Maryland's teachers will be giving lessons that require students to dig deeper into their subjects and be more analytical if the state adopts new national standards as expected this spring.
A sampling of veteran teachers in the region concludes that the standards, which specify what should be taught from kindergarten to 12th grade, would be an improvement. Never before has the state attempted such a quick and large-scale overhaul of what is taught in every public school classroom.
Teachers particularly praised the new standards for being clearer and more straightforward. Language-arts teachers said they would be putting more emphasis on writing, and math teachers said they believed they wouldn't have to rush to get through an expansive curriculum each year.
"The new content standards give students something to progress forward with each year; not more of the same with a different story or writing assignment," said Meekah Hopkins, an English teacher at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County.
"They look wonderful," said Kimberly Kinner, a first-grade teacher at Clarksville Elementary School in Howard County. "They are going more deeply and adding more critical thinking."
Although the standards are still being put in final form by the National Governors Association and the nation's chief state school officers, they are expected to be adopted in Maryland and most other states in the next six months. Baltimore City has set aside money in its budget to begin revamping its curriculum over the summer to reflect the new standards.
New tests will replace the Maryland State Assessments and the High School Assessments as soon as 2013, according to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
The Baltimore Sun asked a group of teachers from Baltimore-area elementary, middle and high schools, some of them former Teachers of the Year, to read the new standards and evaluate them. The teachers were complimentary of the new approach, but they pointed out the need to make sure new tests are consistent.
Teachers said that while the material is not significantly different from what they teach now, the content is taught in a different sequence and with greater clarity. The math teachers were particularly impressed that they would no longer be required to teach so many topics in one year but can concentrate more deeply in one area so that students have a greater understanding of the concept before moving on.
American math teaching has been criticized in recent years for being a mile wide and an inch deep compared with the way the subject is taught in countries where student achievement is often higher.
For instance, instead of giving fractions a cursory look every year during elementary school, the concept will be taught thoroughly one year. After that, a teacher might review the material but will not need to reteach it.
Kinner said having a curriculum that is deeper will be more appropriate for her 6-year-old students. "They need to experience numbers and play with numbers," she said, rather than moving immediately into the concept of fractions.
Grasmick said the standards will be more rigorous. Algebra will have to be taught by eighth grade; while most suburban school systems already do so, a much smaller percentage of city students learn algebra then.
Susan Casler, a teacher at Crofton Middle School in Anne Arundel County, said she was glad to see greater emphasis on writing. "It is not that we don't teach writing now, but it is the last of the language arts developed. Our efforts have focused on reading," she said.
Hopkins, the high school teacher, said all parts of English — reading, writing and vocabulary — are more woven together. In addition, she said, she hopes not to hear the "We have already learned this" whine from students as often because of the clarity of the new standards and better coordination between middle and high school.
"By eliminating the guesswork, particularly for new teachers, I think we will get happier students who see a purpose in what they are learning," she said.
Amber L. Clemmons, a teacher at Highlandtown Middle School in East Baltimore, said the suggested reading lists will stretch some of her students to read older books that might not be as easy to relate to. But she likes the new standards and the emphasis on developing reasoning and analytical skills early.
Several of the teachers said they don't mind being held accountable to these new, higher standards, but they want more freedom to be creative about when and how they teach concepts each year.
For decades, states have resisted any attempt by the federal government to force them to adopt national standards.
But the cause gained momentum when reform efforts spurred by the No Child Left Behind Act exposed the disparities between states and many educators began to question why a student in Northern Virginia should be taught something different from one in Baltimore County.
The National Governors Association and chief state school officers led the way by persuading 48 states to agree to write new standards. The first draft was released last month and is being completed now. While no state is required by the federal government to adopt the new standards, the Obama administration has made it a requirement for receiving some competitive federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education is offering $350 million to a consortium of states to develop the new assessments. Only Texas and Alaska have said they won't adopt the standards.
Grasmick will take the new standards to the state board for a vote this month or next, she said. She said she will then gather opinions from a large group of teachers who will help give their colleagues more clearly defined guidelines for teaching.