Public schools across the state of Illinois are gearing up to refigure elementary and high school education with a new set of curriculum standards and new assessments to test them. A slew of educational standards and tests with acronyms such as NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and ISAT (Illinois State Achievement Test) will be replaced with new abbreviations such as CCS (Common Core Standards) and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) tests.

It’s confusing for parents and even teachers, but Forest Park Elementary School District 91 is making sure teachers and administrators are up to date on the new standards.

“Some parents are worried,” said Field-Stevenson Principal Tiffany Brunson. “The new standards are more rigorous and the expectations are higher.”

In September, principals at all five Forest Park schools took a day-long training in Common Core, held by the Common Core Institute, located in Oakbrook Terrace. The institute is a project of CEO Richard Westrick’s Collaborative Learning Inc.

Elementary School District 91 has been teaching Common Core standards for two years, even though the students are still being tested under the ISAT exams up through this year.

Brunson and the other district principals had special handouts for parents at D91 back-to-school nights complete with links to websites that explain Common Core.

“We wanted people to read about it for themselves,” Brunson said.

Common Core was adopted by 45 of 50 states across the U.S. and soon students will take a new high-stakes PARCC test to measure how well they are learning. It is not a federal program but one that has been developed at the state level by collaborating educators.

“The purpose of Common Core is to create a level playing field for every child in every state,” Brunson pointed out.

But principals at D91 are not just expecting teachers to switch over to the new curriculum without help.

“Principals should know how to support teachers,” said Brunson.

Brunson and Forest Park Middle School Assistant Principal Joe Pisano have taken the lead in their schools to help usher in the new learning standards.

What’s different in language arts

In English/language arts, the Common Core curriculum puts more emphasis on non-fiction, according to the principals.

“The texts will have more complexity,” Brunson said. “While we will still teach fiction, being able to read non-fiction is important for success in high school and in life beyond school. We read non-fiction every day — when we read instructions, for example.”

Common Core does not specify a reading list. Individual school districts make that decision on a local level.

The new curriculum also calls for much more writing — and writing with different purposes.

“They’ll be required to write articles, spoofs, journal entries, pamphlets, apologies, letters,” Brunson rattled off, “all different kinds of writing, fewer five-paragraph papers with a topic sentence, an introduction and a conclusion.”

Pisano said the curriculum is integrated to use vocabulary in different ways with different subjects so students really get a grasp of the meaning of specific words.

Students will also be asked to do more public speaking and academic discussion in groups or one-on-one. As in the work world, student are encouraged to collaborate, Brunsen said.

“Common Core focuses on more open-ended questions,” Pisano added. “The answer might be A, B, C, or D, but the emphasis is how do you get to that answer? How did you get to that path? It’s higher-order thinking with a greater depth of knowledge.”

These teaching strategies will also carry over into social studies, Pisano said.

“Is this the new math?” is the question principals say parents are fearfully asking teachers about Common Core changes.

“The answer is no,” said Brunson.

The Common Core approach is to stress mastery of math concepts, by scaling back the number of concepts learned and focusing on children’s understanding. This means a focus on learning cold the relationships of numbers and operations in elementary school and moving on to more advanced topics in sixth grade and beyond.

D91 teachers have already been participating in workshops with the West Cook Mathematics Initiative (WCIM), a partnership between University of Illinois Chicago and the West 40 Intermediate Service Center to learn new teaching techniques.

Pisano said Common Core math will focus on stretching math skills across the curriculum and gaining confidence through mastery of skills.

First, teachers hope to create a strong base of understanding of math concepts. “[Students] need to understand the basic concepts before they move on,” said Pisano. “A sample lesson would be to say, the number of the day is 165 and write that on the board. Then ask students to suggest ways to reach that number.”

“An easy answer would be ‘164 + 1.'” he added. “But then students can branch out into more complex ways to reach that number. The teacher asks students to show 20 different ways to justify your answer. This lets the students process even more and have a deeper understanding.”

Teachers as facilitators

“We see teachers as facilitators in the 21st-century classroom,” said Brunson. “More ownership is on you, the student, to have a participatory role in your own education.”

Taking ownership, “validates kids’ abilities,” Brunson added.

The two principals admitted that teachers used to teaching a certain way will have to spend more time creating new lesson plans.

“The preparation time is more,” Brunson said. “It’s a 2- to 5-year learning curve for us until we work out the kinks,” she said.

An awkward part of the transition is that D91 students, and all Illinois students, will still take the ISAT tests this year, because the PARCC assessments aren’t ready.

Technology upgrades required

PARCC assessments also require that whole classrooms of students be online simultaneously, taking the tests. That has caused the district to incur $500,000 in technology upgrades to increase connectivity in the five schools. Superintendent Louis Cavallo has complained to the board that this technology investment is unfair to lower-income school districts. Luckily, Forest Park schools have enough money to pay for the upgrades, Asst. Superintendent and Financial Director Ed Brophy told the school board.

Teacher evaluations

Teachers also know that the new assessments will be used to grade them, as well as the students, Brunson said.

“Teachers have always been graded on performance, but they will be able to use data from technology to see their own performance [in the students’ performances].”

Children’s growth as they go through the school year is marked by MAP, testing that measures how a child improves between points in time.

“Class sizes in D91 are small, and we’re lucky,” said Brunson. That means teachers can use test results to follow recommendations for individual learning plans and work with each child.

Common Core is meant to give children a strong base to build their own life skills in college and beyond, Brunson said.

“We’re looking at the kid far beyond after they leave us,” she said. “Parents should be happy about how well-prepared their children are for life after formal education.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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