North Carolina New Schools

A smarter curriculum for NC schools

by Tony Habit

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The new common standards that North Carolina’s public schools have adopted this year are a matter of common sense. There’s ample evidence that students across the United States are losing their competitive edge in a world becoming more competitive by the day.

Few would disagree that jobs are harder to get. Good jobs that pay a living wage, even harder. And more and more of those jobs, we know, are now up for grabs on a global scale.

Students who go no further than high school – or worse, drop out – have little chance of finding meaningful work that pays a decent wage.

So it only makes sense that North Carolina’s public schools do whatever it takes to raise their standards to give every student a real opportunity to achieve the American Dream. The common core state standards that North Carolina has adopted along with nearly every other state are designed so that all students graduate from high school well-prepared to enter college or some other kind of work force training that’s now essential to get a good job.

After all, that was the overriding objective of the common core movement when the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched it in 2009. The specific grade-level standards for what students should know and be able to do in math and English – starting in kindergarten – all build progressively to that common and essential goal.

To be sure, that’s easier said than done. Making good on that promise isn’t just a matter of rewriting the curriculum and revising the tests to measure student performance against new and more demanding standards. The real burden and promise of this high challenge rests with teachers. They must be supported through thoughtful professional development that not only ensures they understand the new standards, but also helps make them the most effective teachers possible.

While the new common core standards are in place for the first time this fall, North Carolina has spent nearly 10 years quietly laying a solid foundation for this kind of effort at the high school level. A growing number of innovative high schools, some of which date to 2005 or earlier, are all guided by a shared roadmap – a common set of proven design principles – where readiness for all students is the final destination.

Getting there requires hard work by teachers and principals to change the way they teach, lead and work together. These schools have already adopted an approach to instruction – key to the success of the common core – which requires active student engagement that drives powerful teaching and learning. Every student reads, writes, thinks and talks in every class, every day.

The schools are supported in this innovative approach by the N.C. New Schools Project, in partnership with business and industry, the state Department of Public Instruction, the State Board of Education and institutions of higher education.

Thanks to the collaborative work of these partners, high school innovation now touches fully three-quarters of North Carolina’s 100 counties with a number of different models and choices that all embrace high expectations for all students and the support needed for all students to reach them.

These schools are blazing a clear trail to the critical goal of the common core standards of ensuring that all students graduate from high school fully prepared to take the next step in their education or technical training, leading to a meaningful career and life.

To illustrate, North Carolina’s early college high schools – which this year number 76, the most of any state – had a combined graduation rate this spring of 93.5 percent, compared with 80.2 percent for the state overall. About half the graduates earned associate degrees in addition to their high school diplomas.

Also, a significant number of the state’s innovative high schools have already adjusted their approach to math instruction consistent with the common core standards through courses that effectively integrate algebra, geometry and other math previously taught as separate courses.

North Carolina is pursuing other initiatives that can only help students succeed with the new common core standards. More than two dozen secondary schools – including every high school in two districts – are now part of networks of schools with a focus on developing skills and knowledge in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math.)

Through another effort, a dozen high schools in rural communities this year are beginning to adopt many of the same kinds of strategies proving successful in early colleges, from high levels of student engagement in the classroom to strong academic support. Eighteen schools across the state will benefit from the program over the next five years.

There’s no question that the common core sets a high bar. North Carolina must continue every effort to make teaching and learning powerful in every class, every day. That’s the only way that every student will graduate ready.

Tony Habit, Ed.D., is president of the North Carolina New Schools Project. This post first appeared as an op-ed in The (Raleigh) News & Observer on Friday, Sept. 7.