LACONIA — As Lakes Region school children prepare to return to the classrooms next week, educators are working to ensure that their course material is compatible with the new Common Core State Standards, an educational approach that is overhauling classroom instruction across the state and most of the country.
The Common Core Initiative, which is being put forth by the U.S. Department of Education and a consortium of states and was adopted by the New Hampshire Department of Education three years ago, contains standards regarding the learning of math and English language arts/literacy curriculum that emphasize critical thinking and problem solving and are meant to better prepare students for success. New Hampshire is one of 45 states which has adopted the Common Core standards which are being rolled out ahead of new nationwide assessment tests which N.H. students are scheduled to take for the first time about 1 1/2 years from now.
Laconia School Superintendent Terri Forsten said that teachers in the district have been preparing for the transition to the sort of standards contained in Common Core for close to three years. She explained the new standards were devised under what she called the school district's "non-negotiables" — a series of skills that students need to demonstrate at various grade levels in the areas of math and language arts/literacy. As Laconia educators worked to develop the school district's own revised curriculum, they sought to incorporate many of the Common Core standards into the "non-negotiables" program.
The Gilford School District is fully behind the Common Core program as well, according to Superintendent Kent Hemingway.
"We are embracing this, and we're fully on board," he said.
He said that the district has invested considerable energy in professional staff development to ensure that teachers are knowledgeable about the Common Core standards in their respective areas. And to inform parents and other members of the public, the district has posted detailed information on its website on how the program is being implemented and how it will affect students.
For example, the special pages on the website spell out how Gilford second-graders studying English will need to write an informative composition in which they "introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points and provide a concluding statement." Likewise in math, fifth-graders will need to "calculate geometric measurement, understand the concept of volume and relate volume to multiplication and addition."
Forsten said that to date her district has not incurred any major additional expenses associated with bringing the new standards into Laconia classrooms. Teachers can make use of a variety resources, such as workshops and on-line information, to better prepare them for changes in the material they will present to students. She said that the classroom technology which teachers and students use is adequate to the needs of the new curriculum. And while some school districts may purchase new textbooks as part of the roll-out of Common Core, Laconia has no plans to do so anytime soon, preferring to wait to see how the new Common Core-compatible texts shake out, she said.
"Textbooks are not what drive our teaching," Forsten said. "They are a tool."
Likewise the implementation has not had a major impact on the Gilford school budget.
"We've made choices within our normal budget spending," Hemingway said. For example he said when the district decided to buy a new English text used in high school it chose one that placed greater emphasis on non-fiction writing — an area stressed on the Common Core standards.
Gilford's classroom technology is ample enough for any changes which Common Core will bring, he added.
On the whole Forsten sees Common Core as a positive development in education.
"Overall, the (new) standards are higher, but not necessarily (higher) across the board," she said.
According to the state Department of Education, Common Core standards specify what students should know and be able to do in each grade and by the end of high school to be college and career-ready. Common Core supporters say how students get to that point is for each school system to decide.
The first critical test of Common Core's success is expected to come in spring 2015 when the Smarter Balanced test will be required for students in Grades 3 through 8 as well as 11 for math and English language arts/literacy.
For Forsten Common Core is an improvement over No Child Left Behind, the 2001 law which required schools to test students annually and penalized those districts where too many students got poor or marginal test scores.
"No Child Left Behind had high accountability, but did not give (districts) guidance and direction that Common Core shows," she said.
Hemingway believes Common Core standards will help students develop higher levels of thinking skills which will become evident when they are tested.
"When it comes to taking a test, they will be thinking rather than guessing," he said.