Engrossed in the picture book “Grandpa Comes to Stay,” second-grader Jake Barreto hardly acted like a student with specific orders.

But on the wall next to him, in Lauren Ojalvo’s Montgomery Knolls Elementary School classroom in Silver Spring, the students’ objective for the day’s reading lesson was posted: “You will be able to identify a character’s point of view using information from the story.”

For Jake, the answer was straightforward. “I think they had a good time,” he said.

Whether he knew it or not, Jake was experiencing “Curriculum 2.0,” one of the most sweeping academic initiatives ever to be launched in Montgomery County public schools. The effort, now in its third year, is based on national academic standards called Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia.

Now being used exclusively in kindergarten and first grade and some second-grade classes, county school officials bill Curriculum 2.0 as a way to teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It stresses the mastery of material as opposed to the quantity studied, and it integrates more subjects, such as science and social studies, into lesson plans for math and English.

“In some ways, this is a big change in the way we think about instruction,” said Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.

Curriculum 2.0 functions as an inverted pyramid, with the broadest concepts at the top and daily and weekly objectives and tasks on the bottom. At the top are the critical-thinking, creative-thinking and academic skills that the county system has adapted from the Common Core standards.

Lang said school officials have not yet measured whether students are learning better under Curriculum 2.0 than they did under the former curriculum, though they will do so over the next three years using everything from teacher interviews to test scores.

Testing comprehension

During the first marking period of this year, the curriculum has required teachers to stress analysis —  such as identifying the attributes of an object — as a critical-thinking skill, along with collaboration, which is considered an academic skill.

Shannon Stroud, a first-grade teacher at Montgomery Knolls, spent a reading class two weeks ago testing students on their comprehension of “Lion Talk,” a book about the characteristics of lions. Stroud quizzed pupils on the three key details that helped describe lions in the book and asked them to identify a topic sentence. They also had to work in groups to identify the big paws and teeth that made the animals leonine.

Under the previous curriculum, the reading lesson might not have been tied to any other subject matter, Lang said, noting that students who have more knowledge about the world around them become better readers.  In lessons a few years ago, students also would not have had specific academic and thinking skills integrated into the lessons by the teachers. The analysis of a lion, for example, helps teach students that subjects can be broken down into parts with their own attributes.

Under the new curriculum, teachers have the flexibility to use one of eight sample plans or create their own. Ojalvo writes a “Daily Letter” to students explaining her plan for the day and her expectations.

The curriculum also includes unifying questions that guide lessons over a one- to two-week period. Recently, the unifying question on Ojalvo’s wall was, “How can asking questions or solving problems in different ways help you make sense of ideas?”

As part of that unifying question, a separate objective for her class’s math work was also posted on Ojalvo’s wall: “You will be able to compare 3-digit numbers using >,< and = symbols.”

“The curriculum allows for so much more critical thinking, which wasn’t the case before,” said Ojalvo, who is in her third year at Montgomery Knolls.

Potential problems

Teachers are enthusiastic about the curriculum, said Montgomery Knolls Principal Deann Collins, because professional development tools are available online, and teachers can discuss questions and problems with each other using the Internet. In turn, teachers are making concepts more explicit to students.

“Now you can see the threads between all the content areas,” Collins said.

Teachers are still grappling with making sure students truly learn the concepts in depth.

About an hour after her first-grade class, in a staff development meeting over lunch, Stroud reported that her students sometimes had trouble moving beyond merely getting correct answers to mathematical problems to understanding why the problems were correct.

“They get the concepts, but they can’t explain,” Stroud told fellow teachers.

The curriculum isn’t without critics.

In testimony to the Board of Education last year on the Elementary Integrated Curriculum, which was updated and renamed Curriculum 2.0, Frederick Stichnoth, president of the parent group Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County, said he was worried that the content would be too watered-down for students who are ready for advanced material.

Ted Willard, co-chairman of the Curriculum Education Committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said he was pleased that subjects such as science and social studies are getting more attention, adding that he believes children are likely to learn more.

Like Stichnoth, however, he worried about high-performing students, along with those who need more time to master material. He was also concerned that incorporating science and social studies into math and English lessons won’t automatically help students truly understand them.

“I don’t see how that necessarily creates more time, more attention to social studies, science, the arts, things like that,” he said.