Special Report
Teaching Profession

Principal Sees Course Rigor as Basis for Common-Core Readiness

By Liana Loewus — March 13, 2013 7 min read
Sarah Kirby, 17, looks for textual evidence to support her interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby during an International Baccalaureate English class at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y.
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As schools in 46 states begin implementing the Common Core State Standards in earnest, many educators are wrestling with the question of how to get students who are falling short of existing standards somehow to leap over the new, higher bar. Veteran principal Carol Burris believes she has an answer: Make their classes harder.

At South Side High School in Rockville Center, N.Y., where Burris has been principal for 13 years, nearly every student—including English-language learners and those receiving special education services—takes advanced classes. When students are struggling, they do not receive remediation or a pared-down curriculum. Instead, they are supported on grade-level material and pushed harder. There is no low-level track for students without plans to go to college. Everyone at the school prepares to go.

The 1,100-student school participates in the International Baccalaureate program, an intensive pre-college program built around advanced academic work. Until last year, students took honors core courses through their junior year, at which point they could choose between honors and IB. Then, in September 2011, Burris took the unusual step of making IB English 11 a requirement for all students.

See Also

Read additional stories from our Common-Core Instructional Opportunities package.

Burris, co-author of Opening the Common Core: How to Bring All Students to College and Career Readiness, says her hard-line approach stems from her extensive research on college readiness—including the doctoral work that earned her the 2003 dissertation of the year award from the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Through that research, she’s concluded that the rigor of a student’s K-12 curriculum is a greater predictor of college readiness than test scores.

Frencina Monteiro, 18, raises her hand during an International Baccalaureate history class at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. The class is one of many college-preparatory courses offered by the school.

And she’s pretty confident that her uncompromising efforts to increase rigor are paying off, both in terms of achievement indicators and preparation for the new common standards.

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, only one student did not pass the English Regents examination (the high school subject-areas test for college-bound students in New York State), down from nine the year before. Further, 90 percent of South Side’s test-takers scored a 75 or above, which the state of New York considers the college-readiness standard. And in an especially pride-inducing data point, Burris noted that at South Side, which is 22 percent minority students, 95 percent of African-American and Latino students, and 99 percent of white and Asian students passed the required five exams and earned Regents diplomas last year. “We have always done well since de-tracking grades 9 and 10,” Burris said, “but that is something else.”

In comparison, only 67 percent of students statewide who began 9th grade in 2007 earned a Regents diploma in 2011, according to recent data from the New York State Education Department. In that same student cohort, only 49 percent of black and Hispanic students did so.

Closer Reading

And as a result of the school’s continued emphasis on advanced coursework, South Side’s transition to the common-core standards has purportedly been a smooth one so far. “The concept behind the common core—the idea of college readiness for all—is one we have embraced for years,” she explained. “We’ve been working on this mission of closing the gap and getting all kids ready for college for a long time.”

John Murphy, the school’s IB coordinator, explained that the common core and IB have similarities, and in fact the common-core architects looked to IB as a model. Both “emphasize the logical, organized development of ideas; thorough evaluation of source material; consideration for divergent perspectives; and the selection of challenging texts,” said Murphy. And because the school has “used the IB framework as the primary source of our approach to learning, teachers have adopted most of these approaches already.”

These common-core-aligned approaches are easy to see in South Side English and history classes.

For instance, the strategy of using text-based evidence, and not just personal experiences, to make inferences is one of the major tenets of the common core in language arts—the essence of what is known as “close reading.” In teacher Vincent Falivene’s 12th grade IB History class, students attempted to determine who is to blame for the attack on Pearl Harbor by digging into a stack of primary sources. Students led the discussion, tossing around ideas based on guiding questions on the board, and responded thoughtfully to their peers’ comments.

Principal Carol Burris meets with students in her office at South Side High School. Ms. Burris pushes students to take advanced courses in the belief that all students, including English-language learners and those with special needs, should be prepared to go to college.

During the 45-minute period, Falivene did not interject once. Yet reminders to “use the text” are on the board and on students’ graphic organizers, and nearly every comment uttered referred back to a source, often with a page number and exact quotes. “On the other hand,” said one student, “on page 49 … .”

In Christopher Webster’s Advanced English 10 class, small groups of students were answering questions about Macbeth. They were combing Shakespeare’s words, noses in copies of the play. The first group stood to present to the class. Within their first few words, Webster stopped them. “Do we have quotations?” he asks. “Well, we should. We’re using evidence.”

Referring to the text to answer questions is “what we’ve been doing all along here,” Webster, who has taught at South Side for 13 years, explained in an interview. For that reason, the common core “wasn’t as much of a shock to the system.”

“The focus since I’ve been here has been building argumentation, which is highly dependent upon using evidence,” echoed Falivene. What the common standards have done is give teachers a new, shared vocabulary, he said. “It’s calling attention to the subtle things we’re doing. The transition has not been very different in that way.”

In fact, many students at South Side are not even sure what the common core is—but they do know how to do close reading and think deeply about a text. “It’s always been like that,” 12th grader Frencina Monteiro said in an interview. “We need to prove something. We can’t just state our opinion.”

Angel Arevalo, a 12th grader, compares the need for evidence to getting into a verbal fight. “If you can’t back up what you say [in a fight], then don’t say it,” he said. “If you can’t back up [your response to a question] with proof from sources, then don’t say it.”

South Side teachers “won’t accept yes-no,” said 12th grader Stephanie Adelkopf. “We need an explanation and evidence.”

Acceleration, Not Remediation

Inevitably, there are students at South Side who struggle with the advanced coursework. These students attend eight- to 12-student “support” classes every other day that focus on the same content as their regular class, but with a deeper focus on basic skills. For instance, Burris explains, if a class is reading Romeo and Juliet, the support class might do a timeline of the plot, watch video clips, or do an analysis of an important passage. Support classes are always taught by teachers who have a section of the regular class as well to ensure that students keep up with the grade-level curriculum—an element that distinguishes this system from the typical pull-out model.

“The problem with remediation is that kids fall further behind,” Burris said.

By setting more rigorous expectations, the common standards present an opportunity for more schools to do what South Side has done, and push their students to dig deeper, Burris argued. “If you really believe in the CCS and believe it’s for all kids, the de-tracking and leveling up of classes is what you should do.”

Mugs from various colleges and universities occupy the shelves in Principal Carol Burris' office at South Side High School. Former students make a point to stop by for a visit and contribute to the collection.

At the same time, the principal has concerns about the impending common-core-aligned assessments, which she said could “ruin” the standards.

Burris, who has garnered media attention over the last few years for being an outspoken opponent of standardized testing—and especially of linking student scores to teacher evaluations—said she’s worried about 2014-15, when schools will implement the assessments and some of the common-core focus will turn to test scores. At that point, as a result of inevitable scoring discrepancies, she argues, the goal of college and career readiness is likely to morph into college or career readiness. And that could lead to more tracking across the country, not less.

Burris has recently amplified her concerns, publishing two much-talked-about posts on The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog arguing that, now that educators have seen sample questions, the tests are already driving and distorting common-core implementation in schools.

“This [common-core standards] part we really do embrace,” she said in explaining her current position. “I just worry testing is going to kill all of this good stuff.”


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