Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What Parents Need To Know About the Common Core (technology tips included)

What Parents Need to Know About the Common Core and How They Can Help Their Children

The Common Core is an attempt to nationalize the curriculum creating common core standards in grades K-12.  What does this practically mean?  Well, almost all states have signed up to support this and by doing so are requiring their curriculum to conform to these standards.  In addition, they have ensured that these standards will be measured by creating tests (albeit not necessarily a national test) to test the acquisition of this core knowledge.  Practically speaking, this means a more rigorous skill based curriculum in both math and English and more reading and writing in both Science and Social Studies.  Initial scores on high stakes tests in some of the best districts in New York State indicate that our nation’s children fall well below the standard level of acceptability on these tests.  While critics argue everything from states' rights to the creation of a test centric curriculum, parents are caught wondering what impact this will have on their children and their schools.  
The good news for Bergen County yeshiva parents is that your child will not be held accountable in a high stakes testing format for at least the next few years(this is not true for Bergen County public school parents)  In fact, yeshivas in Bergen County have not embraced tests to assess the common core like the online exam called the “PARCC”, which is being fazed into NJ public schools starting 2014-2015. This test will be conducted online. For any of you who have had the distinct pleasure of taking online adaptive testing, you know how different it is and how much of a digital curve there is in learning how to take this kind of test. Students who are more use to taking tests online will naturally do better than students less prepared. This learning curve will need to be addressed. Since yeshivas are not legally bound to take the PARCC starting in 2014, it is up to each yeshiva to decide whether or not to embrace common core standards and how to assess student’s knowledge of them.   If NJ yeshivas decide to go test students with such a standardized exam on these new skills, it will most probably be after they start preparing teachers on these news standards and certainly much later than the public schools do.  They will have the benefit of observing what works and does not for NJ districts and many other schools across the country.

As an administrator in a New York City school that will be embracing the Common Core and will be having high stakes testing on it (NY is fazing in this test in a much slower and methodical way than NJ because it will be adding one subject a time each year), I have begun to require all of my teachers submit unit plans that show which standards they are hitting each unit.  I also have required them to go through the standards and make sure they hit all necessary ones over the course of the year.  To this effect, I will be giving them extensive professional development training on the new standards.  I am also hoping to purchase Performance Pathways, now called Curriculum Connector, an online software that backs up to a remote online cloud and connects teachers with examples from teachers all across the country teaching the same subjects and planning the same units. I highly suggest this piece of software and believe it will simply the process for teachers of selecting which standards go with which unit and making sure all standards are hit.
As parents, you will see your child read more non-fiction in the English classroom and throughout their educational experience.  The focus is on having students read more deeply and critically. Subjects will be sharing the responsibility of promoting literacy across the curriculum.  In math, teachers will actually be covering less topics, but instead making sure students have a deeper understanding of the material they cover and are able to adapt their knowledge to real world applications.  So practically, your child might not get through all of fractions and then move on to division as quickly as has been done in the past.  There is an increased focus on problem solving and word problems.There is an increased focus on vocabulary and reading comprehension in all subjects. Third graders, for example, are required to be able to read passages from Leo Tolstoy.  

So, how can you help? While I've always been a huge advocate for reading with your children above level grade books that they could not learn their own nightly and discussing the book with your child, I am now suggesting considering reading specifically non-fiction books with your kids. I would also suggest speaking to your kids about the TV shows they watch. Having them analyze the storyline, dissect the plot, label the characters, and pick out any symbolic messages that are used as metaphors or tools to shadow events. Virtually all Disney movies contain these features if you look closely enough at them. 
Also, you can easily turn dinner time "real world problem solving" time. Come up with a problem and have your children discuss what they might do to solve it if they were in charge. Kids of any age can be given problems that they want to solve. For example, the other day I spoke with my daughter about going to the park, but it had just rained. I asked her how we could still go even though it was wet. She suggested rain boots and a towel to dry off the swings. While many real world problems are pretty complicated, I was proud my 5 year old could think of a solution to an immediate one that was pressing to her. At times the problems can be math related, others can be logic, some a combination of both. Regardless, you are teaching your children strategies and application two rather higher order thinking skills.
Make sure to to expose your children, even at a very young age, to museums, documents, different sources of information, people of a variety of skills and traits, and careers. Do not expect them to spend a great deal of time on any of this in one shot, so be patient and do not expect too much too soon. Now, this is a good thing to do regardless of whether or not your school adopts the Common Core, but can be further enhanced if the school does. Use each experience as a primary source with your family as the eye witness. Explain how history is recorded and how people view the same experiences differently. Have your children write journal entries or, if too young to write a formal journal, draw picture books about the activities you do together complete with a beginning, middle, and end. They can do this with a variety of iPad apps and online tools, or old school with paper and crayons. Either work.

I would also suggest ABCmouse and getting a subscription to Dreambox for your child in math if you long for your child to do something meaningful during extended free time on the weekend or weeknight. Even kids as young as kindergarten can get into a routine of bringing the learning beyond the walls of the school building into the home. Anything that will enable your child to learn online will provide them with a skill that is similar to the online exams of the future. Are you not a digital native? Perhaps you are skeptical about the use of computers in the acquisition of skill or knowledge? I hear you, but even more so, you must try. This will enable your child to have access to this type of learning. This will help alleviate the digital divide that will occur when your child is eventually required to take an online standardized exam (yes even the SAT's or other college entrance exams someday may be online). More tips throughout the year to follow. Enjoy the first day of school!