New Common Core standards emphasize mastery, teamwork

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

With a roll of the dice, sixth-graders in a math class at Quaker Valley Middle School began planning their futures.

The rolls assigned each pair of students to an educational level — from high school dropout to a Ph.D. — and that dictated their average salaries. The students then decided how much of that money would go toward housing, food and transportation, and whether they would rent their own apartment, get a roommate or live with their parents.

Each decision nibbled at their pay. “It's like playing life,” said Nevaeh Evans, 12, of Sewickley. “It gets down to the bottom of things more.”

Schools in Quaker Valley and across the state are implementing Pennsylvania Core Standards, also called PA Core. Western Pennsylvania educators say the standards tend to be more rigorous than previous goals. Students go into greater depth during lessons, and work more in teams.

PA Core evolved from Common Core, a standards movement started by the National Governors Association, the Council of the Chief State School Officers and the nonprofit group Achieve. The idea was to ensure that students graduate from high school with skills they need for college and careers.

The Pennsylvania Board of Education adopted the Common Core Standards in 2010, but Gov. Tom Corbett convened two committees of educators — for language arts and math — to combine the best of Pennsylvania's original standards with Common Core. The state last year adopted the resulting PA Core, which took effect March 1.

The new standards have their detractors.

Cheryl Boise of Monroeville is the Western region coordinator of Pennsylvanians Against Common Core, a grass-roots group. She objects to the notion that one set of standards can prepare students for entry into college and the workplace.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said PA Core is more rigorous than older standards, but students may learn some ideas at an earlier age and other ideas later. In the past, for example, fifth-graders may have rounded numbers to the fourth decimal point. Now, they do this in fourth grade.

“Instead of 100 concepts of algebra, it may be 50, but you have to understand them at a deeper level,” he said.

The Avonworth School District used to teach children how to tell time in kindergarten. Now, it is taught in first and second grades.

Shannon Varley, director of curriculum and instruction at Avonworth, said the district teaches children to tell time later because that uses a base of 12, the number of hours on a clock face. It conflicts with math problems that use a base of 10.

Instead of rows of desks, students now work in teams, like they will eventually when they reach the workplace.

“It's such a change in expectation and planning, you get better by standing on each other's shoulders. You can't do it yourself,” Varley said.

Nancy Hines, director of curriculum for the Gateway School District, said the district is making problems more practical and less theoretical. Instead of just giving students a number problem, the teacher might ask if they were carpeting a room, whether it would be cheaper to buy the material by the square foot or square yard, depending on both prices.

Districts are beefing up vocabulary as early as kindergarten. Students in kindergarten at Quaker Valley will learn words such as “meander,” “abundant” and “tranquil.” Those in Avonworth will learn the word “expressive.”

And in high school, instead of just reading Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” by itself like they used to do, 10th-graders will read it with Machiavelli's “The Prince” to deepen their understanding.

Varley said schoolwork is so challenging that Avonworth sometimes sends notes to parents, telling them their children may not be able to complete an assignment.

“I like to think Common Core makes students struggle a little bit in order to learn,” she said. “When things are too easy, kids aren't learning.”

Bethel Park School District students used to learn long division in fourth or fifth grade. Now, they study it in third grade.

The idea used to be to introduce a concept. Now, the emphasis is on getting the child to master the idea, said Janet O'Rourke, director of secondary education.

Class discussions are richer, too. Instead of being asked for a solution, students are asked why something works and whether there are other answers, O'Rourke said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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