Pennsylvania's Core Standards aim to get students on same page

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In elementary math classes, students will spend less time working independently with paper and pencil and more time with items such as beads and blocks, working collaboratively on strategies to solve problems.

In reading classes, as early as first grade, students will focus less on fiction and more on nonfiction works such as biographies and newsmagazines.

And on high school science and social studies papers, students will be graded on their mastery of grammar and sentence structure as well as their knowledge of the content area.

Those changes are all happening as a result of the implementation of the Pennsylvania Core Standards in classrooms across the state. Local schools have been revamping curriculum, retraining teachers and conducting parent meetings to introduce the new educational practices and philosophies the core will bring.

The Pennsylvania standards are the state's iteration of the Common Core, a set of academic standards in English language arts and math developed by the National Governor's Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.

The goal of the Common Core, which has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, is to end the fragmented system of education across the United States and to raise standards so that U.S. students can compete globally.

The Pennsylvania Board of Education adopted the Common Core in 2010, giving districts three years to implement the standards. But the state later added some of its own content and structure to create the Pennsylvania Core. Unlike those in some other states, the Pennsylvania Core does not call for a statewide curriculum.

The Pennsylvania Core was adopted by the state Board of Education in September and approved with a 3-2 vote on Nov. 21 by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. The regulations now head to the state attorney general to be reviewed for form and legality.

The new core standards are more demanding and focus on higher-level analytical thinking than past standards. They move certain math concepts in elementary school to lower grades and call for more intense reading requirements, which include a return to phonics and an emphasis on grammar in the early grades.

In figuring out how to alter curriculum and train teachers to meet core standards, districts throughout the county have attended sessions at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, hired private consultants, consulted with each other and used the state Department of Education's Standards Aligned System website.

"We did our own research. We talked with other districts, and we worked with the [Allegheny Intermediate Unit]," said Alexis Trubiani, spokeswoman for the Clairton School District, which recently conducted a parent session on the new K-6 math curriculum.

Costs for preparation

Though no district could put a specific price on the preparations, most have had to pay for substitute teachers to work while district teachers attended training, some districts added levels of administration and others purchased new textbooks in reading and or math.

In some higher-achieving districts, administrators said most curriculum already met or exceeded the core standards, so only minor tweaking was necessary. But in other districts, wholesale curriculum revision was undertaken.

"It's a transition for many teachers, and it's not easy work and it doesn't happen overnight," said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which has provided the bulk of the teacher training for the core regulations and helped some districts with curriculum writing.

"There have been hours and hours of professional development that have occurred across Allegheny County schools," Mrs. Hippert said.

The mastery of the standards by students in grades 3-8 will be tested by the annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, which are expected to be aligned with the Pennsylvania Core by 2015. Secondary students will be tested by the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, biology and literature, which are taken upon completion of the courses.

The Keystone Exams were given for the first time in 2013 before many districts were fully aligned with the new standards. Acting state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq already has warned that the scores, when released this month, will be lower than high school scores had previously been on the PSSA exams.

Educators have warned it will take several years before the curriculum changes catch up with the standards on the exams.

"There is going to be a catch-up period here because there are some serious shifts, and it takes time," said Jillian Bichsel, director of academics for the Quaker Valley School District, where curriculum has been revamped and teachers have been trained in core standards. In addition, Quaker Valley has provided professional development for local preschool teachers to help them to prepare students for a more rigorous curriculum in kindergarten.

Megan Cicconi, reading and curriculum coordinator with the AIU's reading achievement center, said teachers have said what they like about the Pennsylvania and Common cores is that they provide specific targets and standards and allow teachers to "go deeply" into concepts.

"Before they were just all over the place. There was just so much they were covering," Ms. Cicconi said.

In the McKeesport Area School District, the curriculum has been rewritten with help from the AIU to align with core standards, said Harry Baughman, K-12 curriculum and transformation coordinator. "Everything is moving down a grade or two. The challenges are more rigorous. We are doing more nonfiction. It's really just about ramping up the rigor," Mr. Baughman said.

In math, he said, rather than memorizing, students will be encouraged to understand "what's going on behind those algorithms."

"The whole idea is that there are fewer standards, but you teach them in more depth and introduce them at an earlier age," he said.

At a recent meeting for parents in McKeesport, K-6 language arts and math teachers showed parents examples of their lessons under the new curriculums.

The event included the construction of a necklace with different colored beads, each representing a numeric value. Students were told to pick a three-digit number and then to construct a bead bracelet with the appropriate number and value of beads.

At the end of the exercise, several students were asked how they came up with the correct combination of beads. Some added from the bottom up. Some placed a few beads on the necklace and then subtracted from the total to get the remainder while others used multiplication or division to get there.

The point of the exercise was to show that the process is as important as the answer, Mr. Baughman said.

Embracing new skills

The Hampton School District has been moving toward the Common Core for several years, said assistant superintendent L. Jo Welter. "We love the idea of helping students to become good problem solvers, good analytical thinkers and to instill in our students that concept of perseverance. They have to embrace those kinds of skills to be successful in the world now," Ms. Welter said.

The district purchased new language arts and math curriculums aligned with the new core standards, but the district was ready for new curriculum even without the impending core regulations.

Ms. Welter said the new math curriculum will have students "synthesizing information live all of the time."

The new language arts curriculum will include having third-graders read the biography of Roberto Clemente, which is fact-based, and then compare it to a fictional work from the same time period, said Laurie Heinreicher, Hampton's curriculum director.

The Avonworth School District purchased new texts for elementary math and language arts, said Shannon Varley, director of curriculum and instruction. "Everything is completely changed," she said.

In math, concepts must be mastered within a grade level rather than over several grades. In reading, more complex texts will be used at lower grades. Ms. Varley said teachers have been "very positive about the changes."

The Pittsburgh Public Schools board this week approved a motion that would allow up to 18 central office and school principals to participate in the Common Core Institute's Black Belt Leadership course. The administrators are expected to bring back information for the district's ongoing curriculum alignment and teacher training for core standards.

To implement the Pennsylvania Core in the South Allegheny School District, the board created a director of curriculum position that is held by Alisa King, who is also elementary principal. Ms. King said one of the biggest challenges for the district is that many students enter kindergarten without having attended preschool, making it hard to implement more difficult reading and math principles in the lower elementary grades.

As a result, the district has created "flex grouping" which places students in classes based on their level of mastery of math and reading concepts. "If you go into a group with students who are missing skills you will be able to acquire those skills and then move on in the progression," she said.

In the past, students in the early elementary grades stayed with the students in their homerooms for most of their classes.

Also, reading will be a focus across the curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Mary Niederberger:; 412-263-1590.

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