Indiana is moving closer to adopting a blend of the Common Core State Standards and standards it developed prior to the common core, but a look inside one classroom suggests that teachers in the state may be a step ahead of policymakers.
One morning last month, Flora Gitsis, a 5th grade teacher at Indianapolis’ Crooked Creek Elementary School—where state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz used to be a media specialist—instructed her students on writing a personal essay. Along with student-teacher John Blum, Ms. Gitsis first displayed on a projector screen the relevant standards from the English/language arts standards the state adopted in 2006. Then, they switched the screen to show the common-core standard on essay writing.
Ms. Gitsis and Mr. Blum didn’t explicitly point out to students that they were using two sets of content standards. But while the 2006 Indiana standard on essay writing focuses on linking paragraphs together and putting events in chronological order, the relevant common-core standard on the screen puts a much greater emphasis on students’ knowledge of “academic vocabulary,” as Principal Kimberly Piper put it.
That means it’s crucial they understand what a thesis and a conclusion are, for example, and can show that they do.
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In general, Ms. Gitsis said after class, the common core goes further in exploring what students can and should understand about a topic or demonstrable skill.
“The Indiana state standards, I feel, are a little bit more cut and dried,” she added.
Merging two different sets of standards at Crooked Creek isn’t what Ms. Gitsis or Ms. Piper necessarily wants. But a law passed year, the same one that triggered a review of common core in the state and consideration of new standards, has required schools to keep the state’s prior standards in many classrooms even as a planned transition to the common-core standards moves ahead. In practice, that means grades 2-5 at Crooked Creek are using both common core and previous content standards in English/language arts and math, while kindergarten and 1st grade have already fully switched to the common core.
Asked if teachers had expressed a clear preference for either set of standards, Ms. Piper responded: “I don’t know if you’d get an answer. ... There’s high standards and high expectations anyway.”
She added, however, that it sometimes has been difficult to be “in flux” between the standards, even setting aside the current policy discussions at the state level.
While the principal said the change in standards has been a little more noticeable in math, Susan Cosand, a math instructional specialist at the school, said the essential “body of knowledge” hasn’t been dramatically disrupted, even though the grades at which certain standards are introduced have shifted.
“We just want something that’s clean and clear and concise,” Ms. Cosand said.
It doesn’t hurt that the school has a strong foundation to build on: Crooked Creek Elementary, which features an International Baccalaureate program, has received annual A grades under the state’s accountability system ever since Indiana began using the A-F rubric in 2010.
The school’s population also is racially and economically diverse. Just over half (51 percent) of its students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, while 45 percent are black, 33 percent are white, 11 percent are multiracial, 8 percent are Hispanic, and 3 percent are Asian.
Down the hall from Ms. Gitsis on a particular day, Jenny Abell’s 2nd grade class was using a language arts textbook, Journeys, that features an insignia stating it is common-core-aligned. But Ms. Abell, who’s been teaching for 24 years, was also straddling the two sets of standards.
Ms. Abell had students identify key vocabulary words during a read-aloud session, and also had students identify high-frequency words and physically demonstrate what certain words like “gazing” mean.
One of her main goals, she said, was to move students toward having an inner dialogue about what they’re reading, even as they read for comprehension. Having that dialogue consistently, she said, means students can demonstrate true understanding of the text.
Teachers at the school said that since they have strong pacing guides (essentially, a curriculum map and calendar to help them teach the standards in a timely and orderly fashion), they’ve remained confident that they can continue to teach effectively.
“We’re used to noise,” Ms. Abell said of the state-level turmoil. “I can’t think of how many revisions we’ve gone through. ... Welcome to our world.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as For Teachers, Standards Become Classroom Reality