In March 2011, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy. These new standards set high expectations for student learning and have caused districts across the state, including Salem Public Schools, to closely examine the way reading and writing is taught across the grade levels.
The main goal of the new standards is to ensure that students are college- and career-ready upon graduating high school. Using college readiness as the goal, the Common Core Standards define the literacy skills that students must master, starting in preschool, through grade 12.
The new standards emphasize that direct literacy instruction should:
Incorporate challenging reading into all grade-level and content area instruction;
Increase exposure, even at the early grades, to informational texts such as research documents, reports, historical accounts, scholarly articles, text from digital sources and textbooks;
Challenge students to use evidence from readings to support/defend their ideas and claims;
Develop students as writers who express their ideas in different forms of writing;
Be integrated into all content areas, not just English language arts.
The Salem Public Schools are taking deliberate steps this year to ensure that the district is keeping pace with the expectations of the new standards. For example, the district curriculum is currently under review. The first step in the review process involves aligning units of study for each grade level to the new standards. Each unit of study will specify reading and writing goals by grade level and essentially provide teachers with a map of when to teach which standards.
Once the units of study are mapped out, the district plans to work with teachers to assess the materials and resources that are currently used to support literacy instruction. Given the demands of the new standards, this review will likely surface some gaps and needs to be addressed.
Plans are also under way to support the use of these new maps as planning tools. All too often, curriculum documents are developed and end up sitting on a shelf. In Salem, our goal is to provide teams of teachers with time to meet and collaborate about how best to implement the new standards. Educators need time to “unpack” exactly what the new standards mean and their implications for teaching and learning.
Another area of focus is ensuring that, as the literacy standards are taught, students successfully learn them. To help monitor student learning, the district has made a significant investment in an interim assessment system that will help each school gauge how students are progressing toward learning the literacy standards. The interim assessments are aligned to the Common Core literacy standards and are administered four times during the school year. Teachers review the results from the assessments to determine what students have learned and if any students require further help in learning certain concepts and content. This data provides teachers with important information that they use to guide reteaching and planning of future lessons. The interim assessments help teachers ensure that students have learned important content before they move on to teaching the next unit.
Integrating the new Common Core literacy standards into practice is an enormous undertaking, and the Salem Public Schools are committed to providing educators with targeted professional learning experiences to support the transition to the new standards. Already, many teachers have been participating in two important literacy training initiatives — Keys to Literacy and Laying the Foundation. Both of these training opportunities focus on strengthening teachers’ capacity to improve student comprehension. In order to build upon and enhance these early training opportunities, the district will construct a professional development plan that articulates a coordinated set of supports focused on early and adolescent literacy.
When the state adopted the new Common Core Standards, it set in motion reforms that will impact teaching and learning for the next several decades. The new standards raise the bar for student achievement significantly and offer districts the opportunity to reflect on their internal systems of teaching and learning to assess how they measure up to the rigor of the new standards. In Salem, we are embracing this opportunity and have undertaken the first steps in a journey toward refining and strengthening districtwide literacy practices. For those interested in reviewing the Common Core Standards, they may be accessed at doe.mass.edu/candi/commoncore/.
M. Kate Carbone is assistant superintendent of the Salem Public Schools. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.