Teacher teams, instructional materials bring Common Core to Madison students

Carissa Franz, a fourth-grade teacher at Heugel Elementary, grades papers. She says she uses Common Core standards when evaluating student work (Nora Hertel/Madison Commons)Carissa Franz, a fourth-grade teacher at Heugel Elementary, grades papers. She says she uses Common Core standards when evaluating student work (Nora Hertel/Madison Commons)

Fourth grade teacher Carissa Franz starts her lessons by outlining the Common Core standards she and her students will focus on. Franz is in her second year at Ray W. Huegel Elementary School, and uses the standards to drive her teaching this year.

She and teachers throughout Madison are integrating the new Common Core State Standards, adopted by State Superintendent Tony Evers in 2010, into their curriculums with the help of new Common Core-aligned materials and district-supported teacher teams

The changeover to Common Core is a deliberate process. Franz meets monthly with the superintendent as part of a teacher advisory board that shares the “voice of the teachers” with the district, she said.

Every week, she meets with a group of teachers representing each grade level in her school to discuss how to align the standards and the math materials used district-wide with the needs of Huegel’s classrooms.Heugel Elementary SchoolHeugel Elementary School

“It’s a learning experience, and we’re doing it together,” said Franz.

The Common Core State Standards are a set of K-12 learning expectations for math and English, designed to make students across the nation more college and career ready. The Common Core State Standards Initiative was developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2009.

The standards have been adopted in full by 45 states, but the cost of new Common Core-aligned tests and materials and a resistance movement led by Tea Party groups has led some states to reconsider. Wisconsin’s state assembly developed a committee to review the Common Core and hold public hearings. Lawmakers are expected to review legislation to address some concerns against the standards, but they will not likely be repealed.

Wisconsin Department of Education officials stand by the Common Core as superior than the previous standards which only covered grades 4, 8, and 12.

Franz and her group have taken out some lessons and added others to “Investigations,” the district’s math Common Core-aligned instructional materials, to suit their expectations for fourth graders.

The district has coordinated more of these teacher teams to experiment with the standards and discuss the outcome and adjustments amongst each other.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the teachers in these groups will try out the standards in their classroom then discuss: “What did they learn about their students? What did they learn about their teaching, and what refinements do they need to make to their approach?”

Franz described the process of implementing Common Core standards as collaborative (Nora Hertel/Madison Commons)Franz described the process of implementing Common Core standards as collaborative (Nora Hertel/Madison Commons)She said this planning cycle of creating and teaching new lessons, reviewing student performance and data, and then making adjustments is “good teaching practice,” whether Common Core is involved or not.

In August Cheatham unveiled a three-year plan (PDF) for implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

“While every school’s plan for learning about and implementing the standards may be different, we have consistent professional learning across the district,” Cheatham said. Teachers will engage in a “joint inquiry” to learn about the standards and integrate them into classrooms.

“Joint Inquiry” is the focus of this year, the first year of Cheatham’s Common Core plan.

“This joint inquiry … will help us all better understand what it looks like to plan from the standards … and what it looks like to assess student progress on the standards in an authentic way,” according to the district’s Common Core plan.

Franz said she has begun to grade her students according to the Common Core and that the district report cards will change within the next year.

Some teacher groups began adjusting their materials and lesson sequences to the Common Core nearly two years ago. The district stepped in to help implementation this school year. State-wide testing based on the standards is scheduled to begin in 2014-15.

In this first year of the plan, the district has drawn attention to the English and Language Arts standards. 

Last week, Franz and her students worked on “making logical inferences using evidence,” from the Common Core English standards.

She is using a new set of instructional materials called Mondo, recently purchased by the district, to guide her English lessons. She said Mondo aligns well with the Common Core standards. With the new standards and new materials, said Franz, she’s teaching her students to “discuss texts in a deeper way and have discussions with each other about texts.”

Her fourth-graders learn how to agree and disagree and add on to each other's ideas, “then I back away throughout the year,” Franz said.

Cheatham said teachers have a lot of leeway in how they use the standards in their classrooms. They and the district will likely be adjusting to Common Core well beyond this year and Cheatham’s plan.

When I talk about it, I say it’s our initial three year plan,” Cheatham said. We won’t in three years be done learning about what the Common Core means for us and for students.”