February 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Students find meaning in Common Core curriculum

Iman Ismail, an English teacher at Ford High School in Dearborn, said Common Core helps her students become better readers and writers. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Rochester Hills— Evidence. That’s what high school students in Ashley Painter’s class were searching for.

But this was no biology lab or criminology course. Painter, a teacher at Rochester High School, was leading second-hour Exploring Literature and her students were searching for “textual evidence” — proof they understood what they were reading and what author Kate Chopin was inferring in “The Story of an Hour.”

“You need to find the evidence,” Painter told 30 high school students as they studied a short story about a woman who feels elation at her newfound independence upon hearing her husband is dead. “There is no right or wrong answer. You need to show your understanding.”

Looking for textual evidence is not something Painter would have asked her students to do every day in class more than a year ago. Under the state’s prior education standards, teachers spent much of their time explaining to students what they were reading and providing background.

Under Michigan’s new Common Core State Standards, instruction in English language arts has changed dramatically. Under the new standards, the text — not the teacher — takes center stage in instruction.

Students are expected to discover the details and meaning in a text — a short story, poem, essay or other work — on their own.

Middle school students are expected to know the difference between primary and secondary sources in a text. Even kindergartners are expected to read more elaborate texts.

“The whole emphasis now is about the text and the centrality of the text, and on challenging texts. That is a shift,” says Susan B. Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education at New York University. “Now there is an expectation that a child should be able to use the text effectively to comprehend.”

These new standards, a more rigorous set of curriculum guidelines adopted by 45 states, including Michigan, are near full implementation in classrooms across the state, despite significant pushback last year by lawmakers who said they intruded on local control. At one point last year, lawmakers blocked funding to implement the standards, then relented.

Education experts say Common Core standards go deeper, but require more from the teacher.

A teacher following the guidelines of Common Core is likely to spend more time with older students on features of a text such as the glossary, index or footnotes, Neuman said.

A teacher will spend more time preparing students for grade-appropriate reading, which means a fifth-grader reading at a lower grade level still will be assigned fifth-grade-level material, she said.

Painter, in her sixth year of teaching, said she covers fewer pieces of literature than before, but goes deeper into each one.

Students engage in several styles of writing, from informational to analysis. They watch films and in one case created a social justice project — all for one book.

“I feel like my students left that novel with a deeper understanding of it,” Painter said, discussing that book. “For me, it was really rewarding. I could see my students being more critical thinkers throughout it, rather than rushing and getting over with it.”

For students, the change means more research on their own, more thinking on their own and speaking up about it — showing they understand what they are reading and that they can prove it.

The long-term goal is to help students become their own research librarians by relying on additional texts and probing material in new ways, education experts say.

“We are asking our students to ‘understand’ more than ‘know.’ Constantly out of my mouth is, ‘How do you know that? How did you arrive at that answer?’ ” Painter said.

Reading on a deeper level

Iman Ismail, a teacher at Ford High School in Dearborn, said Common Core helps her students — especially her English language learners — to become better readers and writers.

In her English language arts class, students begin with a preview of the next hour’s lesson. That’s followed by “scaffolding,” where pre-reading enables a student to solve a problem such as encountering rigorous, complex texts.

Students break into small groups to discuss their strategies, develop an answer and select the evidence to back it up. Independent work is done at the end. Assessments are done four times a year to measure students’ progress.

“It’s helping students dig deeper and read closely, mainly informational text ... helping them to think critically of what they are reading, making different kinds of connections for reading,” Ismail said. “This is a really big change for the students. It’s been a process and it’s been going smoothly. We are seeing progress.”

New standards bring stress

But not everyone is on board with the new approach.

Several state lawmakers are especially concerned about the high-stakes decisions being tied to Common Core and its aligned assessment: Test results will be used in teacher evaluations and to rate schools under Michigan’s new accountability system.

“We don’t have the ability to change the standards if we don’t like them. ... We should have our own standards so that we can pick and choose which ones works,” said Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Auburn Hills.

A Michigan education advocacy group has voiced concerns over whether educators are getting the proper training to teach under the new standards.

Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, co-authored a letter sent Feb. 5 to state lawmakers urging them to invest in statewide teacher training. She said Common Core requires educators to teach students at much higher levels than ever before.

“For most teachers, even in the best schools, this will require significant shifts in instruction. Educators need training on the new content standards as well as the most effective way to teach students so that they learn what the standards require,” the letter says.

In some areas of the state, intermediate school districts are providing some professional development. For Painter and Ismail, their local districts provided training.

Arellano said she has heard from teachers who are still waiting for help.

“The potential for inequitable implementation in Michigan is huge. The people who are going to pay for it are the kids,” she said.

Teachers’ unions also are concerned.

An official with the Michigan Education Association said teachers are stressed about the new standards and need support. David Crim, an MEA spokesman, said he is seeing the most success when the union and districts work together on intensive professional development and support. The MEA is also providing training.

“The teachers who feel comfortable are at least two years into (professional development) and are still working on it. Teachers need the time to work together and align curriculum. New textbooks are not the answer — time for teachers to work on (Common Core) is the answer,” Crim said.

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Teacher Ashley Painter looks for textual evidence students understand what ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Nicole White, front, during English class at Rochester High School. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)