The rigorous national Common Core standards are already influencing Oregon schools.
The David Douglas School District cut four days off the beginning of the school year — not because of budget cuts or problems with the buildings — but to train teachers. In David Douglas elementary schools the training was for curriculum tied to the Common Core.
OPB is following kids who started kindergarten last year at the district’s Earl Boyles Elementary. Oregon has structured reforms around getting that Class of 2025 to graduate at a 100-percent rate. Rob Manning checked in with 1st grade teachers to see how instruction is changing.
Many primary teachers in Oregon were teaching students last week. In David Douglas, they were in the library at Earl Boyles, learning about the “Forward” curriculum — a new instructional approach the district bought from textbook publisher, Pearson Education.
Judy Commander is with Pearson. She led teachers to an online interface where they can share ideas.
“Reaching out, not only to your peers here at David Douglas, but to every other Forward school may, as we roll into October, be very rich with opportunities,” Commander said.
Common Core replaces state-level standards in 45 states. It determines what students should know at different grade levels.
The emphasis is on skills like critical thinking, and getting students to prove answers, rather than check off boxes. The standards are high, but they’re standards, not content, or curriculum.
First grade teachers at Earl Boyles say they graded students last year against the Common Core standards. But teacher Nicole Rauch says last year’s curriculum didn’t really help kids meet those standards.
“When we had to teach only these lessons for reading, you can’t possibly hit the Common Core, so it’s so unattainable, that as a teacher, you already feel pressure and it’s like ‘How is this going to happen, when these are the resources I have?’,” Rauch says.
The Common Core has drawn questions and criticism, across the country. But the union representing teachers in Oregon supports it.
National Education Association president, Dennis Van Roekel, visited Oregon this week and said Common Core has to work locally.
“How those standards are implemented in a district is huge — and it’s a tough challenge,” Van Roekel said.
David Douglas is pinning its hopes on the Forward curriculum. The product from Pearson Education overhauls math, reading, writing, science, and social studies from kindergarten through 5th grade.
Carrie Foster is helping implement Forward at David Douglas. She says it reflects the Common Core’s shift to complex thinking.
“So it’s no longer just being able to regurgitate facts — that we’re looking at building those skills that can transfer to various subject areas,” Foster says.
Critics warn that Common Core could reduce teacher creativity.
But Earl Boyles first grade teacher Karen McDonald, says the old curriculum was too restrictive.
“We were given curriculum and it was pretty prescribed — we basically had to do all the lessons, we didn’t have a whole lot of choice about how we taught. And now, we have an opportunity to really use real literature to work with our kids; really meet them at their needs,” McDonald explained.
The teachers say some lessons look familiar, like the emphasis on foundational words in reading. But teacher Heather Gerritz says the new Forward curriculum goes deeper.
“It’s not just ‘check off they can count to 100’ - it’s ‘OK, do you understand how to use these numbers to 100 in lots of different ways?’ Or 120, actually, now.” Gerritz says the demands are high for students and teachers.
“There’s so much instruction needed to get all the skills met and the standards met, but - but even just after a year, we have a better idea of ‘OK, we just have to introduce these things in little mini-lessons earlier’ and our kids are quite capable of doing it.”
The curriculum change in five subject areas is landing with mixed reactions. First grade teacher Diane Tarbet says the new curriculum is an improvement - but a bit overwhelming.
“It will take time. I see this first year as a learning experience. Some lessons will go well and some won’t. But we’re all learning,” Tarbet said.
The teachers say it’s a bigger challenge in upper elementary. Heather Gerritz says her new students — the Class of 2025 that OPB is following — won’t face high-stakes standardized tests right away. Older kids will.
“Those pieces now that we’re adding in with the Common Core, those 5th graders haven’t had yet maybe. So they need those years to catch up. These kids that you’re following now — we should see a big difference, when they get up to the testing years,” Gerritz said.
“Maybe it’s easier for us to look at it, because we’re the beginning of their education,” Nicole Rauch wonders. She co-teaches 1st grade with Heather Gerritz.
“I think as a 5th grade teacher, even looking at starting your 5th graders with this Forward curriculum, and really delving deeply — well, they’ve never been asked to think that deeply.”
Rauch says the shift has her feeling better about teaching.
She says under the old guidelines, she had started to question whether she wanted to continue teaching.
“And in the past few years, got to the point where personally, I thought ‘Maybe this isn’t for me - I don’t feel like this is what I know, and what I believe.’ Now, I think we’re making this shift back to why I got into teaching.”
David Douglas is spending a million dollars on the Forward curriculum, and is the only district in the country to implement that product in all its K-5 buildings. It’s one of many new curriculum products available to school districts as they move to the Common Core.