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Critical thinking hallmark of Common Core class

Tuesday - 12/3/2013, 3:14am  ET

Amy Lawson, a fifth-grade teacher at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., helps student Melody Fritz with an English language arts lesson Oct. 1, 2013. Silver Lake has begun implementing the national Common Core State Standards for academics. Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough in Lawson’s fifth-grade classroom. Now, students are being asked to think more critically -- what, for example, might a character say in an email to a friend. "It’s hard. But you can handle this," Lawson tells them. Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education for students and their teachers in grades kindergarten through high school. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

PHILIP ELLIOTT
Associated Press

MIDDLETOWN, Del. (AP) -- Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough in teacher Amy Lawson's fifth-grade classroom.

Today's students are being asked to think more critically. For example, what might a character say in an email to a friend?

"It's hard. But you can handle this," Lawson tells them.

Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education for students and their teachers in kindergarten through high school.

In 45 states and the District of Columbia, Lawson and other teachers are starting to use the standards to guide what skills students learn and when.

To hear the standards' critics -- mainly tea party-aligned conservatives, but also some parents and teachers -- tell it, there are few things more dangerous happening in the country.

But in this fast-growing community in northern Delaware, it's just another day in the classroom.

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The Common Core State Standards are academic benchmarks that outline the skills a student should have at each level.

For instance, third-graders should know how to find the perimeter of a figure. A fifth-grader should be able to compare and contrast two characters from a story.

The standards were created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to improve academic achievement and increase accountability. President Barack Obama and his administration embraced them.

That led critics, including Republican members of Congress, to call the standards a national curriculum, or "Obamacore." The standards are not a curriculum, despite the opponents' claims. Each state, school or even teacher can determine how to help students reach those standards.

Alaska, Texas, Nebraska and Virginia decided not to adopt them. Minnesota has adopted only the English standards.

At the core of the standards is a reduced emphasis on memorization. Students now have to connect the dots and apply critical thinking. It's what experts call higher-order thinking. Teachers say it's preparing students for life after high school.

That has made classrooms much more of a hands-on proposition.

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In teacher Melissa Grieshober's classroom, students have set aside work sheets in favor of a game board. On their 10-by-10 grid of numbers, they are playing a version of capture the flag, using flashcards to guide their moves: a "22-7" card lets them move 15 spaces; "16-9" allows them to move 7.

In pairs, the students try to reach targets on the board, not only by solving the problems at hand but by figuring out which cards would get them closer to their targets. It's as much about probability, predictability and luck as it is about rote memorization of addition and subtraction tables.

In fact, in Grieshober's classroom, there is no right or wrong way to figure out such problems. Yes, there are correct answers. But students are encouraged to explain how they got there.

"How did you reach that number?" Grieshober asked one of her third-grade students. "Show me your strategy for solving this."

But what about those who say schools exist to teach students facts, such as 15 subtracted from 20 equals five?

"We are asking kids to do more, and to dig deeper," Grieshober said after class. "We are teaching them to be lifelong problem solvers."

She knows the criticism and political punch it carries. But she isn't ready to ditch the benchmarks.

"It's eye-opening when you come into a school," Grieshober said. "I encourage any politician to go into a local school and see what it is."

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Critics' biggest disagreement with the standards is that students and teachers are being expected to do more and do it more quickly. If either group doesn't keep up, there are serious consequences.

"Honestly, it's overwhelming at first," said Lara Crowley, an English and language arts specialist who is coaching teachers on the Common Core standards in Delaware's Appoquinimink School District. "I had a hard time wrapping my head around how this was going to work."

For instance, subtraction is now introduced in kindergarten instead of first grade.

"We were nervous," Crowley said. "It raises the bar for us."

For the students as well as the teachers.

Coinciding with the new standards are new tests for students and evaluations for teachers. The tests, mandated under the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law, help states identify schools that are struggling and provide them extra help.

The teacher evaluations were not originally part of the Common Core. But in exchange for millions of federal dollars to help them avoid layoffs during the worst of the recession, states agreed to greater accountability for students and teachers. Many opted to go with the Common Core and linked students' progress with teacher performance.

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