MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. This hour of our program begins with a challenge that just about every state is grappling with right now, how to teach their teachers about the Common Core. The core is a sweeping, new set of education standards in reading, writing and math.
They'll soon apply to most of America's students, from kindergarten through high school. And the policymakers behind the Core know it could fail miserably if they don't help teachers make the change. Well, Maryland is one state trying to do just that. This summer, the state Department of Education has been hosting what it calls academies. NPR's Cory Turner went to one in Baltimore.
SHANNON LANDEFELD: Now, go ahead. I'm going to ask you, just first, read the first article, "The Biography of Amelia Earhart."
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Shannon Landefeld is an elementary school reading specialist. But today, most of her students are older than she is. Landefeld is one of many master teachers the state has called in, to help her colleagues work through the new standards.
LANDEFELD: When you think about it, Common Core is new to everyone. We're figuring this all out together, so there are gonna be stumbles and falls where there's misconceptions and people believe different things.
TURNER: One of those misconceptions is that the Core standards tell teachers what to teach. They don't. They're benchmarks that lay out what kids should be able to do by what grade. For example, they say a first-grader should be able to write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure.
In most states, kids will be expected to read more deeply, and more critically, than ever before. And if they can't, they'll run into a buzzsaw next year, with the first Common Core-aligned tests.
LANDEFELD: OK, what do our students do now? What's going to need to be different in order for them to answer this level or type of question?
TURNER: With Maryland's summer academies, teachers are being taught new best practices for the classroom, to make sure their students are ready for those tests. And these best practices include some pretty big changes. For older students, instead of reading quickly through a handful of novels...
JILL OSWALD: Now, we're looking at maybe one or two long texts -we call them extended texts, and we'll dive very deeply into it.
TURNER: Jill Oswald is another master teacher, who's been teaching English to high-schoolers for 18 years. Another big difference, she says...
OSWALD: Instead of front-loading the kids and giving them a lot of background, we let them discover the text, and then we kind of fill in blanks and answer questions as they need to.
TURNER: In other words, teachers working through, say, "The Great Gatsby" won't spend three days before they open the book talking about the Jazz Age or F. Scott Fitzgerald's tortured past. At the start, teachers are told to hold back, let kids work through the text before you help them with biography and background.
Here's Shannon Landefeld with one more big classroom change brought on by the Common Core.
LANDEFELD: Access to complexity regardless of reading ability. We're not saving complex texts for our advanced readers.
TURNER: This is what I call the deep-end approach to reading. Instead of asking students to read things teachers know they can handle, kids will be thrown into tougher material, and they'll struggle. Landefeld says she's drawn from the Core in reading "Charlotte's Web" with her elementary students.
LANDEFELD: At first glance, the children didn't understand a certain passage. But when I take them back and say, we're just gonna look at this one paragraph and we're gonna break it apart and we're gonna take it step by step, I was able to show them that after we did that, you just understood something that on a first read you didn't get.
TURNER: So what did the teacher-students at this academy make of it all? Sarah McMahan has been in the classroom for 13 years. She says the Common Core standards are a good thing, except...
SARAH MCMAHAN: My concern with it is that it's going to become a foundation for very test-driven, test-centered teaching and learning.
TURNER: Sherry Lebowitz has been teaching for 23 years, and she is a little skeptical.
SHERRY LEBOWITZ: I've seen a lot of stuff come and go. It just comes back in a different - with a different name and a different shape, and a different form.
TURNER: It sounds to me like you have a sense of deja vu here.
LEBOWITZ: No. I have a sense of perhaps retiring in a couple years. And...
LEBOWITZ: LEBOWITZ: (Laughing)
TURNER: Lebowitz admits the idea of common standards, it's a good thing. In fact, most of the teachers I talked with support it. But they're also tired of ideas that ask them to do a lot, but only lasts as long as the politicians who created them. So for the moment, these teachers become students again. They listen closely, take lots of notes; and they commit to the Core on faith that it will work, and that it will last.
Cory Turner, NPR News.