AUGUSTA, Ga. — The start of the new school year will bring a big change for schools across the South: the introduction of new so-called “Common Core” standards for what students should know in math and reading. Throughout the summer, teachers in the 45 states that have adopted the standards have been brushing up on them.
Put simply, the Common Core standards set new benchmarks for what students should learn and when they should learn it. But Peggy Pool of the Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics says the new standards will also require new ways of teaching.
“There will be a lot less teacher talk and a lot more student talk,” Pool says. “Teachers will not be standing and telling them how to do things. Students will be figuring things out with teachers guiding and there to support them.”
Pool is one of the organizers of eight trainings across Georgia to give math teachers a better understanding of the Common Core. At this session, roughly 300 teachers have gathered in Augusta to learn how to teach the new standards, which emphasize hands-on applications for math concepts.
Don Slater, one of the teachers and instructional coaches who have volunteered to facilitate the sessions, is showing a group of high school teachers an exercise for their students.
“We’re basically modeling linear equations, which we’ve always taught as part of algebra,” Slate says. “But now we’re trying to give meaning to what the slope and the y-intercept, the parts of that equation, what that means in a real-world setting.”
Today’s real-world scenario? Teachers use a cup full of M&Ms as a weight to stretch a slinky hanging from the top of a desk, then measure how far the slinky extends as more weight is added. Kim Lovett and Mialashun Leverett pour candy and plot their results.
“Okay, now add the weights to the cup, take measurements, record the data below,” Leverett reads the instructions. “How many do you want to add? Want to add five or 10?”
Lovett plunks M&Ms into the cup. “Two, four, six,” he counts. “We added six. Wow…that stretched it down a lot.”
Like many teachers around Georgia, Lovett and Leverett have had some introduction to the Common Core through their school district. But Leverett says today’s training has given her concrete ideas on how to translate a thick notebook of jargon-y standards into new classroom practices.
“Sometimes when reading the standards, you’re not exactly sure how far or how deep you’re supposed to go,” Leverett says. “So being able to do activities to see how deep you’re supposed to go is very beneficial.”
Lovett says he expects there will be a growth period as teachers adapt to the new standards.
“We don’t know yet, because it’s new to us, just like it’s going to be new to the students,” Lovett says. “And so it’s going to be a learning process for us during this first year also.”
Georgia officials expect to see a relatively easy transition, because the Common Core closely maps the state’s previous performance standards. But there are some big changes. In elementary school, for example, fractions will play a bigger role. And Pool says students will begin studying the basic underlying concepts – like dividing a whole into parts – in earlier grades, though fractions won’t be formally introduced until later.
“That will make it much easier for them to understand when they get into grade three,” Pool says. “That’s when it starts getting hard, traditionally – hopefully it won’t be as hard now when they have the background from the kindergarten, first and second grade.”
That’s a theme of the new standards – teaching information in increments so that students’ knowledge builds on itself from grade to grade. Georgia State School Superintendent John Barge says that the biggest challenge will be training.
“How do we ensure that we’ve got a consistent implementation across the state, where the Common Core has been implemented with fidelity from district to district?” Barge says. “It’s probably going to be hard to know that until we get the first set of assessments back.”
But Barge promises a big educational payoff if the standards are successful in the 45 states that have adopted them. If a student moves, say from Georgia to Tennessee or Alabama, their new class will be covering roughly the same topics as their previous one.
Disclosure: Georgia Public Broadcasting has partnered with the Georgia Department of Education to produce online seminars to train teachers in the Common Core standards.