A Year Later, Teachers Still Learning Common Core

Aug 14, 2014

(l-r) Baltimore City teachers Carly Hockman and Kanesha Davenport and director of teacher support and development Meredith Stolte (right) discuss the more rigorous school curriculum under the Common Core standards.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR

A year after the Common Core education standards were rolled out, supporters and detractors continue to debate their value. For teachers, however, the more rigorous curriculum is a reality they have to accept.

“These are the cards we've been dealt, so we're trying to figure out the best way to get students to learn these new standards,” said Baltimore City elementary teacher and instruction coach Carla Hockman.

“I feel comfortable at the time being,” added Sarah Clarke, an eighth-grade Baltimore County science teacher. “There are a lot of unknowns and I think it will be tough for now.”

Although some teachers praise the training their local districts and the state education department provided on the new curriculum for math and English Language Arts, many say they still have a lot to learn. “Teachers are not ready. We're not 100 percent even after one year of implementation,” said Hockman, who coaches a team of 12 teachers at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School. She says many teachers like the new curriculum, but that doesn't mean they are not frustrated at times. “The hardest thing is teachers have been exhausted because it's a lot to ask them to do and students to do and find a way to work with students without stressing them out,” she said. “The challenge is taking standards and making them come to life. There’s still a long way to go.”

Under Common Core, teachers must go beyond lecturing and giving exams to requiring students to supply evidence for their answers, write about the methods they used and apply them to real-life situations. The idea is to better prepare students for college and the job market when they graduate from high school. 

“I think it's harder for teachers like myself who've been around for a while, so the shift has been a big shift,” Hockman said. “If you're a new teacher, you don't have to unlearn all those habits and are able to start fresh, but a veteran will see it as something different they have to get used to.”

Kanesha Davenport, a Pre-K teacher at Edgewood Elementary, said the same thing is true for new learners. Her students did well last year because they hadn't been exposed to any other curriculum. Davenport said adjusting to the new and more rigorous curriculum meant a lot of changes in her classroom this past year. “My instruction changed a great deal because we have to cover more skills and there's not a lot of down time as before in Pre-K,” Davenport said. “A year ago, you could rest, play, but now playing is learning through play, so we have to maximize every instructional moment. There are no naps for them. It’s learning, all day.

But her students don’t always think they’re learning. The new curriculum calls for more group activities and because they’re often working together and using props like balls and Legos in lessons Davenport said they think they’re playing.

Davenport sometimes wonders if the curriculum developed from the Common Core standards may be a bit much for such young students, but overall, she thinks the changes are best for them, even if it creates more work for teachers. “It's no longer a one size fits all type of thing. What does student A, B, and C need and if [they] all need something different, that's what I have to come up with. It’s what’s needed long-range if they are going to be able to compete with students from around the world later on,” she said.

Paula Zeller, a Prince George's County special education elementary teacher, was among the more than 3500 teachers who attended the state’s Common Core training sessions at various sites this summer. She said she got a lot out of the training but still struggles a bit with the new math standards she has to teach her students. “I definitely need more training,” Zeller said. “It will take a few years for teachers to really feel comfortable (with the new curriculum) and get the big picture themselves and learn how to teach it.”

Teachers Paula Zeller of Prince George's County (left) and Lindsay Dankmyer of Montgomery County ask questions during a Common Core training session this summer.
Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WYPR

Carla Hockman agreed and added, “We need time to be uncomfortable in learning the new standards, more time to collaborate with each other, more time to make lesson plans and make the standards on paper come to life. This year was a year to practice and figure out the meat. We need more help and time. We need everything.”

Meredith Stolte, Baltimore City School’s director of teacher support, said they realize continuous training will be needed for teachers and that all professional development is now connected to the Common Core. “We’re designing professional development around what we hear from our teachers and what they say they need,” Stolte said. “We hear a lot that teachers want to see what [Common Core] looks like in class, so we’re working to provide more videos for them so they can observe one another and see how they are implementing the standards, and have a conversation about it. We want them to interact with each other.”

State officials say they will also provide more training throughout next year for teachers on the curriculum. They estimate it will take three to five years for teachers to feel truly confident with the new Common Core standards and translate them into their classroom instruction.