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.”

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.