The Durant Independent School District is taking the first steps toward implementing a new curriculum for pre-kindergarten through high school based on a nationwide model.
Education departments in Oklahoma and all but two other states have signed on to a “common core” of instruction that proponents say will better prepare students for college and the world of work.
The state has also launched a new A-F grading system for schools and districts, with initial grades due out this month. Those doing poorly will be monitored closely and be required to demonstrate improvement in specific time periods. The process of teacher evaluations is also being altered considerably. As part of that change, administrators must spend more time in classrooms for evaluation purposes.
DISD Superintendent Dr. Jason Simeroth said in an interview that much of the “common core” material will come from coursework taught here for years. What’s new, however, will be the integration of that material and new material into what the state department calls a coherent storyline for all grades. Full implementation, he said, begins next fall.
Among other changes, Simeroth said, the new curriculum will have increased emphasis on critical thinking. He said this is reflected in sample tests the state agency has provided that are tied to the new curriculum and that include more attention to problem-solving questions. Reading and writing will also be stressed across the curriculum, he said.
The changes have prompted teacher concern on two fronts, according to Roger McGehee, president of the Durant Teachers Association. One is the time needed to add in the common-core material while still preparing students for end-of-semester exams on the ongoing coursework. The other, he said, stems from the revamped teacher-evaluation procedures, which will include assessments of the teachers’ handling of the reading, writing and critical thinking elements.
McGehee, who teaches chemistry and physics, noted that many teachers outside the language arts areas have had limited training for teaching in those areas, may have some difficulty in evaluating and improving student writing, and are concerned about the impact of that on evaluations of their own performance.
Simeroth said some added costs will result from the changes, such as $25,000 for consultants on the new curriculum and compensation for teachers who attended a summer training workshop conducted by the district.
The district will not buy new textbooks immediately, Simeroth said, waiting instead for the next textbook purchasing cycle. Then, he said, many texts will combine material from different disciplines as part of the state’s goal of “coherent storylines” running from grade to grade. Placing some common-core material on computers will help limit textbook costs, he said.
The district in recent years has bought laptop computers to provide one for each student in 7th grade through high school, computers that can be used at home as well as in the classroom. Computers were also bought for use in elementary grade classrooms only.
The core was created by groups of teachers and other education professionals drawn from districts across the country and working through the U.S. Department of Education. The goal, the agency said, is to ensure that students will receive high-quality education from school to school and state to state.
Details of the grade-by grade common core are on the Oklahoma Department of Education Website.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently told teachers at a convention that common standards won’t tell teachers how to teach, but will help them figure out the knowledge and skills students should have so the best classroom lessons and environment can be achieved. Rigorous standards, he said, are a key building block in preparing students for success.
The curriculum reform is needed, Duncan added, because about 25 percent of young Americans don’t graduate from high school and about half of all community college students need remedial instruction when they arrive.
Duncan suggested that national tests may be developed in the future, and Simeroth predicted such testing would be part of the educational scene within five years. He expressed pleasure at his district’s test reports and its average high school graduation rate for the past five years of 93 percent.
Looking ahead, the superintendent noted the continuing squeeze by the tightness of the state’s budget. In the 2009-10 school year, state funding for the district was cut a total of $800,000 in three states. The reduction this year, in July, was $218,000, but more cuts may be coming, depending on the state’s economy. The district must approve its budget for the year in the summer, Simeroth said, so further trimming is possible in the months ahead.
(Stanton was an editor and reporter at The Wall Street Journal and a University of Houston journalism professor.)