New public school year brings changes
When Beaufort County’s public school students returned to the classroom last week, they faced changes in the way they will learn and the way they will be tested on what they have learned.
The changes are part of an overhaul in public education that local school leaders have called unprecedented that not only affect what students are taught and at what age they learn concepts but also affect how schools and school systems are evaluated.
“In 32 years, North Carolina hasn’t seen a change this massive across the board,” said Glenda Moore, the curriculum coordinator for kindergarten through fifth grade for Beaufort County Schools.”
For the past two years, local educators have been preparing for the change – preparing new lessons and new teaching strategies to match new teaching and learning standards that are being implemented this year in every grade and every subject.
This is the first time that North Carolina has implemented such sweeping changes in all areas and grades at once.
The goal is to bring more rigor into the classroom to better prepare students to either enter college or the work force better prepared to meet the challenges they will face, according to Don Phipps, superintendent of Beaufort County Schools.
While the graduation rate at North Carolina’s public high schools has been improving in recent years, a growing number of those who graduate require some type of remediation when they get to college.
And the state’s business leaders have expressed concern that those high school graduates who enter the workforce are not prepared for the changes and challenges that face them in the workplace of the 21st Century.
That has left the state and country vulnerable to competition from countries with higher education standards, Phipps said.
“North Carolina is trying to make our students college and career ready,” Phipps said.
New curriculum standards
North Carolina has had a Standard Course of Study for many years to give students and teachers statewide consistent expectations of what would be covered each year.
The new curriculum standards require all students to follow a common core curriculum in mathematics and English language arts.
This common core was developed by a consortium of states interested in a clear, rigorous, share curriculum that, educators say, will make it easier for students who change states or school districts before they graduate from high school.
“The Common Core represents an important shift in our approach to looking at what teachers teach and what students learn,” said Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “It will encourage students to make better connections between topics, to see the relevancy of what they are learning and to go more in-depth at each grade level.”
In all other subjects in the new Standard Course of Study, students and teachers will be guided by the N.C. Essential Standards, developed by public instruction staff.
A hallmark of both the Common Core and the N.C. Essential Standards is fewer, yet clearer and higher expectations for students.
Instead of classroom work which, in the past, has been described as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” the new Standard Course of Study is designed to give teachers the chance to dig deeper into subjects so that students will have a better understanding of the concepts they are being taught, according to Ashley Padgett, curriculum coordinator for sixth through 12th grades for Beaufort County Schools.
The curriculum changes mean students will be called on more and more to analyze what they are being taught, interact more with their peers and will be introduced to more difficult concepts at an earlier age, Moore said.
In English language arts, students and parents will see three major shifts in what teacher emphasize: There will be a major emphasis on vocabulary; students will be asked more often to explain their thinking and use examples to support their ideas, and while fiction works will continue to be important, other types of reading material that adults use in their workplaces will play a greater role in classrooms.
For example, instead of simply reading a story to a kindergarten class as part of a lesson, a teacher will ask those students probing questions about the story to prepare students to evaluate literature at an earlier age, Moore said.
And they will be exposed to more non-fiction works to prepare them for the type of reading they will be required to do in college and on the job, she said.
In mathematics, the primary shift in focus is in the depth of the new curriculum, Moore said.
While teachers may introduce fewer concepts for students to grasp, there will be more in-depth analysis of those concepts, she said.
For example, instead of students simply learning how to compute the perimeter of a space in math class, those students will participate in real-life examples of the concept of a perimeter. This should lead to a better understanding of the concept, she said.
State and local educators also say that parents may notice that student homework is a little different this year.
Instead of a long list of homework math problems that are all basically the same, parents may see math homework that contains fewer problems and different kinds of problems that are more in-depth.
New assessments and school accountability
Along with changes in the Standard Course of Study, students will be assessed more frequently to see if they are grasping concepts so that any difficulties they have with concepts can be addressed before the end of the course or school year, Phipps said.
Many of these less-formal assessments were already being used in classrooms across the county, he said.
And all will make it harder for a slow-learner to hide that fact from his or her teacher, he said.
In addition to these ongoing, informal checks for mastery of a subject, at the end of the course or school year, students will take new assessments that are aligned to the state’s new Standard Course of Study.
State education officials say these tests will be more rigorous than in previous years. They will require students to provide answers that more directly demonstrate thinking and problem-solving skills.
Some tests questions will require students to do more than fill in a bubble sheet and school districts will transition to online, computer-driven tests over the next two years.
These tests will have the ability to adjust the difficulty of the questions to students’ responses — saving time and giving a more precise picture of students’ grasp of concepts.
In Fall 2013, the first report will be presented to show how well schools have performed under the new curriculum and student testing.
And beginning in Fall 2013, each public school in the state will receive a letter grade — from A to F — to reflect that school’s performance.
These letter grades are required by legislation passed by the N.C. General Assembly in 2012.
Local educators say they will face challenges in the 2012-2013 school year in implementing these widespread changes.
“It’s going to take a year to fully implement these changes,” Padgett said.
But she and other local school are confident they will result in students who are better prepared to face the challenges they will face in college or the workforce.