Curriculum in hands of District 321

Marianne Gillespie

Regardless of the political nature of the new Common Core standards, schools around the state are making changes to meet those standards, and IVC District 321 schools are no different.

Some of the hype, however, surrounding Common Core may not apply to local schools.

For example, some schools are not teaching cursive writing as it is not part of the standards.

“The IVC school district still does,” Illinois Valley Central District 321 Superintendent Chad Allison said.

It comes down to a time issue, Allison said, as teachers have many things to teach the students that some school officials may decide it is not as important as something else.

Nevertheless, district officials have control in situations like that to decide what is best for this community’s students, Allison said.

Common Core was developed essentially in stair-stepping backwards of what students should know by the time they finish high school. State school officials found that students fared well as 80 percent met or exceeded standards in junior high when they took the Illinois Standards Achievement test, but then when they took the Prairie State Achievement Exam/ACT for college readiness, those numbers dropped to 50 percent, Allison explained.

“The positive part (of Common Core) is we’re going to take what our kids need to know in high school and stair-step back down to kindergarten,” Allison said. “At the very heart, it is a logical system.”

Some state officials have said the standards are lower than what they previously had. “Illinois is not one of those,” Allison said.

The “shifting” to the Common Core standards involves certain subjects especially, but also incorporates those philosophies into other studies.

For example, in English, the biggest change is what students are reading, namely switching to more non-fiction works. When students look for a job and land one, many will do technical reading and research.

“Our kids need to be able to read and understand things,” Allison said.

To prepare them for life outside of school, the standards call for kindergarten through fifth grade students to read 50 percent non-fiction and increases to 70 percent in high school.

Students also are asked to defend their position to develop critical thinking skills and increasing their level of reading, even through other subjects.

They could learn through reading story problems with math or in speech class reading a famous speech, such as President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. It is one of only four required texts to be read by students under the Common Core standards. The others are “The Declaration of Independence,” the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Any of those reading requirements could also be used in a history or government class.

For the most part, Allison said, students probably have not noticed significant changes in English, but math has been overhauled.

Mental math is part of the standards, as well as more real-life applicable challenges to what many adults would remember as story problems. Not only are students to get the right answer, but then they need to be able to explain how they got to the right answer with multiple ways to achieving the end result.

Math courses also are becoming integrated, meaning that previously students may have taken pre-algebra, algebra, pre-calculus and calculus, but those subjects will be  taught together instead of separate.

Even younger students, as early as first grade, can have some very basic algebra in their math lessons, Allison said.

As the standards are changing, students are forced to change how they are learning as well.

“Depending on where they are in the ladder, some students have more challenges than others,” Allison said.

The fourth-through-sixth grade students seem to have the most trouble, Allison said, as they do not have the foundation that future students will have. When parents see their kids having trouble, they feel the pain.

“Change is not an immediate process. It’s certainly not for our teachers and certainly not for our students,” Allison said.

To help with math, students have an online resource of “My Math” to help as supplemental materials, along with a new math series of curriculum.

While students are making changes in how they learn, teachers are changing what they do in the classroom to meet the new standards.

“On the positive side, teachers are flexible. They just expect things are going to change,” Allison said.

The problem, however, is that the state and its schools are now “invested” with Common Core, and with the political backlash in other states making some of them back out of using the standards, Allison said, teachers and administrators are concerned that they could be forced to change again.

Those changes do not occur overnight, and teachers are taking an “incredible amount of prep time” to make sure they are teaching students what they need to know, Allison said.

No set of standards would be complete without the assessment of what students have learned. “Why we’re here is for student growth,” Allison said.

Testing what students are learning from Common Core could be the greatest challenge in the early years. Much of the testing is done at the end of the year, which makes Allison question if it can be used to show student growth. The first test performance based test is essentially in March and then the next is completed in May.

No matter how residents feel about Common Core, Allison said he encourages parents to ask questions about what is being taught here and not rely on what they may see or hear about what is happening in another area.

Teachers, building principals and administration are “not trying to hide anything,” and their doors are open for parents’ questions.