Changing the Classroom: City schools phase in new standards, including tougher math for 5th grade
Nadya Plutnicki raises her hand to ask a question in Nina Dollison's fifth-grade math class at Concord Elementary School in Carrick, which uses the Common Core Curriculum.
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Fifth-grader Kassidy McKown does lots of things after her sixth-grade sister, Riley. But in math class, Kassidy is getting the first shot.
Kassidy and her classmates at Pittsburgh Concord K-5 in Carrick just finished a unit on data and graphs that her sister's classmates at South Brook Middle won't tackle until later this school year.
Kassidy, who enjoys finding the mean and range, is proud of her accomplishments. "It makes me feel bigger," she said.
This school year, Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers are expected to teach -- and fifth-graders expected to learn -- both fifth- and much of sixth-grade math as the district makes changes to make way for the K-12 Common Core State Standards.
Ultimately, the changes will affect every grade level in math and literacy.
Forty-five states, including Pennsylvania, have adopted Common Core standards for math and English language arts. The standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The standards, which are built on over-arching principles, are based on the idea that all elementary and secondary students should learn certain skills and information no matter where they live. The standards permit states to add up to 15 percent in state-determined material.
Pennsylvania, which is phasing out its old academic standards, has called for the Common Core to be implemented by July 1.
The first state tests built on the Common Core are the new high school Keystone Exams, which will be offered in Algebra 1, biology and literature this school year.
By the Class of 2017, the Keystones will be required for graduation statewide, with Pittsburgh Public Schools requiring them as early as the Class of 2014.
Jerri Lippert, chief academic officer for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the Common Core "sets a much higher level" than most states had.
Some of the items on the Algebra 1 Keystone historically have been covered in Algebra 2 in city schools. Those concepts were moved to Algebra 1 this school year.
"It really is a great example of ratcheting up the rigor," said Ms. Lippert.
Geometry was aligned to the Common Core last school year.
District officials figured fifth grade was a good place to start in elementary school because fifth-graders already studied many of the sixth-grade concepts but not in as much depth.
Next year, they will face more difficult concepts in sixth-grade than the current sixth-graders are studying, thus getting them ready for a tougher Algebra 1 course.
Ms. Lippert said it's not a case of just cramming content into a course.
"It's not around breadth, which means how much you cover. It's actually around how deep you go," she said.
The fifth-graders are using six of the eight Connected Math units that have been part of sixth grade -- each has a separate soft-cover book -- but will be offered only in fifth grade after this year.
That includes three units on fractions as well as units on data, factors and multiples and shapes and design.
Concord fifth-grader Nadya Plutnicki of Carrick said, "I think it's cool they're trying to push us and get us ready for sixth grade."
Concord fifth-grade teacher Nina Dollison, the lead curriculum writer for this year's fifth-grade math, said each unit has 15 lessons over a total of 25 days, allowing time for depth.
State tests in the spring still are based on the old state academic standards, so the yearlong curriculum also includes pieces from Everyday Math as well as supplemental materials from their old textbook, "enVisionMath," so that the old standards are covered as well.
Ms. Dollison, who used to teach sixth-grade math, said that the fifth-graders adapted well to the math in the first Connected Math unit called "Data about Us," although some found the reading level difficult.
She said the topics, such as various types of graphs, had been taught previously in fifth grade but not in as much depth.
In addition, the approach calls for the students to discover mathematical concepts through hands-on experiences rather than just being given a formula.
She said the result is better mastery. "I love that they really understand mean," she said.
On a recent culminating exercise involving analyzing real data on the lengths and weights of alligators, students were highly engaged in groups for more than an hour.
They made coordinate and stem-and-leaf graphs, calculated means and ranges and prepared presentations to explain their work to classmates.
They finished by pasting group posters on the board, gathering around to compare results.
As they worked, they followed some of the eight math "practice standards" in the Common Core, such as making sense of problems and persevering in solving them.
Fifth-grader Tara Stenger of Overbrook agrees with persevering.
"I think that's true. If you try your best, you can always succeed," she said.
Changes also are being made on the literacy side. In 11th-grade English, for example, two-thirds of the nine units required significant revision; the other three units needed minimum to moderate changes. Those changes are being put into effect this school year.
At various grade levels, literature is being added or replaced, with the goal of adding rigor, more informational text or cultural diversity.
In eighth-grade English, "Chain of Fire" by Beverley Naidoo, a novel about apartheid in South Africa, is being replaced by "Forge" by Laurie Halse Anderson, which is set in the American Revolution, has a strong African-American male protagonist and has connections with the social studies curriculum.
Some of the changes include adding more informational reading to what largely had consisted of fiction, adding more argumentative writing and doing more close reading to digest more difficult texts line by line.
The Common Core does not cover content in social studies and science although it addresses reading in those areas, including providing examples to ensure students are reading text of "appropriate complexity."
While some of the content is shifting, Ms. Lippert said the Common Core fits in with the way teachers already were being encouraged to teach and with habits, such as critical thinking and independent learning, that the district was trying to develop in students.
"The Common Core for us confirms the work Pittsburgh is doing," Ms. Lippert said.
First Published October 15, 2012 12:00 am