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Idaho Teachers Prepare for Switch to Common Core

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Treasure Valley Day

Students listen to Psychology Professor Randy Simonson during Treasure Valley Day on Nov. 30, 2012 at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. (DREW NASH • TIMES-NEWS FILE PHOTO)

TWIN FALLS • With a new school year just months away, English teacher Jeff Roper is reworking all his lesson plans.

Since Idaho adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2011, teachers have been going through a transition process of aligning their lessons.

The new, more rigorous standards will be taught in public K-12 classrooms for the first time this fall.

Roper – a Declo High School teacher — said he was encouraged when he first saw a draft of the standards.

They specify what skills students need to acquire, but not how the skills will be taught.

“It means that they leave a lot of latitude open to teachers,” he said.

Idaho’s previous standards for English “were a hodgepodge of content and skills,” Roper said, and they were difficult to incorporate into lesson plans.

The new standards are difficult and raise the level of expectations for children, he said.

Emphasis on Critical Thinking

Idaho is among about 45 U.S. states to adopt the standards in English/language arts and math.

Some of the largest changes under the new standards are more reading and writing, as well as a focus on real-world application.

In some instances, the content students are expected to learn is being pushed down to a younger grade level.

“Really, the expectations are going to be higher,” said Dale Layne, superintendent of the Jerome School District.

The math standards will probably be the largest change, he said.

Ted Popplewell, elementary programs director at the Twin Falls School District, said he thinks 80-90 percent of what’s in the new standards is already being taught in Twin Falls elementary schools.

There aren’t any “massive doses of change,” Popplewell said.

But the new standards are a little more detailed about what students will learn at each grade level, he said.

Luke Schroeder, superintendent of the Kimberly School District, said he thinks the big change is the end result of the standards – an emphasis on critical thinking.

“It’s teaching skills to kids that are very applicable to today’s workplace,” Schroeder said.

It’s important to recognize that the new standards focus on math and English/language arts, said Gaylen Smyer, superintendent of the Cassia County School District.

“I know that there are some misconceptions out in the community about Common Core,” Smyer said.

The standards dictate what students are expected to know, but he said it’s not a curriculum and existing materials can still be used to teach the information.

Bonnie Mahannah, a teacher at Castleford High School, said she strongly believes the standards will produce better writers and adults who can better understand what they’re reading.

“Altogether, they will be better communicators,” Mahannah wrote in response to an inquiry on the Times-News Facebook page.

Around the state and country, a number of groups – such as the National Parent Teacher Association – have also voiced support of the standards.

But not everyone is happy.

Common Core Controversy

Nationwide, some states are pushing back against Common Core State Standards.

The new standards replace educational goals that have varied greatly from state to state.

Critics worry the standards will set a national curriculum for public schools rather than letting states decide what is best for their students.

There was little dissent when states voluntarily opted in a few years ago, but that began changing recently.

Lawmakers and governors are reviewing the standards in Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah, according to a May Associated Press story.

Billee Dinges, president of Magic Valley Republican Women, has been handing out literature from the National Federation of Republican Women. The group’s website has posted a resolution encouraging members to “spread the word about the threat of a federal government takeover of education.”

Dinges said she loves Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, but “I think they just have a lack of understanding” about Common Core.

It might have been OK to try the new standards in one state, Dinges said, but nationally, “it’s a big experiment.”

“I thoroughly believe that these kinds of things should be decided by the legislators and educational professionals,” she said.

The Republican National Committee passed a resolution a few months ago calling the standards an “inappropriate overreach.”

Last month, the Idaho Republican Central Committee considered a resolution during their meeting in McCall related to the standards.

The resolution says “the Idaho GOP rejects collecting personal student data for non-educational purposes related to the Common Core State Standards initiative.”

The state isn’t collecting any more data on students than before Common Core was adopted, Luna told the committee.

In an April guest editorial in the Times-News, Wayne Hoffman – executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation — wrote that Idaho should reconsider its support of Common Core.

Hoffman wrote that parents, teachers, school boards and state officials should come up with their own unique solutions.

“Homogenization and standardization of education is not the answer for what ails education,” he wrote.

What’s Different about the Standards?

Here in the Gem State, the standards are often referred to as “Idaho Core Standards.”

But for now they are not any different than in other states.

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Education, said there might be changes incorporated eventually that are unique to Idaho.

For example, the Idaho State Board of Education could chose to include cursive writing as part of the state’s core standards, she said.

One of the main changes students and parents will notice under the new standards is a lot more reading and writing in all subject areas.

As early as elementary school, students will have to read a text with two different opinions. Then, they’ll have to form their own opinion and defend it in an essay.

Students will start learning how to write a five-paragraph essay in third grade, Popplewell said.

Reading will be balanced about 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction, Twin Falls Superintendent Wiley Dobbs said.

When students read classic novels such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” simply reading the book and writing a paper won’t be enough.

If middle or high schoolers are reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” they’ll also read the text of the Jim Crow laws, for instance, and learn about the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

“What parents can expect is a lot more context and different types of texts that their students are reading,” McGrath said.

For the math standards, there’s a focus not just on teaching students how to solve a problem, but making sure students understand the concept behind it.

“Students will no longer be just learning a formula,” McGrath said.

Idaho Core Standards also include an emphasis on real-world applications to the math problems. That’s critical for students, McGrath said.

“Before they move on to the next subject or grade level, they understand how it applies in a real-world situation,” she said.

Preparing Teachers

Many south-central Idaho school districts spent at least a year preparing teachers to transition to the new standards.

Even though the standards will be fully implemented this year, “it’s a work in progress,” Roper said.

“It will take a while for teachers and children to get into this,” the Declo High School teacher said.

Roper said he’s about halfway through planning for next year.

He said he’s afraid he has too much planned in his lessons and that he’ll have to cut some things out. It depends on how quickly students are able to pick up on the concepts.

As he puts together units for his 10th and 12th grade classes, Roper said it’s clear that his students will be doing much more difficult work. And it will be a push to get to that next level.

In the Twin Falls School District, Dobbs said tension about the changes has diminished and confidence is increasing as teachers have gone through training.

There will be two more training days this school year for teachers to work on aligning their lessons and assessments with Common Core.

At middle and high schools, all teachers are expected to teach reading and writing, secondary programs director L.T. Erickson said.

Last school year, the Boise State Writing Project worked with teachers in subject areas such as math, science and physical education about how to incorporate the standards into what they’re currently teaching.

In the Jerome School District, teachers have been working on the transition for the last couple of years.

Jerome teachers will have three professional development days this school year specifically to look more closely at the standards.

It has been a learning process for teachers, superintendent Dale Layne said, since they’re looking at the standards for their content areas and changing their curriculum.

“They’ve been very actively involved in the process,” he said.

In the Cassia County School District, superintendent Gaylen Smyer said they’ve devoted a large portion of professional development time to the standards.

Due to the shortened school year, most of the training is happening outside the school calendar. Teachers will have three days of training in August before school starts.

A change this year is that there won’t be school for two days in October. Teachers will use that time for training on Common Core and other topics, Smyer said.

The Price Tag for Training

Luna gave an update last month about transitioning to the standards at the State Board of Education meeting in Twin Falls.

While there’s broad support, “there’s the obvious concerns about making sure resources are available,” he said.

The state will spend $21.9 million during the next fiscal year in new and existing funding to train teachers on Common Core.

Nearly $14 million will be distributed directly to school districts.

One option for districts is to use money for up to two days of professional development during the school year, McGrath said.

Out of the $3.75 million appropriated by state legislators, the majority will be used on regional math and English/language arts coordinators.

They’ll work one-on-one with schools to implement the standards.

There will be at least six coordinators for each of those two content areas.

The state already has regional math specialists and they’ll transition their focus to Common Core.

At least six regional English/language arts coordinators will hopefully be hired by August, McGrath said.

What About Testing?

Once Idaho Core Standards are in full swing in classrooms, the next transition is how students are tested.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has developed new standardized tests to align with Common Core.

Tests are different than the Idaho Standards Achievement Tests, McGrath said. They’re technology based with open-ended questions.

Instead of just multiple choice, there will be story problems where students will have to show their work and how they arrived at their answer.

Idaho students will take the new test for the first time in spring 2015. But it’s a possibility students will take the new assessment as a practice run this spring instead of the ISAT.

The benefit of field testing is that every student would experience the new format before being tested for school accountability purposes, McGrath said.

Ultimately, the Idaho State Board of Education would need to vote on the proposal and include it in the state’s accountability workbook sent to the federal government for approval.

The board will likely decide later this year or in the spring, McGrath said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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