Jim Hook is director of communications for North Palos District 117, with offices and three schools in Palos Hills and three schools in Hickory Hills.

Boring,” “repetitive” and a “snooze fest” were just some of the words Dave Creagan’s fifth-grade students at Glen Oaks School in Hickory Hills used to describe math class.

But weeks into the Common Core State Standards, those same Glen Oaks students were smiling, excited and “rocking that math class.”

“My teaching has changed dramatically since implementation of the new Common Core Standards in math,” Creagan said.

“Now my teaching is more narrowly focused on fewer skills that allow me time to creatively teach not just the skills but the foundation of math, which are problem-solving, critical thinking and analytical thinking skills,” he said. “These skills will transcend my fifth-grade classroom into a global community as students continue to grow and become future professionals.”

CCSS were adopted in 2010 by Illinois and 46 other states to help improve educational outcomes for students by developing a set of common, internationally benchmarked academic standards in math and language arts for students in kindergarten through 12th-grade.

The new standards differ from those in the past in that students will learn more about fewer, key concepts; develop speed and accuracy; “really know it, really do it”; solve problems similar to those they’ll encounter in the real world; perform more problem-solving, writing and communicating about math; and encounter higher-level thinking and increased rigor.

North Palos District 117 implemented those math standards at the start of the 2013-14 school year. District officials are now working to implement new language arts standards.

Melissa Murphy, the district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said the goal is to give students a curriculum that allows them to study fewer concepts but at deeper levels. “The new standards will demand that students do more research, writing and analysis,” she said.

Common Core standards are built on the strengths and lessons of current state standards. She added that as teachers worked to align curriculum to the new standards, they visit websites, watch videos and read books to help them create new math assessments and curriculum maps to guide instruction.

Much of the work was done while many of the teachers taught summer school.

Common Core marks the first time for near-national consensus on the standards students should learn in math and language arts in kindergarten through grade12.

Beginning this year, students will take a new standardized test that determines whether they are meeting these standards. The test will replace the current Illinois Standardized Assessment Tests (ISAT), which have previously been given in March.

Murphy, who led the charge to implement the new district standards, said Common Core for math included two types of standards: one for practices and one for content.

She said the standards are taught simultaneously to support and extend students’ learning.

She also said the standards for math content define what students need to know about math. The practices describe how students apply and extend math principles.

According to Murphy, standards for math practices include: making sense of problems and persevering in solving them; reasoning abstractly and quantitatively; constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others; modeling with math; using appropriate tools strategically; looking for and making use of structure; and looking for and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning.

Kim Pietryla, a first-grade teacher at Dorn Elementary School, also in Hickory Hills, said the new math curriculum affords students the opportunity to learn concepts at a deeper level than ever before. “They are finding their own strategies for solving problems and applying their critical- thinking skills to solve word problems.”

“I like that our students are not just responsible for getting the correct answer, but rather showing how they arrived at their answers” Pietryla said.

Karen Sladek, also a first-grade teacher at Dorn, added: “The students are doing most of the talking now as they explore various ways to make a number. It is surprising to hear some of their comments as they work,”

“They are really thinking about numbers,” she said.

For Leslie Urbaniak, a second-grade teacher at Oak Ridge School, the new standards have changed how she teaches in her classroom. “We study fewer topics, but go into greater depth. We get more ‘hands-on’ practice using manipulatives and other math tools,” Urbaniak said. “There are fewer paper and pencil tasks with more active and engaging learning activities.”

She said students have learned how to use number lines, hundreds charts, 10 frames, place value arrow cards, and counting manipulatives to solve math problems.

Urbaniak called the math vocabulary “rich,” and said problem solving is at an all-time high, adding that she finds the problem-solving piece of the new state standards most exciting.

“Students are learning there are multiple ways to solve problems and they enjoy sharing their thinking with the rest of the class,” Urbaniak said.

Her classroom contains a number of children who speak a different language at home as well as special education students as part of the regular education classroom.

“It is amazing to see all the children wanting to share and the variety of ways they think, plan and solve the same problem,” she said, adding, “The new standards have been challenging to implement, but I think my students will leave here with a deeper understanding of the mathematical concepts taught and be better prepared to meet the challenges that await them.”

Numerous surveys among corporate CEOs show that many of these same skills being taught, including strong writing, communication and critical-thinking skills, are highly sought after in prospective employees.

Melissa Murphy, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the new standards are aligned with college and work expectations. “The standards we incorporated were influenced by other top-performing countries so that all students are prepared to succeed in a global economy and society.”

“These are a set of skills dramatically different from what they are used to,” Murphy said. “The days of rote memorization are gone.”

She praised the committee’s hard work. “I’m so proud to be part of a team that cares so much about kids and their futures,” Murphy said. “We have some of the most dedicated and hard-working teachers around. Period.”

Common core changes standards, not curriculum
By Common Core Illinois

Illinois teachers this year are bringing the Common Core State Standards to their classrooms. The new learning standards will establish what students need to learn but don’t dictate how teachers should teach.

In Illinois, academic standards had not been updated since 1997, so the Common Core is long overdue. The new standards are not a curriculum, instead, they set a baseline of shared goals and expectations outlining what each student should know in English language arts and math by the end of each grade level.

By creating these baseline standards for all Illinois students, the goal is to ensure that every child is on a level playing field, and has the opportunity to end each year with the same skills no matter where they live.

For instance, Common Core math standards require that students in first grade must be able to solve problems with addition and subtraction. The standards do not outline how a teacher must teach this concept or what curriculum they must use.

Schools and teachers are able to make individual decisions on how to personalize these standards for their classrooms, while also ensuring their students are learning at the same pace as their peers in other schools.

It’s also important to remember that these standards are a floor, not a ceiling. While they create a basis for what students must know, teachers still have the flexibility to bring enrichment and special lessons to their classrooms, so every student is challenged.