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Miss. schools adopt Common Core lessons

September 20, 2011

By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
sdnedu@bellsouth.net

In an effort to align educational standards nationwide, Mississippi began phasing in Common Core State Standards into elementary schools throughout the state this year.
“Common Core means everybody in the United States is going to be teaching the same thing and tested in the same way. If you were to leave Mississippi and go to California and go to a school there, you would be right on target — this is the theory behind that,” Starkville School District Interim Superintendent Beth Sewell said. “We get these stories of someone moving to Virginia or somewhere, and they say the schools in Mississippi are not where they were supposed to be. It’s trying to level the playing field, let everybody be on the same thing and have the same standards nation wide.”
Common Core is an initiative coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and developed by teachers, administrators and educational experts. The standards will affect how math and language arts are taught in schools around the country and ensure students are all held to the same level.
“Instead of each state doing something different — this is what Mississippi does, this is what Louisiana does, this is what Alabama does — we will all be doing the same thing. At the end of the grade level, all of the students should be at the same place,” first grade teacher Kristi Swift said.
To date, all but six states have adopted the standards. In Mississippi, Common Core was adopted in 2010 and is working its way into schools this year.
“It’s a phase-in. Kindergarten through second grade goes first because we’re still having to do the MCT2 (Mississippi Curriculum Test, second edition) and the Mississippi state standards,” Sewell said. “The next year it would be third, fourth and fifth, and the next would be sixth, seventh and eighth, and then high school.”
Though the school year only just began, Sewell said she felt Sudduth Elementary was doing a good job at incorporating the standards. During the summer, three teachers from Sudduth attended a workshop in Oxford where they went through an intensive training process on the curriculum. Those teachers are now responsible for taking what they’ve learned and training their fellow teachers.
“It was very intense because we knew nothing going into it,” kindergarten teacher Isabell McLemore said. “I wanted to go because if I was going to teach this, I wanted to know what it was that I was teaching. I feel so informed now. I feel that the Starkville School District is in a really good place because we were already doing a lot of this.”
The new math program that will be taught in Starkville schools is based on how math is taught in Singapore, whose students consistently rank high in mathematics.
“We’re not competing state to state anymore,” Sewell said. “We need to make sure that our students can compete globally now, and we need to look at other countries and see what they’re doing to be successful.”
The math program allows for hands-on experience, group instruction and independent learning, which caters to a variety of different learning styles. It has gained national attention for its success thus far.
“It goes from concrete, pictorial to abstract for every standard. So they actually see it, touch it, feel it and then we move into the abstract form. If we got straight to abstract and they don’t concretely understand what’s going on, they’re not going to be able to apply what they’ve learned,” Swift said.
Common Core will raise the standards and expectations in Mississippi schools. Although Sewell said it put a lot of pressure on the district, she knows the students and teachers are up to the challenge.
“One of the biggest differences is in the past with Mississippi frameworks: You taught a zillion things and now you focus on a smaller amount, but a lot more intense,” McLemore said. “So, we’re going to learn our numbers, but we’re going to learn everything that has to do with those numbers. Instead of learning numbers and then moving onto shapes and colors, it’s just really intense what they’re going to be learning.”
Though there was some resistance from teachers when the changes were first announced, Swift said the teachers all recognize the impact the system will have on students.
“It’s making it life-relevant. I remember taking standardized tests in school. What I was reading had absolutely nothing to do with me, and I did not even know how to look at it. We’re approaching it to bring in their life into their learning,” Swift said. “That makes it more interesting to them and they realize that they have to do this to be successful later on in life. College and career readiness — (students) either need to be ready to go college when they graduate, or they need to be able to start a trade or career when they exit high school.”
Common Core standards will continue to phase into the school system over the next few years. Teachers will have to combine the standards with the old Mississippi State standards until the transition is complete. When the program is fully implemented, Swift said she knows Mississippi students will be able to measure up to any other students in the country.
“It has to be a state initiative. That’s one of the things we’ve talked about with the Mississippi Department of Education — if you’re the No. 1 district in a state that’s last in the nation, that doesn’t mean anything,” Swift said. “We want our state to be No. 1 so we really have to work together. All the districts are going to have to jump on board and take hold of this.”

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