On Wednesday morning, math time in Brianne McDaniel’s class began in a familiar way — with students sitting cross-legged on a bumblebee carpet, counting backward and forward on a number chart projected above them.
Throughout the year, the children will be spending a lot more time with the chart. They will write about numbers, play with numbers and get to know numbers well enough to understand what they are made of and how they relate to one another.
Eventually, this will lead to addition and subtraction, and even a little bit of algebra. But there’s no rush. “Numbers are the root of mathematics,” McDaniel said. “This is something we are going to be focusing on all year.”
The approach is a major shift. In the past, teachers were “panicking,” she said, to get through all the concepts they were expected to teach, including early lessons in geometry, measurement and statistics.
By paring down the curriculum, U.S. schools are taking their cue from the less-is-more approach in such high-performing countries as Finland and South Korea.
“This is not an evolution in standards. This is like a revolution,” said William Schmidt, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.
“It really calls for a different approach to teaching,” he said, requiring teachers to have a deeper understanding of the material.
Traditionally, what students are expected to know by the time they graduate has been decided by state and local school leaders. But last year, governors and state education chiefs proposed common standards to align with the expectations of employers and colleges. Forty-five states and the District have adopted them.
In comparison with previous standards, which varied widely from state to state, the new set focuses more on core math concepts and puts more emphasis on writing and nonfiction.
In the first week of English language arts in McDaniel’s class, first-graders read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Two Bad Ants” and learned about punctuation and making predictions in stories.
McDaniel plans to introduce a new kind of book next week, one that explores a different topic on each page. Her goal is to introduce the idea that some books provide information rather than tell a story.
Last year, she said, she taught nonfiction lessons only twice. The new curriculum calls for a far greater emphasis on nonfiction and more technical reading — both in elementary and secondary school.
The new elementary curriculum is in all kindergarten and first-grade classes and some second-grade classes. The plan is to add at least another grade per year. Changes are also underway in middle and high schools in math and English classes.
The shift in English reflects “what you hear from college faculty all over the place: that kids are not equipped to read the material in their classrooms. They don’t understand it and can’t find information in it, and they don’t persist in trying to read the tough stuff,” said Michael Cohen, president of the District-based Achieve, which advocates national standards.
McDaniel predicted that her children will enjoy the change. When they have free reading time, she said, they often dive for books about polar bears or bones and muscles, rather than sifting through her basket of storybooks.
The Obama administration was not involved in drafting the standards but has cheered them as a catalyst for reform and a way to improve U.S. competitiveness. In the administration’s Race to the Top program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave preference to states that adopted them.
Virginia among holdouts
Virginia is one of five holdouts. Officials maintain that the state’s Standards of Learning are sufficiently challenging and that an overhaul would be unnecessary and expensive. The others are Nebraska, Montana, Alaska and Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called national standards a threat to local education control. Minnesota has adopted only the English standards.
Opponents say national standards could lead to a national curriculum, making schools more vulnerable to federal influence. But thousands of school systems are translating the broad standards into daily lessons in thousands of ways — all by a 2013-14 deadline, when new standardized tests are expected to be in place.
The District is adapting its tests to the new standards and changing math lessons. Prince George’s County has adopted a new math book but is waiting to learn more about the coming tests before overhauling its curriculum.
Montgomery officials said they wanted to think beyond tests as they revamp instruction. School officials started rethinking the curriculum in 2007, partly in response to complaints from parents and teachers that class time was too focused on math and reading.
Those efforts accelerated last year when Maryland adopted the national standards and the school system won a $5 million federal grant. Montgomery schools also signed an unusual $2.25 million contract with education publisher Pearson. The extra money helped pay for more than two dozen employees to work full time on the curriculum.
What the county calls “Curriculum 2.0” is being distributed not in the usual binders, but through a Web portal where teachers can download suggested lesson plans and upload their own to share.
The curriculum designates more time for such subjects as science, art and social studies, and it weaves together lessons across disciplines, based on research that shows students learn more when they are making connections.
‘We are teaching to life’
“Instead of teaching to the test, we are teaching to life,” said Martin Creel, Montgomery’s director of enriched and innovative programs.
The curriculum also emphasizes thinking and creative skills that employers say are critical.
In Wednesday’s math lesson, the students learned about collaboration while they practiced counting. Groups of two played a counting game with a number chart and a die.
The children quickly encountered the challenges of working together, such as when your partner takes “very long” to pick a number or spins the die across the room instead of gently tossing it.
But at the end, when McDaniel asked how working together makes a difference, one answered: “It helps us count to a higher number.”