The Shift

You’re fully aware that education, like anything else, can be trendy. When a new mandate is implemented, or a new issue arises, vendors spot a vulnerability and come out of the woodwork with the next best thing, guaranteed to meet our classrooms needs, offering us the chance to ‘try it’ or ‘buy it,’ depending upon our urgency.{{more}} Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, for example, we were inundated with companies promoting everything from bullet-proof white boards to crowd-controlling megaphones.

One of those trendy areas exists with the shift to the Common Core State Standards, or in edu-speak – the ‘Common Core.’ Connecticut is one of 45 states and the District of Columbia making the switch to the new standards. (Texas, Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Virginia declined.)

Every day my office receives half-a-dozen emails from companies with a ‘must-have’ for the new Common Core.

However, in Orange, we began that transition as soon as Connecticut announced its commitment. Our own math committee, made up of teachers across the grades and the schools, deeply studied the Common Core over a two year period before last year’s purchase of th e

new program Math Expressions. True Math Expressions was chosen because it most closely aligns with Common Core, but the question you might rightfully ask is whether or not the Common Core shift deserved that sort of financial commitment from Orange. It did and it does! But, we probably haven’t well communicated to our community that this curriculum shift, despite it being a ‘mandate,’ is actually an opportunity for excellence.

Take math, for example! For the past two decades, Connecticut teachers have been teaching 25 different math standards at almost every grade level. The standards included topics such as place value, operations, word problems, time, approximating measures, and patterns. They included the dreaded #25 – ‘mathematical applications.’

In the new Common Core standards, there is an average of only five standards per year. In Grade K, students will cover counting to 100, counting forward from any number, writing numbers to 20, knowing numbers are greater and less than, and other principles such as the number of objects is the same whether they are in a line or in a pile. The important change is that the topics are covered deeply enough so that students understand and internalize the mathematical concept, not memorize it. There is an emphasis on ‘math talk’ and children’s ability to explain why something is true. Math Expressions includes teaching skills such as abstract thinking and perseverance. In successive years, students continue to delve into fewer concepts (five or six versus 25) more deeply. There is also an emphasis on fluency with operations and math facts. That continual spiral of ‘exposure’ is gone.

Significant shifts are occurring in reading and writing, as well. There is a much greater emphasis on non-fiction. In 4th grade, the expectation is that 50 percent of reading will be literary and 50 percent informational. By 12th grade, the expectation is that 30 percent will be literary and 70 percent informational. The shift supports an emphasis on ‘college and career readiness.”

The two most significant changes for teachers are in their selection of texts and their questioning techniques. The emphasis on text complexity means that teachers must regularly select texts slightly above grade level and then model their reading and thinking strategies for understanding that text from decoding words to making associations with prior knowledge. Secondly, teachers must change their questioning strategies for all texts by asking fewer literal and recall questions and more evidence-based questions. In the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for example, the teacher would no longer ask, “What did Jack’s mother tell him to do?” (a recall question) or “Would you like to have someone like Jack as your friend?” (a connection question). Instead, the teacher would ask, “If Jack already has the hen that lays the golden egg every day, why did he go back for the harp?” On their own, and in partnered and whole class discussions, students will present their evidence from the text that Jack is a thrill-seeker, or curious, or greedy, or disobedient, and so on. The shift is from fact-based questions, which students can find directly in the text to a different kind of question which expects student to use the text to support an inference.

Opposition to the Common Core has been pretty vocal, but mostly it comes from educators; and often I feel it is about the dearth of resources, not the standards themselves. Polls consistently show that the more people know about the new standards, the more they like them. To learn more about the Common Core State Standards initiative, visit the website at

There is also a very enjoyable video cartoon explanation which discusses the importance of this shift to America, not just Orange. You can find it at

Lynn McMullin is the Orange superintendent of schools.