Oregon schools prepare tougher, more incisive lessons for statewide rollout of ... - OregonLive.com

Sisters Kylie, left, and Lexie Nguyen, both 5, came to Rock Creek Elementary in Beaverton with their mother, Kim, and uncle, Steve, to find their classroom and meet their teacher before the school year opens this week. They are among tens of thousands of Oregon kindergartners who will be asked to do harder math, reading and writing than kindergartners who proceeded them. Oregon schools are ramping up to the Common Core State Standards.

A half-million Oregon students head back to school this week, and the vast majority will be held to a higher level of writing, math and reasoning for their grade level than was true last year.

The reason? Oregon and 44 other states agreed to switch from their own standards for reading, writing and math to a tougher set called the Common Core State Standards.

Their effects have been trickling into Oregon classrooms over the past year or two, but this is the first school year that they will have broad impact on students in nearly every district, officials say.

Intended to ensure that U.S. high school graduates are prepared for college and the workplace, the new standards call for schools to be more intellectually challenging at every grade level, starting with kindergarten.

"We have been working on how to teach critical thinking skills, how to help our students become better problem-solvers and thinkers," said Allyson Dubuque, a Beaverton fifth-grade teacher who helped write her district's plan to raise students' reading and writing to Common Core levels. "We've enjoyed this feeling that we're all on the same page."

Installing a single set of ambitious academic standards at every school across 45 states has taken years -- but in most places, has largely escaped public attention. A Gallup poll out last month found that two-thirds of Americans, including most parents, have never heard of the Common Core.

But the standards have profoundly affected the professional lives of teachers and will have a big impact on Oregon students.

Under the Common Core, students are asked to write more, and to articulate and defend their reasoning a lot more. They're also expected to master skills such as multiplication, fractions and linear formulas at younger ages, use more advanced vocabulary, and read and synthesize a lot more nonfiction.

First-graders, for example, are expected to pull information from multiple written sources and write a cogent report using complete sentences and precise vocabulary. Nearly half of what students used to learn in Algebra I now will be required to pass ordinary middle school math.

In most districts, fully switching to Common Core is still a work in progress that will be tweaked and expanded during and after this school year. But state and federal agreements mean the standards are firmly in place in Oregon. Students, teachers and schools all will be judged by their scores on Common Core-aligned tests beginning in spring 2015.

Third-grade writing: Third-graders need to compare and contrast the main idea and key details from two pieces of writing on the same topic. Oregon standards introduced compare-and-contrast essays in grade four. Third-graders also need to write opinion pieces, citing evidence to support their positions. Oregon standards don't require persuasive writing until grade five. Development: A coalition of governors, state school chiefs, corporations and states hired researchers and experts to write standards for math and for reading, writing, listening and speaking. They aimed for consistency, clarity, rigor, real-world relevance, college readiness and similarity to standards in high-performing countries. Many teachers, professors and curriculum experts helped refine the standards. That challenged students, said Dubuque, who teaches at Rock Creek Elementary . But "they did a good job. And they left feeling like they had a voice and they had something to contribute to the world."

This year, Beaverton schools, among others, are switching the way they teach math. They'll cover fewer topics per grade, teach many skills at younger grades, and overlay nearly every math lesson with explicit discussion of and practice in the way mathematicians think.

Portland schools did that last year for kindergarten through grade two, middle school and Algebra I, said curriculum director Kimberly Matier. The rest won't complete the switch until this year and next. Portland will complete its switch in English, social studies and science this year except in grades four and five, where the change will happen in 2014-15, she said.

Districts that have been the most systematic in their approach, such as Beaverton, have had the greatest success getting teachers onboard and feeling set to succeed, said Marta Turner, professional development coordinator at the Northwest Regional ESD.

"I am seeing districts that have a plan, and the teachers are energized by it," she said. Small...