By now, most people have heard of the Common Core curriculum. But for such a sweeping change, many do not know exactly what it is. The name indicates all children will be taught the same things, but that's not it -- at least not exactly.
Common Core is the first major reform initiative to deal with the front end of education -- the substance of what actually is being taught in the classroom, instead of focusing solely on student performance on standardized tests (although testing is a big part of it as well).
It is also the first reform that sets one set of standards for all. For the first time in the history of the United States, kids in Alabama and California are expected to acquire the same skills, at the same grade level, as kids in Connecticut and New York.
In the Milford schools, math supervisor Lisa Swanson said the emphasis in the new curriculum is on the journey, not the destination.
"It's not only about getting the right answer, but getting to the answer," she said of math problems. Solving them also becomes a job for teams of students, not individuals.
In language arts, there is much more focus on nonfiction, short novels and tough-to-read prose.
"This is not to say that narrative reading or narrative writing are going away," said Jennifer Sinal, an English supervisor in Milford. But the focus is on engaging in active reading strategies across content areas.
This year, Connecticut joins 44 other states that have adopted the reform. Released in their final form in June 2010, Common Core's English/language-arts and math standards do not mandate what schools must teach. Instead, they outline the body of skills and knowledge that students are expected to develop each year in kindergarten through 12th grade, with the ultimate goal of ensuring they are ready to succeed in college and eventually the workforce after they graduate from high school.
For example, the standards do not say fifth-grade students must read "Treasure Island," but they do say students of that age should be able to "determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in text." Likewise, the standards do not dictate which math curriculum school districts will use. But they do spell out mathematical concepts and functions that students should be able to master by each grade level.
The standards: English/language arts
The Common Core State Standards themselves are many and detailed, not to mention dry and academic. Common Core's website lists the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers as the standards' authors. Elsewhere, many education experts describe David Coleman, now the president of the College Board, as Common Core's "architect."
The standards cover two academic subjects: English/language arts and mathematics.
Common Core's ELA standards define what students should understand and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking and other language-related skills in each grade. All lead to the abilities students should possess by the time they graduate from high school.
At each level, the ELA standards set specific benchmarks. For example, fifth-graders are expected to perform the following when reading literature:
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
Determine a theme of a story, drama or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
The ELA standards aim to create a "staircase of increasing text complexity," in which students are expected to develop their skills and apply them to increasingly complex pieces of writing.
"The concept is that students will do fewer things deeper and with greater rigor," said Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, Connecticut's chief academic officer. "A lot of times, our curriculum was described as a mile wide but an inch deep. This is a contrast between us and countries that tend to outperform us."
Not everyone is as optimistic as she is about the reform, however. One of the many aspects of the Common Core that have provoked passionate debate is the type of texts students must tackle. A concentration on non-fiction has many educators up in arms.
By fourth grade, it expects students' coursework to follow a 50-50 split between literary and "informational" non-fiction texts. The latter category's share rises to 55 percent by eighth grade and jumps to 70 percent by 12th grade, including reading in social studies/history, science and other subjects.
"If our students read 50 percent fiction and 50 percent non-fiction, then they will be moving toward college readiness," said Roberge-Wentzell. "The change to more non-fiction at the elementary level is to develop students' content understanding and expose them to different types of writing. Having systematic work with non-fiction is going to be very important for kids."
But some educators worry that the burden for teaching non-fiction texts will disproportionately fall on English teachers.
"What the Common Core has done is to lessen teaching kids how to read literature, which is the stuff of the English curriculum, giving the English teacher growing responsibility as the grade gets higher for the teaching of non-fiction," said Ellin Rossberg, an education consultant, as well as an English teacher and administrator for more than 40 years in public schools in New York City and New Rochelle, N.Y. New York fully implemented the reform last year.
"The teachers of other subject disciplines are not trained to teach reading and written response in their own areas," she added. "Therefore, since there is a growing emphasis on teaching non-fiction, they really expect and lean on the English teachers."
Others maintain that Common Core can accommodate a range of genres.
"I think these Common Core standards still leave room for literature, as well as expository texts," said Sarah Woulfin, a professor at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education. "It may be asking students and teachers to engage with narrative texts in a different way, but I wouldn't describe it as an effort to remove literary texts."
Common Core does not impose reading lists. It does require that students read classic myths and stories, America's founding documents and Shakespeare and suggests that in later grades they read American classics such as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass."
Some educators argue that many of the suggested readings are not attuned to many pupils' learning needs and backgrounds.
"The suggested materials tend to be culturally insensitive and developmentally inappropriate for many students. At a certain point, top-down management creates readicide," said Bryan Ripley Crandall, director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University. "By readicide, I'm referring to what Kelly Gallagher, a teacher and writer, describes as the `systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.' This occurs when young people do not see themselves or their worlds in any of the assignments they are given. It also occurs when students are required to read complex texts that are beyond their social, psychological, and intellectual development."
The standards: Math
Common Core's math standards encompass a variety of concepts and procedures. Its framers argue that the standards foster command in each grade of key math concepts, preparing students to take on more complex problems in later grades. The standards are meant to cultivate understanding of mathematical concepts and an ability to apply math to new situations, rather than rote memorization.
"There is a world of difference between a student who can summon a mnemonic device to expand a product such as (a + b)(x + y) and a student who can explain where the mnemonic comes from," says the website. "The student who can explain the rule understands the mathematics, and may have a better chance to succeed at a less familiar task ..."
Roberge-Wentzell describes this focus on understanding as more effective than the "spiraling" approach supported by the Frameworks, the state academic standards that Common Core replaced.
"The idea behind spiraling was if students didn't quite get it the first time that they'd jump on again in first or second grade," she said. "Frankly, a lot of the time the earlier chapters in books got more attention and later chapters got less coverage.
"It didn't encourage teaching to mastery because teachers could say `we'll cover it next year.' Common Core will still cover all of the same kinds of math before pre-algebra but do so deeper, so there's a real focus on teaching to mastery."
Some prominent educators question the math standards, arguing they set unrealistic expectations in some cases. Carol Burris, New York's 2013 high school principal of the year, cited a counting standard that expects kindergartners, some of whom enter at age 4, to be able to count to 100 by ones and by tens. She contrasted that to previous standards that expect the average child to count to 42 by age 5½ or 6.
"Children are being asked to perform tasks and to demonstrate learning that is far above what they're ready to do, and what it's leading to is a lot of frustration and school phobia and a feeling as though school is not where they want to be," Burris said. "For young kids, in particular, school should be a fun thing."
Irene Parisi, Greenwich's assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and professional learning, argues that the district can follow Common Core, while still accommodating a diverse range of students.
During Cutler's math lesson Tuesday, Parisi pointed to a section of the class in which students broke into smaller groups. During that time, some of the students who had shown a solid grasp of counting worked independently on worksheets, others worked with a professional learning assistant, while Cutler worked one-on-one with another student. The class' math work that day centered upon a standard that expects kindergartners to write numbers from 0 to 20 and represent a number of objects with a written numeral from 0 to 20.
"We can use the standards to see how students are progressing, and we can adjust to meet their standards," she said. "There's a lot of flexibility."
Staff writer Linda Conner Lambeck contributed to this report.