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Teachers positive about standards, despite implementation concerns

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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Student Taking A Test

The value of Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards – formerly called the Common Core Standards – is still being debated in some quarters, but a new poll shows teachers overwhelmingly support them.

Teachers say the new academic standards will better prepare students for their future with in-depth knowledge, critical thinking and communications skills, as well as the ability to solve problems as part of a team.

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Kristie Martorelli, a K-3 reading interventionist at Thompson Ranch Elementary School in El Mirage and the Arizona Educational Foundation’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, says Arizona College and Career Ready Standards lets teachers focus on the primary work of each grade level and lets students go deeper into those standards.

Nearly 77 percent of teachers nationwide have positive or very positive views on the impact Common Core state standards will have on students’ ability to think critically and use reasoning skills, according to excerpts recently released from Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on Teaching in an Era of Change, a project of Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Suzan DePrez, Mesa Public Schools assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, is one of them.

Educators, “overwhelmingly, and I am not exaggerating, think these standards are the best standards we’ve had yet,” DePrez said. “These standards expect students to think, to prove, write more and use primary resources. Teachers say they love how these standards have been communicated as far as the expectations for teaching and learning.”

Academic standards broadly define what a child needs to know and be able to do in each grade. In Arizona, the new math and English-language arts standards were adopted by the state Board of Education in 2010. Kindergarten teachers statewide first used the standards in their classrooms. First- and second- grade teachers and middle- and high-school language arts teachers followed the next year. Now, all Arizona teachers use them to develop their own curriculum and guide classroom instruction.

Some of Arizona’s most outspoken teacher leaders back up DePrez’s assertions.

“I think the reason the standards are so popular with teachers and they are so well supported is because it gives us the gift of time,” said Kristie Martorelli, K-3 reading interventionist at Thompson Ranch Elementary School in El Mirage and the Arizona Educational Foundation 2012 Arizona Teacher of the Year. “We can now focus on the primary work of that grade level and give our students the opportunity to go deeper into those standards. It ends that metaphor of a mile wide and an inch deep.”

“Teachers have the highest support for higher academic standards, for a focus on readiness, for an emphasis on critical thinking skills, and a real-time context on learning and standards that lead students to deeper levels of thought and better applications of learning,” said Andrew Morrill, who taught high school English for 17 years before serving as Arizona Education Association’s current president.

Teachers positive about standards, despite implementation concerns CommonCore-story

Teachers say the new academic standards will better prepare students for their future with in-depth knowledge, critical thinking and communications skills, as well as the ability to solve problems as part of a team.

After using the new standards for three academic quarters, teachers said their students knew more and could do more in math and writing than they had in the past, DePrez said.

Despite high levels of support, teachers acknowledge the transition has not been easy and that challenges remain.

“First of all, teachers say, this is hard work. Everyone is a first year teacher again for a little bit,” DePrez said.

Teacher training has helped overcome early skepticism. In Mesa, initial training focused on instruction and classroom learning. More recent training took ideas learned in earlier sessions and applied them to grade-level content and course requirements, DePrez said.

“It helped people deeply understand why the standards were changing and what should be visibly different in the classroom with teaching and learning,” DePrez said.

That’s important, because the standards change what happens in class, Martorelli said. Teachers aren’t the only source of information, students must participate, and teachers are learning to ask questions to help guide students instead of giving them answers, she said.

“(Students need) the opportunity to apply different strategies and to be the one who doesn’t necessarily just look for the right answer, but know the different processes to get to the right answer,” Martorelli said. “Before we may have asked them to regurgitate an equation on a test, now we want them to be able to explain to us why and how that equation works, when it won’t work, and how might you change that equation to apply it to a different situation.”

Other concerns Arizona teachers expressed include time to work with colleagues to develop engaging, creative lessons, students’ access to technology, and the speed at which students’ mastery of the new standards, as measured by a standardized test, will factor into teachers’ performance evaluations.

“It’s really important for teachers to work with each other through professional learning communities and collegial conversations, because to do this hard work in isolation is next to impossible,” DePrez said. “You really need to work as a team and attack it with your colleagues helping you.”

Nationwide, 76 percent of math and English language arts teachers said they need more planning time to find materials and lessons plans, according to the Primary Sources report.

Adequate access to computers for classroom learning is another concern.

“A lot of people assume the technology comes in when we give the tests,” Morrill said. “That’s a part of it, but there’s a lot of technology-based instruction and use of technology-based resources that students are expected to master.”

To fully realize the standards, teachers need to use technology differently in the classroom and the district is seeking resources to supplement those it already has, DePrez said.

“Our state has not allocated the capital funds,” DePrez said. “We need to have access to some content that is used more efficiently through technology. We particularly need some new math resources that expect students to think deeply, solve problems and prove their work.”

Although Arizona has not yet selected an assessment aligned to the new standards, teachers also worry how students’ performance on a new assessment of the more rigorous standards will affect their job evaluations, Morrill said.

“Teachers are not afraid of accountability, but they would like accountability in the context of fairness – fair expectations and a fair timeline,” Morrill said. “Teachers are concerned about the timeline of the implementation and how fast fairly heavy consequences befall educators who are doing an honest job of trying to prepare students against dwindling resources, deep cuts to budgets, and losses of teaching positions.”

Morrill called on policymakers to provide additional funding for implementation and assessment.

“Arizona will not reasonably expect to raise the bar, which is what these standards are about, without providing support to the schools,” Morrill said. “There is a level of accountability for student success at every stop in the policy-making arena.”

Martorelli asks people to be patient. She is concerned Arizonans won’t give the standards enough time to work.

“I worry that as soon as we have our first set of test scores that look like they’re not so high, and people see that they need resources that instead of addressing those problems we will then say, OK, well, let’s not quite do it the way it was intended or let’s have a partial commitment to that,”  Martorelli said.

DePrez agreed that Arizonans will need to be patient, “because when you expect more it doesn’t happen overnight.”