What should kids learn and how should they learn it?
Ask any three teachers and you’ll get a wide range of answers.
Ohio is one of the many states trying to address the question this fall with the adoption of the Common Core, a standard set of expectations for exactly what students need to know at each grade level.
It aims to ensure the same level of math and language education in California as in Maine.
For example, right now a boy in Seattle who earns an A could get a C in the same subject at a school in Chicago because academic expectations aren’t the same in all states.
More importantly, educators want to make sure the United States doesn’t continue to slip behind other countries — a trend that has dire economic consequences.
America doesn’t even rank in the top 20 nations on Earth anymore in reading, math, and science averages, a study by the Program for International Student Assessment shows.
Every three years, PISA measures how 15-year-olds in 65 countries perform. The latest numbers (from 2012) put 29 nations ahead of the U.S. in math.
Students here leaped up nine spots in reading from 2009 to 2012 but still finished in 19th place.
Who performed best overall?
The top rankings went to Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao, Japan, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Estonia.
What is the Common Core?
Amherst and other schools across the state will teach the Common Core this year. But what is it?
Those who drafted it — experts and teachers working for the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — say it “focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.”
“The goal is to increase rigor and raise standards and be more competitive for our children as they go to college,” said Michael Molnar, educational services director for the Amherst Schools.
In math, that means slowing down and hitting a narrower range of ideas much harder.
For example, second-graders absolutely must know how to add and subtract by the end of the year. Eighth-graders cannot move up without understanding linear algebra and linear functions.
In between, teachers have to build on the basics step by step to show how addition “grows” into algebra.
When it comes to language, simply teaching literacy is not good enough, the Common Core says.
The new standards call for a “staircase of increasing complexity” that challenges kids to take what they read and show a deep comprehension of vocabulary and nuance.
Students need to be able to analyze texts and form their own clear arguments and interpretations.
By the time they graduate from Steele High School, teens should have the tools they need for an entry-level career or to take freshmen-level college courses without remediation, Molnar said.
Teaching to the test?
Tests are inevitable. After all, teachers have to figure out how well their students have grasped classroom concepts.
But that’s where a lot of public anxiousness over the Common Core comes from, Molnar said.
There will be much, much more testing this year.
Replacing Ohio Achievement Assessments, the new exams are called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
The first PARCC battery will come about 75 percent of the way through the school year. The second will come in mid-spring.
“So pretty much from February through May we’ll be rotating kids through,” Molnar said.
There will be nine sessions for most grade levels rather than the current two.
That’s about 9.5 hours of testing — roughly double that of the OAAs.
They’ll be given over five days. Some will be shorter, mostly broken into 45-minute chunks.
Exams will be done online, though there could be an optional paper-and-pencil test for students because most districts don’t have enough computers for every student to take the test in that window.
Molnar made one guarantee: “We will not teach to the test.”
He promised that educators won’t “kill and drill” by teaching to the test the entire year.
And they know the first year probably won’t be a shining one.
Districts have been cautioned that they will likely tank the PARCC in its first year because the Common Core is so new.
Molnar remains positive.
“I’m confident that we’ll continue to be excellent. No one can predict what our scores will look like when these tests come out,” he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or on Twitter at @EditorHawk.