Forget memorizing, new academic standards call for conceptualizing

Ask most kids to name all 50 states, and they quickly can browse Web-search results and spout the answer.

New academic standards for Colorado, now in draft form, ask teachers to downplay simple facts such as the one above in classroom discussion and instead focus on deeper concepts.

The goal is to have “less memorization and more conceptual thinking” in schools across the state, Colorado’s Assistant Education Commissioner, Jo O’Brien, said during an informational meeting about the new standards last week in Grand Junction.

“We actually think if you learn fewer things, but more deeply, kids will find it more compelling,” O’Brien said.

Having less to learn hopefully will allow students to learn how to explore the deeper meaning of subjects and learn to better apply to the real world what they’ve learned in school, O’Brien said.

Standards will have fewer but clearer “big concepts” and maintain or surpass the level of rigor expected in Colorado classrooms, O’Brien said.

“We’re not dumbing it down,” she said.

The goal of the content-standards revision, the first for Colorado in 14 years, is to modernize the state and raise the bar, said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand
Junction.

Penry helped pen the 2008 legislation that prompted the standards remodel.

He said education should offer students 21st century skills and the ability to carry preschool through 12th grade learning into college or the workplace.

“Too many kids are ill-prepared for college, and we spend tens of millions of dollars every year to remediate kids,” Penry said.

A new assessment test to replace or reshape the CSAP test should also aid remediation problems, according to Penry. A new assessment that reflects revised content standards should be administered for the first time in spring 2012.

Test results are expected to be returned to teachers quickly, so remedial education can begin immediately if needed.

Teachers now get test scores back in the summer after their students already have left their classrooms.

School districts will fashion curricula based on the content standards after the rules get final approval by the state in December.

Steve Schultz, who will become District 51 superintendent July 1, said local schools are ready to incorporate the standards and have begun to revise content.

The district implemented a new reading program in 2007 and will start a new math program this fall. Science will be the next subject to see a new curriculum.

Each new curriculum is based on modern practices that have found success in other locations. District 51 also kept a close eye on the state’s work on content standards and tried to design its own standards to fit with the state’s.

“We believe the work we’ve done and are ready to do in the fall is right on target with what the state is proposing,” Schultz said.

“We’re going to be ahead of the curve in anticipation of this change.”

Cathie Gonzalez, District 51’s director of curriculum and professional learning, said the district and the state want to help students who learn in different ways get the best results out of the same classroom.

Once they’re in that classroom, Gonzalez said, curriculum does and will focus on collaboration, inventiveness, critical thinking and learning new technology.

If that means streamlining content standards, Gonzalez says so be it.

“Not all standards are created equal. Not all help students move on and get ready for what’s coming next,” she said. “If you can Google it, let’s move away from it.”


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