common changes

Teachers explain how Common Core changes could impact their classrooms

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Global Prep is one of the district's growing stable of innovation schools.

When the state released proposed revisions to Common Core last month, there were a lot of changes, but most seemed relatively small. In some cases wording was tweaked; in others, an existing standard was made more specific.

But a key question remains unanswered: How would the revisions affect classrooms across New York state? To find out, we turned to the experts: teachers.

In most states, changes to the standards have not yielded a major departure from the Common Core. And in New York, the teachers we spoke with generally said the recommendations here do not mark a radical shift either.

“This wasn’t really the venue for us to say, let’s start from scratch,” said Bobson Wong, who was part of the state’s math standards review committee and teaches math at a high school in Queens.

Still, even small wording changes, if made permanent, could impact how math and English are taught or understood. We asked teachers to drill down into proposed alterations to individual standards and explain why, or if, those changes matter. Here are their answers:

April Rose is a third-grade teacher in Queens and a member of Educators 4 Excellence.

The current early-grade reading standards have often been criticized for not being developmentally appropriate. Some of the state’s proposed revisions appear to tackle that problem.

For instance, a third-grade reading standard asked that students be able to, “Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.” That standard has been revised to, “Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding…”

The wording change is small, but it could have a real benefit for teachers, Rose said.

“What if I have students who are above or below that [grade level]?” Rose asked. “All children come to grades at different entry points.”

Rose said she’ll still expose all students to grade-level and higher-level texts, but it’s important to have the flexibility to meet struggling students where they are, particularly if students are English Language Learners or have a disability.

“I feel like the pressure may be a tad bit off,” Rose said.

Bobson Wong teaches geometry, algebra II, and Advanced Placement statistics at a high school in Queens. He is also a Math for America master teacher and served on the state’s committee to revise math standards.

The existing higher-level Common Core math standards also inspired confusion among teachers. Some of the standards were too vague, some were too specific, and others were entirely misplaced, Wong said. The proposed standards try to clarify those problems, he said.

For example, an old geometry standard read, “Prove theorems about triangles.” It then listed a number of possible theorems and said teachers could consider others. That is too vague for a math teacher, Wong said.

“That could easily be half a year in a geometry course. It could be anything,” Wong said. “As a teacher, it was extremely difficult to read a standard like that.”

The new standard is more specific. It lists the precise theorems that students should know how to prove, including that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees and the exterior angles add up to 360 degrees.

Changes like this are unlikely to upend anyone’s teaching style, Wong said, but a teacher confused by the original standard will be aided by the clarity.

Bushra Makiya teaches eighth-grade math and algebra in the Bronx. She is also a Math for America master teacher.

The eighth-grade math standards — which were not as hotly criticized as some of the other grades — were hardly touched by the state’s proposed revisions, Makiya said. Her subject’s standards saw only a few tweaks or clarifications.

When asked if these revisions would change her eighth-grade math classroom, she had a simple answer: “No, not at all,” she said.

Makiya also teaches an eighth-grade class of algebra I, and said those standards had some welcome changes. For example, the old standards asked students to learn about a complicated type of exponential equations. But the committees determined that concept is too difficult for algebra I, and instead, proposed moving it to algebra II.

Makiya said the change is the right move, but her students would not notice a difference in class.

“I honestly wasn’t teaching that anyway in algebra I, because I thought that was too much for kids,” Makiya said. “My guess is that’s probably true for a lot of teachers.”

Katie Kurjakovic teaches English Language Learners at an elementary school in Queens and worked on the state’s English standards committee.

The draft standards are missing something important to Katie Kurjakovic: accommodations for the English Language Learners she teaches.

“I’m very disappointed in the overall final product,” said Kurjakovic, who worked on the state’s committee to revamp English standards.

Kurjakovic said in lieu of creating a different set of standards for English learners, she wanted to see guidelines to help teachers working with non-native English speakers still unable to master the standards in English.

For example, the early grades have standards focused on recognizing and producing rhyming words. Those standards have not been changed, but Kurjakovic wanted them to include a different option for English Language Learners — allowing those students to learn the concept of rhyming in their native languages.

State officials acknowledged that they need to keep thinking about how to make the standards work for English learners. They said the State Education Department has engaged an independent expert, in part to help determine how the standards should be implemented for English Language Learners and special education students.

But that does not go far enough for Kurjakovic, who said accommodations for English learners should have been released at the same time as the draft standards.

One bright spot, she said, is the proposal to combine “Reading for Information” and “Reading for Literature.” That change will allow teachers to focus on reading skills without getting bogged down in whether they are using fiction or nonfiction texts, Kurjakovic said.

Under the current standards, teachers might struggle to achieve that balance, she said. This “allows teachers a little bit more freedom to choose teaching material thematically.”

In the classroom

This Memphis teacher wanted to make learning physics more engaging, so he created a website. Now it’s used in 40 countries.

PHOTO: Jack Replinger
Jack Replinger poses with his students at The Soulsville Charter School.

Three girls explode into laughter and cheers as they roll a small cart across the table, successfully getting a rubber band to launch the cart just fast enough to knock a washer off the back of the cart, but not quite fast enough to knock over two washers.

These high schoolers might look like they are just playing with toys inside their Memphis classroom, but they are actually in the middle of a physics lesson. That’s by design.

In his 12 years as a teacher in Memphis, Jack Replinger has worked on perfecting physics lessons that are easy to break down, accessible to students who may not be on grade level in reading and math, and, above all, fun for his students at The Soulsville Charter School in south Memphis. But he’s got another huge aspiration as well: to bring his increasingly popular physics website to as many students and teachers as he can, and to as many countries.

“I was trying to teach the way I had been taught,” Replinger said of his first years in the classroom. “It was boring and a bit of a disaster. Over winter break my second year of teaching, I blew up everything I had learned and said, ‘OK, I’m going to slow this down and move away from teaching long equations.’ That’s when I really started to enjoy teaching.”

Replinger came up with the idea three years ago to take his lessons, which were handed out in his classrooms as thick, paper packets, and turn them into an interactive website, for his students. It’s called Positive Physics. Software engineer Anthony Fizer, who played pick-up basketball with Replinger, helped him get the site running in 2015 and continues to work on the site. Now, more than 6,000 students in 585 schools across 49 states and in 40 countries have used the free website to learn physics. Replinger grew the site’s reach through his postings in teacher-focused Facebook groups and on other social networks.

“I originally wanted to make this because I wanted a website where my students would work that had interesting problems and also didn’t punish them if they are behind in grade level,” Replinger said. “But I think it’s clear it’s hit on a need for teachers elsewhere.”

The website thus far has been mostly self-funded, though he has solicited small donations from friends, family, and via PayPal, and has received some help from the Soulsville Foundation. Replinger said he is now working to find outside investors to keep the website going into the future.

Replinger came to Memphis in 2007 from Seatle as a Teach For America educator, and he was recently named as the winner of the Barbara Rosser Hyde Alumni Leadership Award, a $5,000 award recognizing leadership among the program’s alumni in Memphis.

When Replinger started teaching at Kingsbury High School as part of the teacher training program, he said he struggled to engage his first classes of physics students. He said so much of his first years of teaching was writing problems and grading, that he had little time to design labs such as the rubber band cart experiment. Part of his goal for the website was to prevent other early career educators from going through the same slog.

“For me, this is a chance to say to other teachers, ‘Let me write the problems for you so you can focus on labs,’ he said. “It takes the burden off newer teachers so they can focus on the fun and creative stuff.”

Anna Krueger, a teacher at Hamilton High School, said that the site has taken a “huge load off of my shoulders,” while also guarding against cheating since each student gets different numbers to work with on the same type of problems.

“I feel like this prevents cheating really well and simultaneously encourages teamwork,” Krueger said.

Jack Replinger Soulsville Charter School
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
In his 12 years as a teacher in Memphis, Jack Replinger has worked on perfecting physics lessons.

For Replinger, he said the most rewarding part of the site goes back to how it impacts his students. The high schoolers can pace themselves and try homework problems as many times as they like without punishment.

He said one student story stands out as an example of how the site can boost confidence among his high schoolers.

“I had a student last year who saw herself completely not as a math person,” he said. “But she spent a lot of time practicing on the site, and she would even start on homework problems before I had assigned them. She started the class by getting a D on the first quiz. She ended it by getting As at the honors level.”

peer pressure

Students show up to school more often when they see ‘familiar faces,’ new study finds

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Rynell Sturkey teaches first-grade at Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy.

By eighth grade, Shawntia Reeves had attended at least four different schools. It took a toll on the Detroit student, who told Chalkbeat about the struggle of making and then losing new friends after switching schools.

“It makes you feel like you ain’t got no one to talk to,” she said.

New research shows that the sort of social disruption Reeves experienced can affect how often students show up to school. When students have more “familiar faces” around them in class, they’re less likely to be chronically absent, the paper finds — a connection that could prove useful to schools now being held accountable for reducing absences for the first time.

When kids know their peers, “Students don’t have to adjust as much to making new friends or relationships and figuring out, I don’t want to hang around this kid,” said Jacob Kirksey of the University of California Santa Barbara, one of the paper’s authors. “That sort of cognitive overload may cause kids some unintended consequences.”

The study, published last month in the peer-reviewed Elementary School Journal, focuses on thousands of elementary-school students across 13 schools in a small urban California district. Researchers Kirksey and Michael Gottfried measured what share of a given student’s classmates were in their class the previous year. The average was 29 percent.

Then they looked at whether having more of the same peers — who they call “familiar faces” — was related to a student’s rate of absences, controlling for other factors that might affect attendance like student poverty, class size, and school performance.

No matter how they cut the data, being surrounded by more familiar faces was linked to higher attendance.

Specifically, a student who knew every classmate had one fewer unexcused absence than a similar student with zero familiar faces. One fewer absence might not seem like a lot, but the average student had fewer than two unexcused absences (meaning ones not accounted for by parent’s note for illness or family emergency).

Similarly, students with more of the same peers were less likely to be chronically absent, which is defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year for any reasons, excused or unexcused. The benefits seemed greatest for kids who were absent more to begin with.

“It’s a moderate effect size,” said Kirksey, adding that most initiatives only move the needle slightly on absenteeism.

The paper can’t definitively show that having familiar faces around causes fewer absences. It also focuses on just a single unnamed district, so it’s unclear how broadly the results apply.

As for what explains the results, “Children’s mere exposure to peers in previous years may make children more comfortable in the schooling environment, given this baseline of familiarity,” write Kirksey and Gottfried. “If classrooms maintain some degree of stability for students in their day-to-day learning context by having a percentage of familiar faces, then students may be less likely to be absent from school as a result of anxiety or disengagement.”

The study appears to be the first to look at this phenomenon specifically. But prior research has found that assigning teachers to the same students in back-to-back grades, or “looping,” led to better academic results. (It’s possible that some of those gains are actually due to familiar peers, not just having the same teacher twice.)

Chalkbeat has documented extremely high rates of student turnover at schools in Detroit, and how attending more schools is correlated with lower academic performance. That, too, could be in part because a new school means few familiar faces for students.

That doesn’t mean that new situations are always bad for students, and studies have shown switching schools can be helpful in certain instances. But one of Kirksey’s takeaways is that students moving from class to class or school to school need extra support.

“What my research would say is that, obviously, if you’re removing a kid [from class] or you’re transitioning them, you need to know that there may likely be an effect from not having that consistency,” he said. “It is to say, we need to keep a particular eye on this kid.”