Maybe Mississippi is a good test of whether the new Common Core standards are “developmentally appropriate” for students from kindergarten through the second grade. Mississippi’s standards and education have been weak and the new standards represent significantly higher expectations for both teachers and students.
They are two years down the road implementing the Common Core in grades K-2 and the balanced and reliable Hechinger Report just ran a story by Jackie Mader on how it’s going. Here’s an excerpt (highlights added):
RIDGELAND, Miss. — Nearly two dozen kindergarten students sat neatly on a carpet one sunny December morning at Ann Smith Elementary School here, studying vocabulary words related to timing and sequence.
Their teacher, Charlotte McNeese, chose a timely example to illustrate the meaning of such words as next and finally, asking her students to outline the steps they would take to decorate a Christmas tree.
“Before I do anything else, what do I have to do first?” McNeese asked her students.
Hands shot up and a few students blurted out the answer before McNeese had a chance to call on anyone.
“You have to buy a tree!”
McNeese’s students are ahead of the curve in more than one respect this winter. In past school years, McNeese would not have taught her students the concept of sequence — and the associated vocabulary — until well after their Christmas trees had been tossed out. This “is so much more than we’ve ever done at a kindergarten level,” she said.
McNeese, who has taught elementary school for 19 years, says the standards have raised expectations for her students. In the past, for instance, kindergarteners were expected to draw a picture and write a single sentence explaining the picture. Under Common Core, they are expected to write several sentences about a specific topic and draw a picture that reflects what they wrote. Instead of spending between 15 and 30 minutes on writing each day, McNeese’s students now write for more than an hour throughout the day. In math, her students will be expected to count to 100 by the end of this year instead of 20 (the requirement under the old standards).
Common Core aims to introduce students to more challenging concepts in earlier grades so they will build a strong foundation for higher-level English and math courses.
As a result, McNeese’s kindergarten students will learn skills that used to be taught in first grade, like plural nouns and three-dimensional shapes.
Across grades, the new math standards require students to show their thinking while working through problems, while the English standards require them to include specific examples from their readings.
“We’re moving away from those worksheets into more critical thinking,” said Vincent Segalini, director of English language arts for the Mississippi Department of Education. That means students may read more difficult texts, but will spend longer on each piece to build a strong understanding of the author’s techniques. “Instead of reading ten books every grading period, you’re reading one or two, but you’re spending so much time really getting deep into the text,” he said.
In several districts that have made the transition to the Common Core, elementary grade teachers say they have been surprised by how well the students have grasped the more challenging material. And the first-grade teachers at Madison Crossing Elementary School in Canton say a new emphasis on non-fiction — prompted by the Common Core — has piqued the interest of their male students in particular, who have embraced the opportunity to write about their hobbies and interests. Under the old standards, the first-grade teachers focused more on narrative and creative writing.
“We’ve gotten rid of a lot of fluff,” said Martha D’Amico, principal of Madison Crossing about 25 miles north of Jackson.
In the past, D’Amico says there was more of an emphasis on rote learning: Teachers might have asked students to copy down basic facts about insects as part of a science lesson, for instance. Now, kindergarteners at Madison Crossing will learn about insects by reading books, researching facts, and writing short responses.
We get a lot of hand wringing from Common Core opponents about whether kindergarteners should be able to do what the standards ask – and it surely does depend on how prepared children are for school – but teachers seem to be taking it in stride.