In preparation for sweeping changes to school curriculum, Royal Oak teachers are among those working to modify lesson plans so they are in step with new academic standards approved statewide.
For instance, most ninth-graders, who might normally take Algebra, will take a new course called Secondary Mathematics 1, or an honors version of that course, which will include concepts in algebra, geometry, statistics, and pre-calculus. Language arts, meanwhile, will also be heavily revised to include more complex reading, and more emphasis on persuasive writing.
Royal Oak is focusing on two areas, said Sarah Olson, director of instruction for Royal Oak Neighborhood Schools.
"First, we are developing math units that are student-centered and provide more opportunities for student engagement with math-related tasks in the classroom," she said. "Secondly, we are preparing more nonfiction writing experiences for students across all grade levels; through nonfiction and academic writing, students can reflect on their own learning and demonstrate higher-order thinking skills."
But they may come as a big surprise to some parents.
Educating the community
In an informal survey of school districts in Patch towns in southeast Michigan, there appears to be no formal or consistent strategy for how and when parents will be told of the changes.
Royal Oak schools say the Parent Teacher Association will play a role in educating parents on the changes.
"In conjunction with our PTA’s, we are sharing information through meetings and literature," said Sarah Olson, director of instruction for Royal Oak Neighborhood Schools. "When the first Common Core units are implemented in the classroom in the spring of 2012, we plan to work with both students and parents to understand the expectations."
Some districts say there is little urgency because students actually won't be tested on the changes for a few years.
"When we get more specifics, we'll be communicating the changes and expectations to the parents in the district," said Heidi Kast, assistant superintendent of curriculum instruction and assessment for Lake Orion Community Schools.
Changes under way
Students will be tested on the new standards in 2014-15, though in most cases, the transition should take place in 2011-12, with full implementation the following year, according to the FAQ from the MDE.
The goal of Common Core is to bring uniform curriculum to K-12 classrooms throughout the United States in an attempt to align the country's educational expectations. That means students in Clawson, for instance, will be expected to know the exact same information as students in Queens, NY, where teachers have already implemented Common Core. Educators also expect the changes will ensure students are better prepared for college with fewer needing remediation.
"It presents a student-centered approach to learning; the Common Core will enhance learning in all classrooms by allowing a higher level of engagement from both students and teachers," Olson said.
"We have identified content leaders in the areas of math and language arts who are developing long-range planning goals and implementation guidelines," Royal Oak's Olson said. In addition, K-12 classroom teachers identified as trainers are receiving in-depth training in their subject area.
One group in Oakland County is taking on the task as a team.
Twenty-four faculty members at Birmingham Public Schools work diligently each month to review and change district curriculum. They are part of a pilot program and working alongside representatives from Oakland County's 28 school districts in preparation for the Common Core.
"Right now, all the districts in Oakland County are working together ... to develop units of study," said Catherine Cost, assistant superintendent of instructional services at Farmington Public Schools. "Our teachers will bring back information to share with others in the district."
This year, teachers focused on number skills by developing units that enhance students' knowledge of place value, transformations (how to manipulate the shape of a line) and other areas that were targeted by Oakland's math curriculum team.
Curriculum collaboration is one of the benefits of moving to the Common Core, said RJ Webber, assistant superintendent at Novi Community Schools.
"It really expands the amount of collaboration that can occur not only across a district but across the country about what lessons are really working and what things can get there," he said. "The concern that I would have is the preparation, the testing and the assessment. We're in a very high-stake testing situation right now in our country, and my concern is are these results for the Common Core and their first few iterations going to have high stakes impact and implications? If I was a teacher right now I would be concerned about that."
While the initiative requires districts to re-evaluate how they are teaching, school officials say the plan mirrors their expectation for student success.
Common Core does have its critics. A writer at the Goldwater Institute, a public policy agency, said the initiative likely won't prepare students to compete in a global economy and hasn't proven that it will help prepare students for selective colleges. A writer at Politco agrees there is no evidence that Common Core will achieve its goals of boosting national competitveness.
What will it cost?
Local officials are saying they don’t anticipate any extra dollars to assist with the transition. So, many districts could be left to figure out how to fund the new curriculum requirements.
Several districts have pointed to the need for technology upgrades.
“ … if the district moves to computer-based assessment, a lot of technology improvements will be needed for the classrooms,” said David Maile, director of instruction for Huron Valley Schools in White Lake. “This type of change could be very, very expensive, and there’s no answer on where the money would come from to support it.”
He said it could take hundreds of thousands of dollars to faithfully implement Common Core as it’s intended. He’s concerned the schools aren’t in a financial era with resources to do it. Regardless of the cost, however, people have the right idea with Common Core, Maile said.
Another big concern is the cost of teacher training.
"As teachers assist in the curriculum revision process, we have substitute teacher costs. However, we do not expect to have to purchase all new materials to implement Common Core," said Cheryl Rogers, superintendent of Clawson Public Schools.
In Royal Oak, "the costs are minimal because Common Core training and implementation fall within our regular sequence of curriculum review and development," Olson said.
Getting parents and students on board
Stephen Palmer, assistant superintendent for instruction at Birmingham Public Schools, said he believes as the state prepares for the Common Core changes, there is going to be a “wake up” call for parents and students.
“It’s going to create a lot of angst and anxiety among a lot of people,” Palmer said. “More rigorous standards for underperforming schools will be tough to handle, but it’s an opportunity to change practices and focus on a few skills more deeply. I think for some, it will affect districts dramatically and the state of public education in Michigan will be questioned once again.”
– Patch Regional Editor Teresa Mask and Royal Oak Editor Judy Davids contributed to this report.