PPI Series: Teachers Point to Early Benefits of Higher Standards

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part four of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

While there have been plenty of challenges with the adoption of higher standards in New York, the public has not been hearing enough about the positive results that the state is already seeing.  Student outcomes are not going to improve overnight, as Massachusetts learned when it raised standards in the 1990s (more on that in a future post).  But the results of New York’s math tests, which are used to measure students’ mastery of the standards, are encouraging:  The percentage of all test takers in grades 3-8 who scored at the proficient level has increased by seven points, from 31% in 2013 up to 38% in 2015.  Even more promising, the Common Core movement seems to have tapped a phenomenal burst of energy and creativity among New York’s teachers.  In today’s post, you’ll hear from some of those teachers in their own words.

The “Engaged Voices” section of the New York State Education Department’s EngageNY.org site is full of ideas, videos, and testimonials by New York teachers and administrators.  (The teacher and principal testimonials throughout this post are from Engaged Voices unless otherwise noted.)  Angela Logan-Smith, principal of the Goldie Maple Academy in Queens, describes how teachers are using the standards as a jumping-off point for innovative learning activities: 

Children get engaged in ideas and love to do projects to extend their learning. Teachers love this too; it gives them a chance to pursue their students’ interests in creative ways. Last year, one class of kindergartners was fascinated with recycling after finishing [a Common-Core-aligned unit] called Taking Care of the Earth. Their teacher took them on a walk near the school in which they identified litter that could have been recycled. The next day, the teacher brought in clean examples of all the things they identified. After donning their white lab coats, these little scientists figured out which recycling bin each item belonged in [and] discussed what could have been saved if all the litter they saw outside had been recycled.

The EngageNY.org site also contains free curriculum resources for teachers and principals and has received tens of millions of hits.  Katherine Hesla, a humanities teacher in Webster Central Schools near Rochester, talks about the advantages of sharing ideas and resources in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  “One of the huge benefits of the Common Core is that it gave us someplace to start from and collaborate,” she explains.  “Before, we were all just making up our own thing.”

Louis Cuglietto, the principal of JFK Magnet Elementary School in the Mid-Hudson Valley, explains the way math instruction is changing under the new standards:

Instead of lessons that feature a single procedure, teachers are facilitating learning by giving students multiple ways that they can use to come to the answer. Students then discuss both their answer and the process they used, which provides the opportunity for all students to learn from each other and develop a more fluid, conceptual understanding of mathematics.

Karen Marino, a math specialist in Skaneateles, Central New York, describes it as a “new rigorous math world in which struggle and persistence precede success.”  According to Marylee Liebowitz, a math coach from Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, these shifts are long overdue:

As a math teacher for twenty-two years, I witnessed first-hand how American students have slipped further and further behind their global competitors…. We, as educators, have been unable to raise student performance in math and have repeatedly found US students near the bottom of the math rankings, despite the disproportionate amount of money spent on educating each child. During these years, I worked hard to design my own classroom lessons to stress understanding and mathematical thinking over a “step by step” process so my students truly comprehended the math behind the algorithm….  I was so pleased and surprised to find that the functional changes that we are making to teaching math are reflective of the strategies that I have found to be most successful with my students….

I truly believe these standards will result in the curricular and instructional changes that New York students need to become college ready and have an opportunity to participate positively in the global economy they will encounter when entering the workplace. The Common Core Learning Standards will help ensure that students are not hindered by poor qualifications and remediation but rather provide them with the footing they need to have real choices about their education, and careers.  Their futures will be in their hands.  

Teachers in other subjects are no less enthusiastic about the Common Core shifts in the way students are learning literacy skills.  The changes start early, according to Rochelle Jensen, an elementary school teacher in Rome, in the Mohawk Valley:

I don’t want a quiet classroom with kids sitting at their desk and hands folded waiting for me to spill out the next lesson. My classroom is filled with inquisitive students gaining knowledge through complex text, using close reading strategies to infer meaning and providing supporting evidence in their responses. When students are doing most of the talking their thinking gets stronger and they can then build on this knowledge when they write.

Andria Finch, an English language arts teacher in Franklin, in the Southern Tier, agrees that close reading leads to better writing:

Because my students now closely analyze authors’ use of language and the ways these authors unfold their stories, not only are they generating their own ideas and providing evidence to support their claims, but their own creative writing has improved tremendously as well. 

And Roberta Faery, a high school social studies teacher and curriculum facilitator in Newfane, in Western New York, says these shifts are leading to gains across the curriculum:

When students know what it means to ‘make a claim’ in their writing they start to write for a purpose and not just because their teacher assigned it. Students have developed as writers.  Now feedback and revisions are key and an essential piece to the writing process.  The students’ time spent on editing and refining their writing has enabled them to develop a much deeper understanding of content.

To be heard above the sometimes strident controversy, teachers are joining pro-common core organizations, such as the New York Educator Voice Fellowship, and stepping forward to pen op eds in support of the standards and tests.  The New York Post’s “Passing the Common Core” series features teacher perspectives and sample lessons at each grade level.  Many of the teachers speaking out are motivated by a vision of equal educational opportunity for our state’s disadvantaged students.  Joshua Cornue, a fourth grade teacher in Rochester, explains:

The Common Core has allowed me to embrace higher expectations for my students. These kids who come from the most impoverished areas of the city, and who have often faced a track record of failure in school, are now coming in with more knowledge and confidence since they have been exposed to higher level work.

Teresa Ranieri, a first grade teacher at P.S. 11 in the Bronx, expresses a similar sentiment in a recent op ed in support of the annual state tests:

The data and results derived from assessments are a path to providing equal opportunity to a quality education for all.  I believe that by providing all students with an education they deserve, and annually measuring their growth and making instructional improvement, we can begin to bridge the inequality gaps in our education system.

Tim O. Mains, superintendent of the Jamestown Public Schools in Western New York, shares his perspective:

These new exams are more sophisticated than those given years ago. The stronger emphasis on skills like problem solving and critical thinking focus on building what students need for success.…  We believe that the tests are one fair measure of how well our students are learning the Common Core standards. The exams become a valuable measure of how well we are doing as a district. 

Educators who have seen first-hand the benefits of the new standards in their own schools and classrooms are making their voices heard.  Michelle Helmer, director of curriculum and instructional coach in the Silver Creek and Forestville School Districts in Western New York, concludes a recent article in the Observer Today with a strong call to action:

Let’s not divert our resources, change our trajectory, or back down. Let’s not settle for reactionary changes to the Common Core Standards in order to calm the political waters or make our work easier when it may leave a wake of superficial learning in its path. Let’s instead continue to support our teachers, leaders and students. Let’s provide the resources, time, and encouragement needed to work for the changes we wish to see in our classrooms for our students.

Please click here to read the third part in this ongoing series.

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