As school districts across the state transition to the Montana Common Core State Standards adopted last year by the Montana Board of Education, educators are working to align their curriculum with the higher standards and new teaching methods emphasizing what students need to know and accomplish at every grade level.
While students won’t be tested on the new educational standards until the 2014/15 school year, school districts across the state are making their way through the various stages of transition from the old curriculum to the new to ensure their teachers and students can meet the new, higher standards for their education.
The Sheridan School District has already begun the process of working through an advisory committee to make sure that the curriculum is aligned with the new standards. Superintendent Kim Harding says the district will continue working to raise their standards for educational achievement, and implementing the new requirements has been a pretty good fit so far.
“The common core requires more seminars and more speaking and listening, so the teachers will be doing less lectures and fewer worksheets and instead they’ll be engaging students in more interactive approach,” explained Harding. “Seminars will allow the students to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that’s different, and it will be a dynamic way to get students involved in their own education.”
Seniors from Sheridan’s most recent graduating class specifically noted during their portfolio presentations the challenge presented by writing process in science and mathematics, Harding said.
“They really appreciated the fact that they are walking away from high school with a really good foundation in reading and in writing, both technical writing and in literary analysis,” she said.
Montana is participating in a nation-wide effort to adopt the new standards for English/Language Arts and Math, and in doing so, giving school districts and educators a vast number of resources to provide students with the best, most up-to-date education available, explained Allyson Hagen, communications director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction. The move to the new curriculum is part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which was organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.
According to the OPI website, the object of the initiative is to produce a set of common standards for states to meet the needs of students across the nation. In May 2009 Montana Superintendent Denise Juneau and Governor Brian Schweitzer signed a memo of agreement to be part of the review process for these common standards. The college and career expectations for the state were drafted prior to the development of the K-12 standards to serve as anchor standards to work towards, with an emphasis on focus and coherence within the curriculum, explained Allyson Hagen, communications director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
“One of the benefits of the fact that there are 46 other states doing this at the same time is that we can look across the country for resources, for materials, for sample lesson plans, teacher training webinars, all those kind of things,” Hagen said.
In the past, students underwent standardized testing at grades four, eight and upon graduation to measure their academic progress. But as the Common Core Standards are implemented students’ progress will be monitored and tested at each grade level. Hagen explained the new system provides an advantage for teachers, parents and students alike.
“It’s a lot easier both for teachers and parents and everyone to understand exactly what your child should be learning at each grade level, so that’s a big difference between what we’ve had before and what we have now,” said Hagen.
Part of the transition process is to implement new teaching methods in the classroom, emphasizing the need for students to fully comprehend each and every concept to develop a sound knowledge base in Math and English/Language Arts.
“A lot of the way that we’ve done math is having students learn a lot of different math concepts at one time, and the Common Core Standards is much more about students mastering one skill before they move on to learning another skill,” said Hagen. “So a teacher can be much more focused on making sure their kids master something before moving on.”
The Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts emphasize literacy across a school districts’ curriculum, not just in English classrooms. This means incorporating more informational texts and non-fiction materials that will ultimately help students to develop strong critical thinking skills, Hagen said.
The Sheridan School District is in position to embrace this focus on literacy and developing the writing process in English classes, comparing past curriculums to the new standards, Harding said.
“The previous state standard in literacy used to be identify various literary devices including figurative language, imagery, allegories, symbolism,” she explained. “The new common core standard says ‘Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative language, connotative meanings and analyze the impact.’”
In January, curriculum specialists Jean Howard and Cynthia Green visited the Sheridan School District to observe elementary and junior high classrooms that had already begun to implement the new Common Core Standards, and they shared their observations in a follow up letter to the Sheridan School Board.
“The students were engaged in meaningful conversation and worked collaboratively to accomplish the assigned task,” wrote Howard and Green. “Throughout the lesson, the class was directly instructed as well as student led, while the teacher facilitated the activity. It was an impressive balance of facilitation and instruction.
“We were struck by the confidence that students had as they shared their math ideas. All students spoke to the task at one point or another in the class. It was a comfortable environment where students openly expressed their understanding of the problem,” they continued. “This work is in line with what the Montana Common Core Standards will demand of our students, teachers, administrators and superintendents.”
This year Sheridan teachers will utilize a computer program called My Access to help develop their students’ writing ability across the board, Harding said.
“For example, if you’re a math teacher and you want your students to write and explain a math concept, the computer program will grade the students writing ability using six traits, and then the teacher will be able to focus on the math concepts and vocabulary while the computer program does a lot of the sentence fluency, grammar and condensing,” she said.
Students will be focused on proving what they think instead of just giving opinions, Hagen said.
“So that’s a big goal as critical thinking skills of young people and being able to cite and source information, and doing that through all kinds of different content areas,” she said. “Everybody in the school has a commitment to literacy and making sure our kids read and write well.”
Ennis school superintendent John Overstreet could not specify what the change in curriculum mandated by the Common Core Standards will mean for his school, in part because he just took office in July of this year. But Overstreet did share his observations of what his former school district in Three Forks was doing to implement the change.
“We started the process of getting some professional development for teachers and principals about the standards, and aligning our curriculum with the common core standards next year,” he said.
When asked what the new Montana Common Core Standards mean for the Twin Bridges school district, Superintendent Chad Johnson explained that the school would look to the Montana Educational Consortium, which they belong to with 11 other schools in southwest Montana. The district will rely on the consortium to provide the feedback and information necessary to implement the required changes, and to make sure the school is following along with the guidelines of the Common Core Standards.
“When I looked at this even six months ago, nobody was really even fully aware of exactly what these changes would look like,” said Johnson. “So I guess that’s why we’re going to hold tight a little bit here, we’re going to see what exactly is going to be necessary to implement those, then we’ll move forward.”
School districts will be required to implement the Montana Common Core Standards by the 2013-14 school year for assessment during the 2014-15 school year. Hagen said that the new standards will change the way educators will operate in the classroom, and emphasized the importance of professional development and training to facilitate the transition.
“It’s making sure that these aren’t just standards on a page, that those standards get translated into the classroom,” said Hagen. “So that’s a thing that we’re definitely going to be focusing on over the next year is making sure that all of our teachers have the resources and training and knowledge to make the standards come alive in the classroom.”
The ultimate goal is to educate students the best way possible to prepare them either for a secondary education or the workforce, she said.
“And that’s what we believe these standards will do.”
For more information on the implementation of Montana Common Core Standards, visit http://opi.mt.gov/Curriculum/MontCAS/GetReady.php.