New standards hope to prepare students for global success


BY Aline Reynolds

To kick off the 2010-11 academic year, Lower Manhattan public school principals are prepping their teachers for a new teaching method recently adopted by New York State as well as 47 other states nationwide.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative establishes a new set of benchmarks that teachers will begin implementing in classrooms this year.

According to the Initiative’s mission statement, “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

The New York City Department of Education believes, compared to the previous guidelines, they’re “fewer, clearer and higher and better aligned with college and work expectations.”

“I don’t like to hear on the news that American kids are, like 20th in the world in problem-solving skills,” said Martha Polin, principal of the Lower East Side Preparatory High School, which began training its teachers on the new standards last week. “These standards address our competitiveness in the world.”

“They follow the saying, ‘If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for the rest of his life’,” chimed in Rene Anaya, the school’s assistant principal. “The focus, in other words, is on building skills in the students, and really getting them prepared for life after high school.”

“I think the new system is going to help give us a focus and give teachers clear ideas of what needs to be done in each grade,” said Brett Gustafson, principal of P.S. 2 London Meyer school in Chinatown.

P.S. 2 will start off by enforcing some of the concrete writing and math standards this year, easing into the new reading skills by next year.

The Initiative’s new literacy standards will demand stronger reading levels in subjects such as science and social studies, not just in English class.

“[Teachers] always say, ‘It’s not my job to teach kids how to read’,” Polin explained. “What this is saying is, ‘Yes it is.’ There are specific requirements for reading those texts that kids need to learn.”

The benchmarks for students are more clearly defined at each grade level. For example, according to the new math standards, by grade two students should be able to add and subtract with fluency.

“You can now see very clearly that by the second grade, [the students] should be able to do that,” said Gustafson.

As for the literacy standards Gustafson said, “In kindergarten, for example, they’ll talk about a subject and illustrate it with crayons. By grade one, the youngsters should be able to write about the subject, and by grade two, they’ll be required to supply reasons to support their thinking, using words like ‘because’.”

The former standards were also more content-based than the new ones; eighth graders would have to learn about slavery by the end of eighth grade, or know how to write a compare-and-contrast essay in ninth grade.

“[The new standards] don’t tell you, you must read this particular book by the end of the year,” said Gustafson. “They say, you must be able to perform a particular skill by then.”

Similarly, instructors previously focused on teaching students a certain set of vocabulary words by the end of an academic year.

“We’re going to talk a lot about how kids are going to gain understanding of not what vocabulary is but how to find it out and figure it out independently,” said Polin.

With a very large English-as-a-second-language student population, both L.E.S. Prep and P.S. 2 anticipate hardships implementing the new standards in their classrooms. “We’ll be…putting more emphasis on literacy when they’ve just learned the English alphabet,” said Polin.

“I think the challenge is good,” Gustafson said in relation to the new standards for the school’s E.S.L. students. “My only concern is that it’s not punitive by holding kids back in grades.”

The standards also will raise the bar for low achieving general education students. “There’ll also be no more pushing through the kids to the next grade because, say, they’re too tall. All the general education kids will have to pass the end-of-the-year state test,” said Gustafson.

L.E.S. Prep held a staff-wide meeting last week in which Polin gave an overview of the C.C.S.S. Initiative.

“It went very well,” Polin said. “The teachers were very engaged in the conversation.” Both Polin and Gustafson will continue to discuss the new standards with the teachers during weekly staff meetings.

“From what I’ve seen, [the standards] seem very doable,” said Lisa Jirsa, who teaches writing at L.E.S. Preparatory. “They aren’t vastly different from what we’re already doing at the school.”

Gustafson, who attended a three-day-long training session on the new standards over the summer, said the new system will prepare kids for work life as well as college-level coursework.

“Even if you become an auto mechanic, and if there is something wrong with a car, you’ll have to assess it and support your assessment,” he said.

Common Core State Standards is a state-led effort spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. State exams will be revised according to the new state standards by 2014, giving teachers time to prepare their students.

M.S. 2 Meyer London school principal Brett Gustafson at his desk