Different paths to similar goals of CPS’ Common Core standards
By SANDRA GUY | Staff Reporter August 31, 2013 1:24AM
08/28/2013 Chicago Principal Serena Peterson-Klosa poses for a photograph outside Ebinger Elementary School in Chicago on Wednesday, August 28, 2013. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 2, 2013 6:07AM
The school year is shaping up as one that puts students, teachers and parents outside their comfort zone.
For some, the change is walking into a different building or taking a new route, but all of the more than 400,000 students at Chicago Public Schools will face a revamped curriculum and new approaches to learning.
And it’s not one size fits all. Just as there are 557 district-run schools in the city, there are about as many paths to try and achieve the state’s Common Core standards for academics, which set clear expectations for what students should learn in English and math at each grade level. While the goals are shared, the curriculum in Chicago, from the books and teaching methods used, varies greatly.
For instance, fourth-graders at Ebinger School, in the far Northwest Side’s Edison Park neighborhood, last year took a two-night “wilderness survival” trip in the Rock River Valley near Rockford. Students found sites with a compass, chose items for a make-believe shelter and built a campfire, Principal Serena Peterson-Klosa said.
The trip was part of the school’s “paradigm shift” in teaching methods to meet Common Core standards, veering away from “skill and drill” and delving into topics by problem solving, she said.
Illinois adopted the standards in 2010, and they are being fully implemented across the state this school year; 44 other states and the District of Columbia have signed on. In Chicago, the standards will be completely in place for the 2014-15 school year, according to the CPS website.
Didi Swartz, CPS director of assessment, said, “Our schools have wide latitude in terms of which textbooks and instructional materials they use to get to the end goal,” she said. “What kids are learning, at what point and at which grade level, is very different from school to school.
“Teachers . . . have discretion in tweaking what textbook is used,” Swartz said. “If I have a math class whose students are already strong in doing fractions, I may not spend as much time on that as the textbook dictates.”
At Manuel Perez School in the Pilsen neighborhood, teachers use more than a Basal reader for the reading curricula, adding novels, newspaper articles and online videos and periodicals, Principal Vicky Kleros said, adding that teachers assess students’ work each week and spend time on areas that need support.
At Ebinger, students will spend more time writing and rewriting research-based work, rather than penning five-paragraph essays, Peterson-Klosa said. The school also upped its nonfiction selections to 75 percent of its classroom libraries, and each student gets a monthly periodical, like Life or Scholastic magazine.
“We learned last year that 80 percent of the questions that teachers asked students required no effort by students to answer by having to return to the source,” Peterson-Klosa said.
One result: Students read “The Snowy Day,” a 1962 award-winning children’s picture book about a first snowfall, and learned to “tear it apart,” she said. “We ask the child, ‘What do you see going on in the picture? Where do you think the story is taking place? How do you know that? What evidence do you see in the picture?’ ”
Similarly, students at the 728-student school, which placed No. 1 in reading growth achievement among its 41-school network, no longer drill in math. Most math questions are about problem solving in an effort to prepare students for college and careers.
“In a fifth-grade math class, the teacher gives ingredients to make punch for a party, and the students must come up with how much of each ingredient they will need for a certain number of guests,” Peterson-Klosa said. “Students work in a group and decide how they’d go about solving the problem. The answer involves doing addition, multiplication and division.”
Districtwide, some middle-school students take algebra classes and receive credit so they don’t have to take algebra in high school. Others have no such option. About 8,000 of CPS’ 28,000 eighth-graders took an algebra “exit” exam last year to prove their proficiency. This year, as many as 230 middle schools — up from 190 last year — will offer the High School Algebra I course.
Other schools choose other tests, but there are required ones. All schools measure kindergarten through second-grade literacy development and give a CPS-mandated, computerized test known as the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress test, plus the state-mandated Illinois Standard Achievement Test, which are tied to the Common Core.
Overall, CPS students will take fewer standardized tests this year — 10 rather than 25. Also, teachers face more rigorous evaluations on how well they guide students to meet Common Core standards.