This is the first in a four-article series exploring how teachers are incorporating Common Core State Standards
MIDDLETOWN, Del. — Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough in teacher Amy Lawson's fifth-grade classroom.
Today's students are being asked to think more critically. For example, what might a character say in an email to a friend?
"It's hard. But you can handle this," Lawson tells them.
Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education for students and their teachers in kindergarten through high school.
In 45 states and the District of Columbia, Lawson and other teachers are starting to use the standards to guide what skills students learn and when.
To hear the standards' critics — mainly tea party-aligned conservatives, but also some parents and teachers— tell it, there are few things more dangerous happening in the country.
But in this fast-growing community in northern Delaware, it's just another day in the classroom.
The Common Core State Standards are academic benchmarks that outline the skills a student should have at each level.
For instance, third-graders should know how to find the perimeter of a figure. A fifth-grader should be able to compare and contrast two characters from a story.
The standards were created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to improve academic achievement and increase accountability. President Barack Obama and his administration embraced them.
That led critics, including Republican members of Congress, to call the standards a national curriculum, or "Obamacore." The standards are not a curriculum, despite the opponents' claims. Each state, school or even teacher can determine how to help students reach those standards.
Alaska, Texas, Nebraska and Virginia decided not to adopt them. Minnesota has adopted only the English standards.
At the core of the standards is a reduced emphasis on memorization. Students now have to connect the dots and apply critical thinking. It's what experts call higher-order thinking. Teachers say it's preparing students for life after high school.
That has made classrooms much more of a hands-on proposition.
In teacher Melissa Grieshober's classroom, students have set aside work sheets in favor of a game board. On their 10-by-10 grid of numbers, they are playing a version of capture the flag, using flashcards to guide their moves: a 22-7 card lets them move 15 spaces; 16-9 allows them to move 7.
In pairs, the students try to reach targets on the board, not only by solving the problems at hand but by figuring out which cards would get them closer to their targets. It's as much about probability, predictability and luck as it is about rote memorization of addition and subtraction tables.
In fact, in Grieshober's classroom, there is no right or wrong way to figure out such problems. Yes, there are correct answers. But students are encouraged to explain how they got there.
"How did you reach that number?" Grieshober asked one of her third-grade students. "Show me your strategy for solving this."
But what about those who say schools exist to teach students facts, such as 15 subtracted from 20 equals five?
"We are asking kids to do more, and to dig deeper," Grieshober said after class. "We are teaching them to be lifelong problem solvers."
She knows the criticism and political punch it carries. But she isn't ready to ditch the benchmarks.
"It's eye-opening when you come into a school," Grieshober said. "I encourage any politician to go into a local school and see what it is."
Critics' biggest disagreement with the standards is that students and teachers are being expected to do more and do it more quickly. If either group doesn't keep up, there are serious consequences.
"Honestly, it's overwhelming at first," said Lara Crowley, an English and language arts specialist who is coaching teachers on the Common Core standards in Delaware's Appoquinimink School District. "I had a hard time wrapping my head around how this was going to work."
For instance, subtraction is now introduced in kindergarten instead of first grade.
"We were nervous," Crowley said."It raises the bar for us."
For the students as well as the teachers.
Coinciding with the new standards are new tests for students and evaluations for teachers. The tests, mandated under the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law, help states identify schools that are struggling and provide them extra help.
The teacher evaluations were not originally part of the Common Core. But in exchange for millions of federal dollars to help them avoid layoffs during the worst of the recession, states agreed to greater accountability for students and teachers. Many opted to go with the Common Core and linked students' progress with teacher performance.
In some places, such as New York and Minnesota, the shift to Common Core testing produced a steep drop in student scores, which reflected poorly on teachers.
"We know there is going to be a bump in the road. But we're going to do our best for the students," said Silver Lake Elementary School principal Cynthia Clay, a 31-year educator who has insisted her teachers receive training on the new standards.
Teachers meet in the evenings, during their planning periods and exchange emails asking how they might best approach the standards. Clay pulled together teachers with similar levels of experience so they could share their stories and realize they aren't alone in their frustrations.
"In a perfect world, the tests would reflect how well the students are learning," said Melissa Bowser, a 15-year classroom veteran.
But she, like her colleagues, expects there will be a decline in student scores.
"It will take two or three years," said Sherry Frangia, who has taught for more than 30 years and is bracing for the dip in scores.
That doesn't mean testing is the enemy.
"We need some sort of evidence that they're learning," Frangia said. "We didn't get into teaching to stand up here and have nothing to show for it."
Back in Lawson's classroom, fifth-graders are continuing work on a lesson about points of view.
Students are clustered in groups as Lawson read aloud Judy Blume's 1974 short story, "The Pain and the Great One." Unlike previous years, when students were asked to remember basic details about the plot and characters, the questions this year weren't as simple.
She assigned each student a character in the book and then told them to write an email message from that character to a friend.
"I need to see all pencils moving, friends," she says.
In classrooms at non-Common Core schools, the assignment might have been filling out a work sheet with questions about which character said what. Now, the students are being asked to take the reading a step further and to critically question whether their character was an honest narrator.
"It's not in the story. You will have to infer here," Lawson says.
Students don't seem to mind.
"We're doing things, not just sitting there and listening," fifth-grader Jon Warner said after the lesson. "My opinions matter."
In fact, students are encouraged to disagree with their classmates and push them to defend their thinking.
"Are we allowed to have different opinions about this?" Lawson says, urging her students to share differing opinions about the picture book. "Yes, as long as you have evidence to back this up."
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