.'"
"There's a lot more that's going to be expected of students," Damcott said.
There will also be more of a push to use and assess writing in all subject areas, which goes back to the goal of preparing students for life beyond public school - making sure graduates can write successfully on the job or in college, no matter the subject.
"As difficult as it is sometimes to break down everything that you do, it's beneficial," Putney said. "It is making us take an in depth look at what we do," Putney said.
The biggest challenge for schools will be how the state sets up its standardized tests. As usual, the worry is, when the state gets involved, will teachers teach to standards or teach to test?
"We may have quality units, but will the state give quality tests?" Gloss asked.
Richmond said she does not need multiple reading selections to know if a student understands the material and hopes the tests from the state do not continue to be unreasonable. She said it would be nice if the state tested the same way it was telling its teachers to teach.
"The problem we have is the state comes up with wonderful concepts and then they expect it to be done within an unreasonable amount of time when they don't even have their act together," Sauer said.
Overall, WACS has prepared itself for the mandatory start of the Common Core State Standards in September of 2012. The district received compliments from the BOCES staff regarding how on top of things it was. Even with the constant changes to the standards during the process, WACS rolled with it and feels confident in its ability to meet the requirements.
"They have worked so hard," Troutman said of the teachers. "I can't say enough for the time and energy they put in there on top of teaching. ... The quality of work they have produced is amazing in my opinion."