While debate over the Common Core rumbles on in public, the new learning standards continue to reshape what happens behind classroom doors.
In recent days, the governor promised to convene a panel to review the tougher standards and the state teachers union withdrew its support for the Common Core until changes are made.
Meanwhile, sixth-grade students in a Common Core-aligned English class at South Bronx Preparatory searched for “rules to live by” in a novel set during the Great Depression, speeches by Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, and a poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Like most elementary and middle schools around the city and state, South Bronx Prep is halfway through its first year using a new curriculum aligned to the standards.
Now, after several months with new Common Core teaching materials, educators across the city say they are settling in to the new normal. Some are calling their schools’ new curriculums fundamentally flawed. Even educators who praise the materials say they require serious adjustments and threaten to leave some high-need students behind.
“It is probably the most rich and complex curriculum I’ve taught,” said South Bronx Prep teacher Jennifer Mandel, who uses state-commissioned literacy materials made by the nonprofit Expeditionary Learning. But, she added, in her sixth-grade class filled with English-language learners, many students struggle to keep up.
“There are certain students who I see who are just stuck,” Mandel said, “deeply, deeply stuck.”
A bumpy introduction
Though schools citywide started shifting to the new standards in 2011 and students took state tests tied to them last year, the city Department of Education only recommended Common Core-aligned curriculum materials for kindergarten through eighth grade last spring. (High schools are supposed to be teaching to the new standards but haven’t yet gotten new curriculum recommendations.)
About 90 percent of elementary and middle schools decided to purchase the recommended curriculums, which the city subsidized. For English, 176 schools chose recommended materials made by state-commissioned nonprofits, 610 chose ones made by for-profit publishers, and 77 chose a combination, according to the Department of Education.
Most of the state-sponsored curriculum materials were completed and posted online by December, as the state had promised, though some materials are still missing for a few grades. The materials have been downloaded more than four million times, according to the State Education Department.
Some schools decided not to buy any of the city-endorsed materials. Many worried that the new curriculums were produced in a rush.
“We feel like we need to do some research to find something that is high quality and really Common Core-aligned,” said Joanna Cohen, an assistant principal at P.S. 2 in Manhattan, which did not pick any materials from the city list.
Schools that did buy the recommended materials received them in spurts over the summer and fall, since they were still being produced. Many schools received late or incorrect shipments.
South Bronx Prep’s sixth-grade class, for example, did not get the novels it needed for the first reading unit until October. Teachers had to photocopy the first several chapters of the book for each student.
The curriculums’ rolling release meant that teachers had limited time had to study them and could not plan over the summer for the whole school year.
Francisca Garcia Ruiz, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 305 in Queens, said her school ordered literacy materials from Pearson, one of the recommended for-profit publishers and the one that also creates the state’s annual tests.
But all the materials did not arrive until November, Ruiz said, so the school used its balanced-literacy program from previous years until then. In November, the school paid for substitutes so its teachers could take several days to get acquainted with the new curriculum mid-year, she said.
Mixed reactions to the available options
Once she starting using Pearson’s curriculum, called ReadyGen, Ruiz said she found it lacking. She said it forces students to study the same text for many class periods, which bores them, and to complete tasks — such as drawing abstract vocabulary words — that are not suited for young children.
“This curriculum is so inappropriate that these children just do not want to come to school,” she said.
ReadyGen, which the city recommended as an option for kindergarten through fifth grade, has elicited more complaints than most of the suggested curriculums, according to the teachers union. Union officials and other educators said ReadyGen packs too much content into lessons, is overly scripted, does not account for students’ varying abilities, and contains some errors.
“It’s pretty bad,” United Federation of Teachers boss Michael Mulgrew said earlier this month.
Pearson officials did not respond to all the criticisms. But they said that the literacy program’s “rolling implementation” was approved by the city and added that the curriculum’s teacher guides and a “scaffolded strategies” handbook suggest ways to tailor the lessons for students with special needs.
“Supporting all students – including those at different learning levels – was paramount in the development of the ReadyGen curriculum,” Pearson spokesperson Susan Aspey said in an email.
Even teachers who are satisfied with the curriculums that their schools chose said there remains room for improvement.
Several teachers praised the quality of the Expeditionary Learning curriculum, saying the readings are challenging but also interesting to students and linked to relevant social studies and science content. But they said the lesson plans, which can fill a dozen pages or more, include too many learning goals and are above the skill level of many students.
Making adjustments as more changes loom
Teachers have found ways to address some of the curriculum issues. Their fixes range from total overhauls that represent repudiations of the new curriculums to smaller-scale adjustments of the sort that teachers make all the time to the programs they use.
Katie Lapham, a teacher who works with English-language learners in several grades at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, said she and several colleagues have mostly abandoned the ReadyGen student workbooks, which she finds too similar to standardized-test questions. Instead, most create their own worksheets, with separate materials for students with special needs. They also supplement the grade-level texts in the curriculum with books matched to students’ reading ability.
At South Bronx Prep, Mandel and her co-teacher, Jane Lam, focus on just one or two skills per lesson. They also teach students some background information and vocabulary words that the curriculum, with its focus on textual analysis, might leave out. And they customize the curriculum’s worksheets and tests for their students.
“We’ve had to modify a lot,” Mandel said.
High school students will take algebra and English Regents tests tied to the Common Core standards for the first time this June.
The Common Core English exam is optional this year, but Algebra 1 students must take that Common Core test, though they will also take an exam tied to the old standards and can use the higher score.
As teachers try to connect their courses to the new standards, many have used some of the materials on the state’s Common Core website, called Engage New York, along with other resources. (The website includes some sample questions from the new Regents tests, but several teachers said they want the state to release more.)
Scott Taylor, an algebra teacher at Global Learning Collaborative High School in Manhattan, said he updated some old lessons and materials this year, but much he had to create new or find online.
It has been a challenge to help students adjust to the new standards — which call for more conceptual thinking and writing in math — even as he is still digesting them, said Taylor, who worked in business before becoming a teacher.
“If this was the corporate world and I had to do this,” he said, “I would tell them that this is a four-person job.”