New Year, New Curriculum ; When Students Return to School This Week They Will Face the New Standards for Learning Called Common Core, Which Some Call the Biggest Change to Education in a Decade

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Local districts prepare to implement Common Core curriculum

Students returning to area classrooms this week will be greeted by smiling teachers and all the possibilities a new school year brings.

They also will face what some are calling the biggest changes to the U.S. education system in a decade.

Districts throughout the state and nation are adopting new standards for learning - called Common Core - and this marks the first full year students will be taught the new, more narrowly focused curriculum.

"We're going from a mile wide and an inch deep to ten feet wide and six feet deep," said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. "We're not going to try to cover every single thing, but try to drill down so kids get an intense instruction."

Federal education officials say the new curriculum will raise standards nationwide so America's students can get jobs and compete with the rest of the world. Forty-five of the 50 states have agreed to adopt the standards - which supporters call a rare bipartisan solution to come out of Washington in recent years.

But resistance is popping up here and across the nation.

Detractors say adoption of the program has been indirectly tied to receiving federal Race to the Top education funding, which they say is unfair.

And some parents and teachers have criticized it as an unproven, "top-down" program that reinforces an overemphasis on standardized testing.

"They haven't really tested it, and they don't have any backed- up data saying this works, that this is going to get the results they want," said Daniel Kasprzak, a City of Tonawanda par

ent of two. "I don't think it's the students that are lacking, it's the system they're putting in place."

Not helping the perception of Common Core is what many districts called a bungled roll-out of the program by the state Education Department last year.

"Things came out in dribs and drabs and late, and there was a lot of confusion," Kremer said.

Districts say that confusion, along with generally higher standards, played a role in why standardized test scores in English language arts and math plummeted, with just 31 percent of students in third through eighth grades meeting math and English standards.

But like it or not, the new program will be in full effect this week, and local school officials are busy getting up to speed.

"The first thing we did was make sure what the standards were, what the differences were and what the big focus was on," said Andrea Todoro, school leader of West Buffalo Charter School.

That meant assigning some summer reading for teachers to familiarize them with more complex subjects.

For example, reading standards will involve more than picking answers from the text. Students will need to discern the mood and tone of certain stories, not just key words.

Reading and writing will be more integrated into other subject areas, as well, so students will be writing about social studies and science as part of their English curriculum.

"It's requiring a multi-step approach to problem-solving that perhaps had not been there before," said Marie Balen, assistant superintendent for instruction at Williamsville Central Schools. "It requires a lot more reading than was required in the past."

Math questions, in many cases, will be less straight forward and will be embedded in longer word problems.

"Its not just, 'Here's the problem, go ahead and solve it,' " Balen said.

Williamsville and some other districts got a head start on the curriculum last year and have offered training to try to help their teachers master it.

Students at West Buffalo and other charter schools got their first peeks at the new material when they started classes last week.

"I think in the beginning, it's a little bit overwhelming," said Todoro. "But when you pull out the key ideas from them it's really manageable. …