School districts may redesign student courses to meet new standards

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

As we start the new calendar year, New Jersey school districts are faced with a big challenge: implementing a new set of educational objectives by September 2014 in order to meet the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

N.J. is one of 45 states, plus the District of Columbia, that signed onto new curricula developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. (Nay-sayers are Alaska, Minnesota, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia.) The new standards for learning define the skills that all K-12 children should learn in language arts and mathematics, and other subjects. The Common Core standards aim to turn out better prepared for college and the workplace. 

From the Common Core website:

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“These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs.”

What does the adoption of the Common Core mean for New Jersey? Our curriculum was already pretty good (earning a “C” grade from the Fordham Foundation, mainly due to lack of specificity for 9th-12th graders). High-performing districts will be tweaking, while struggling districts will see bigger changes. 

What changes

The new learning standards will provide districts with very specific goals for students. Here’s an example of the shift (courtesy of the N.J. DOE). Previously, one official N.J. standard for 8th grade geometry students was, “Understand and apply the Pythagorean Theorem.” Pretty vague, right? Post-CCCS, those students will: 

1 – Explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and its converse.

2 – Apply the Pythagorean Theorem to determine unknown side lengths in right triangles in real-world and mathematical problems in two and three dimensions.

3 – Apply the Pythagorean Theorem to find the distance between two points in a coordinate system.More rigor, less inconsistency, internationally-benchmarked standards: what’s not to like? Plenty.

Too specific?

One active constituency derides the CCCS’s shift to more non-fiction reading in high school. While once there was little oversight, now the reading done by 9th-12th grade students (across all subjects) is supposed to comprise 70% non-fiction. In language arts classes it’s supposed to be 50%-50%, with a reading list that stresses the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. But only one Shakespeare play.

Here’s Diane Ravitch on the intrusion of government into the classroom: 

”English teachers should be free to teach whatever they love, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. The ratios are nonsense. Utter and complete nonsense. I repeat: what administrator will have the stopwatch to police this travesty in all the classrooms? What brave soul will call it what it is: nonsense.”

For counterpoint, David Coleman, president of the College Board, and a CCCS advocate is quoted in the New York Times sayis that American language arts classrooms focus too much on self-expression and not enough on the ability to write clearly and effectively. “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ “

Here’s one other aspect that’s garnered criticism: as a corollary to the CCCS, all students will take annual assessments. Right now, N.J. high school students take only one state-issued standardized test, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), which covers math and language arts. Some critics, including Jon Corzine’s education commissioner, Lucille Davy, and Chris Christie’s education commissioner, Chris Cerf, say the HSPA is an 8th grade level test not a high school one. Eventually (timelines for statewide implementation are a little fuzzy) high school students will be required to pass subject-specific tests tied to the far more rigorous standards of CCCS. 

Some worry that high school graduation rates will plummet. Stan Karp, a program director with N.J.’s Education Law Center spoke at a NJ Spotlight forum on the growing consensus that we’re not properly educating our kids. “We have more than 100,000 kids between 18 and 24 years of age who are not in school or in college, and do we need to push more kids out of school without diplomas?” Karp asked.

Others argue that a meaningful bar for college and career-readiness is a necessary step. At the same Spotlight forum, Jeffrey Scheininger, the owner of a Linden-based tubing manufacturing business, said, “I ran an ad for an entry level manufacturing position. Of 100 applicants who were self-described as high school graduates, two were able to pass an elementary arithmetic test…They couldn’t read a ruler. It was stunning.”

Almost everyone agrees that N.J. high schools need higher standards and that the CCCS moves us forward. We’re just not sure what happens when we get there.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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