Kennett debates ways to improve teaching methods

By MATT FREEMAN

For 21st Century Media

School standards, a subject that has perennially sparked controversy nationwide, took up most of the Kennett Consolidated School District’s monthly school board meeting Monday night.

The meeting featured a comprehensive presentation on the district’s ongoing implementation of the national Common Core standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, defines national standards for what K–12 students should know in English and math in each grade.

The Common Core initiative, much like other national standard-setting efforts before it, has critics who say it amounts to a national curriculum and diminishes local control of schools. Other critics believe it will pressure teachers to “teach to the test,” making high scores on standardized tests the main goal of their instruction.

Jane Pedroso, the district’s curriculum supervisor, acknowledged the concerns, but said the standards were not a curriculum and did not dictate what content the instruction should include. The standards were devised to address a lack of educational competitiveness with other countries and a general lack of progress in education nationwide, she said.

“We are not faddish,” Pedroso said. “We are very thoughtful about what we do with our students.”

And according to the four Kennett district teachers who talked about the day-to-day changes the Common Core standards were bringing about in the classrooms, the initiative was a pathway toward more sophisticated instruction and deeper understanding of the subjects for their students.

Jennifer Miller, a teacher at Greenwood Elementary School, said that in math instruction the Common Core guidelines emphasized conceptual understanding, fluency, and application to solve problems.

Miller said students are encouraged to describe the processes they use to reach their answers, and to apply those skills to real-world problems.

Susan Matthias, who teaches at the Kennett Middle School, described the increasingly sophisticated skills students need to master as they get older. “Going deeper is the key to all of this,” she said.

Susan Yocum, a teacher at New Garden Elementary School, said the main changes in English instruction included a greater emphasis on nonfiction and informational texts. These texts are challenging to understand, Yocum said, and the teachers wondered how the students would fare, but “they have just gone above and beyond,” she said.

Another change was a greater emphasis on having students cite evidence from their reading, answering teachers’ questions and showing where in the texts the answers came from. “You have to prove it to me,” Yocum said.

The third new emphasis was using more complex reading material, Yocum said, because the more complex a text the students can grasp, the more likely they will be to succeed in college. “They really are becoming risk takers and they really are quite successful,” Yocum said.

Judy Jester, who teaches at the Kennett Middle School, said the new standards were more specific and asked more from the students than the more general requirements of previous standards.

“Each standard is pushing the kids to do a little bit more than before,” Jester said.

And teachers were also benefiting from the more sophisticated requirements, according to Jester, who said the staff “are being asked to up their game.”

A number of attendees wrote questions about the program on index cards that were passed up front to the presenters, and relatively few of the questions showed any negative feelings about the Common Core initiative.

One asked why people should believe in Common Core when other initiatives had shown little results, and Pedroso said it was because of the teachers’ commitment to the improvement process. “We’re really looking at what we’re doing and what we can do better for our kids,” she said. “My faith is in these ladies right here.”

Superintendent Barry Tomasetti said that although the initiative emphasized working with high-level concepts, the school would not neglect teaching basic factual information. “The rigor begins with the memorization of facts,” he said.

Michael Barber, principal of Kennett High School, reviewed test data from recent Pennsylvania State System of Assessment and Keystone tests. In some subjects and grades Kennett students scored slightly below the state average in recent tests, in others they greatly exceeded it. although Hispanic and economically deprived students tended to score lower than their white classmates.

Tomasetti said the district was working with legislators to get more funding to address the lagging scores.