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Students returning to area classrooms this week will be greeted by smiling teachers and all the possibilities a new school year brings.

They also will face what some are calling the biggest changes to the U.S. education system in a decade.

Districts throughout the state and nation are adopting new standards for learning – called Common Core – and this marks the first full year students will be taught the new, more narrowly focused curriculum.

“We’re going from a mile wide and an inch deep to ten feet wide and six feet deep,” said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. “We’re not going to try to cover every single thing, but try to drill down so kids get an intense instruction.”

Federal education officials say the new curriculum will raise standards nationwide so America’s students can get jobs and compete with the rest of the world. Forty-five of the 50 states have agreed to adopt the standards – which supporters call a rare bipartisan solution to come out of Washington in recent years.

But resistance is popping up here and across the nation.

Detractors say adoption of the program has been indirectly tied to receiving federal Race to the Top education funding, which they say is unfair.

And some parents and teachers have criticized it as an unproven, “top-down” program that reinforces an overemphasis on standardized testing.

“They haven’t really tested it, and they don’t have any backed-up data saying this works, that this is going to get the results they want,” said Daniel Kasprzak, a City of Tonawanda parent of two. “I don’t think it’s the students that are lacking, it’s the system they’re putting in place.”

Not helping the perception of Common Core is what many districts called a bungled roll-out of the program by the state Education Department last year.

“Things came out in dribs and drabs and late, and there was a lot of confusion,” Kremer said.

Districts say that confusion, along with generally higher standards, played a role in why standardized test scores in English language arts and math plummeted, with just 31 percent of students in third through eighth grades meeting math and English standards.

But like it or not, the new program will be in full effect this week, and local school officials are busy getting up to speed.

“The first thing we did was make sure what the standards were, what the differences were and what the big focus was on,” said Andrea Todoro, school leader of West Buffalo Charter School.

That meant assigning some summer reading for teachers to familiarize them with more complex subjects.

For example, reading standards will involve more than picking answers from the text. Students will need to discern the mood and tone of certain stories, not just key words.

Reading and writing will be more integrated into other subject areas, as well, so students will be writing about social studies and science as part of their English curriculum.

“It’s requiring a multi-step approach to problem-solving that perhaps had not been there before,” said Marie Balen, assistant superintendent for instruction at Williamsville Central Schools. “It requires a lot more reading than was required in the past.”

Math questions, in many cases, will be less straight forward and will be embedded in longer word problems.

“Its not just, ‘Here’s the problem, go ahead and solve it,’ ” Balen said.

Williamsville and some other districts got a head start on the curriculum last year and have offered training to try to help their teachers master it.

Students at West Buffalo and other charter schools got their first peeks at the new material when they started classes last week.

“I think in the beginning, it’s a little bit overwhelming,” said Todoro. “But when you pull out the key ideas from them it’s really manageable.”

West Buffalo, which is a new charter that opened last year, structured much of its curriculum around the new standards, but other districts may require more of an adjustment.

“I come from a district where people were teaching the same thing for 20 to 30 years, where you have to embrace the new and let go of the past, so it makes it a little more difficult,” she said.

Experts expect the program to run more smoothly this year because districts have had some time to iron out the problems.

“I think this year, districts do have more resources,” said Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “The state has developed a lot of things available to students and teachers over the last couple of months. It would have been helpful to have those a year ago.”

Last school year, districts were grappling with controversial issues like statewide teacher and principal evaluations at the same time they were being introduced to the Common Core curriculum and testing, he said.

“Schools were dealing with a lot of demanding initiatives last year,” Lowry said. “We’ve got a year under our belt … and some of those unique challenges of 2012-13 are less.”

Teachers will start seeing the impact of all of the changes being made, with testing on the Common Core subjects to be factored into the new statewide evaluation system.

Union leaders are adamant that last year’s scores shouldn’t count against them.

The state teachers union “will take every possible step to ensure that the state’s testing system is not used against students or teachers, and we will vigorously advocate for and defend any teacher subjected to professional harm from the misuse of useless data,” New York State United Teachers President Richard C. Iannuzzi said last week.

Meanwhile, many parents have objected, locally and elsewhere.

Dozens of parents in East Aurora have stepped forward in recent months to protest the changes, and a Lancaster man last week sparked controversy by comparing his district’s school board’s willingness to go along with the educational changes to “Nazi Germany before World War II.”

Kasprzak, the City of Tonawanda parent, held his 8-year-old daughter out of two “field tests” students were given in June that judged whether a private contractor successfully developed the tests but which otherwise did not count.

He believes the Common Core will get children and parents “all stirred up” by focusing too much on job placement at a time when many college graduates with degrees are already unemployed.

“It seems like we’re trying to pump out lemmings to go to college and get a job,” he said. “What about the kids who don’t want to go to college? What about the ones that can’t?”

Experts say some of the pushback to the reforms may have arisen because Common Core is being lumped in with unpopular mandates like standardized testing or teacher ratings.

“Those opposed to it are now rolling it together as one big mess, and they want to throw the whole thing out,” Kremer said.

Lowry has advice for those who oppose the measures but offer no alternative measures.

“I’ve said to some superintendents frankly who have pushed back, ‘What’s your solution, to throw all this out and go back to what we were doing before? Is that really preferable?’,” Lowry said. “Most educators I speak to say this is better – not perfect, but it’s a step forward.”

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Here is an example of a Common Core Performance Task 5th Grade Math (2013)

Stuffed with Pizza

Tito and Luis are stuffed with pizza! Tito ate one-fourth of a cheese pizza. Tito ate three-eighths of a pepperoni pizza. Tito ate one-half of a mushroom pizza. Luis ate five-eighths of a cheese pizza. Luis ate the other half of the mushroom pizza. All the pizzas were the same size. Tito says he ate more pizza than Luis because Luis did not eat any pepperoni pizza. Luis says they each ate the same amount of pizza. Who is correct? Show all your mathematical thinking.

Source: www.engageNY.org

email: cspecht@buffnews.com