This year, Jackie Xuereb is teaching her sixth grade math students how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. But next year, new standards will call for students to know that information before they enter her class.
Xuereb, a sixth grade math teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is among the city math teachers preparing to swap the state's learning standards for the Common Core this fall. And like many, she is struggling to keep the two sets of standards straight as the new standards move some topics an entire grade-level earlier than in the past.
"A lot of what used to be sixth grade standards are now taught in fifth grade," Xuereb said. "I feel that I'm going to have to be really mindful and cognizant of this in my planning for next year. The kids are going to have these huge gaps."
New York City piloted the Common Core standards in 100 schools last year and asked all teachers to practice working with them this year. Next year, every teacher in every elementary and middle school will be expected to teach to the new standards, and state tests will be based on them. Department of Education officials have argued that a full-steam-ahead approach is required because moving slowly would deprive students of the Common Core's long-overdue rigor.
But some say that this approach will pose a special challenge for math teachers, particularly in the middle school years, as students begin learning advanced concepts that build on each other sequentially. William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University who has researched the effect of the Common Core on learning, said students who miss a lesson the first time around are at risk of missing the concept entirely.
"If it's done really carefully it might work, but that would be my worry, that this would require fairly careful thought about how to do that across the grades so that what's happening in one grade will line up with the next," he said. "If they're not ramping this up from first grade on in a logical fashion ... then the transition to more advanced math will be horrendous, too."
Graduating from one school to another for sixth grade is typical, but the arrangement is not ideal for student achievement.
That's according to a new study the compared the varied pathways that city students took to eighth grade from 1995 to 2002. The report, "The Path Not Taken: How Does School Organization Affect Eighth-Grade Achievement?", was just released in the Summer 2011 issue of the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
Led by Amy Ellen Schwartz and Leanna Stiefel at New York University, the researchers looked at "grade span paths," or the grade configurations of the schools that students attended on their way to eighth grade. With more than 900 elementary and middle schools, New York City boasted 28 different grade span paths during the period studied, the report notes, making it an ideal laboratory to study effects of school organization on student achievement.
Looking at eighth-grade state and city test scores and controlling for a host of other factors, the researchers found that students who moved from K-4 schools to 5-8 schools and students who remained enrolled in a single K-8 school outperformed students who moved to middle school in sixth grade. But they couldn't conclude why those arrangements were more successful.
"Our results suggest that changing school less frequently, changing schools at an earlier grade, a smaller size of the within-school cohort, and the stability of students’ peer cohorts are the most likely explanations for these positive performance differences," the researchers write.