Science and social studies classes could look a little different next year as all New York City schools gradually adapt to a new set of curriculum standards.
The standards, called the Common Core, are expected to be in place at schools across 42 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands by 2014, but New York City is introducing them gradually, increasing each year the extent to which schools must adhere to them.
In a memorandum sent to all public school principals on Tuesday, city officials directed schools to begin ramping up their efforts.
In the 2011-12 school year, city schools are experimenting with the new standards in math and English classes, where teachers are incorporating more nonfiction and, in some math classes, emphasizing depth over breadth.
Next year, schools will bring the new approach into science and social studies classes, and expand it further in math and English.
The goal is to prepare students for college by getting them to think more critically about what they are reading, whether it is a biology research paper or a historical document, and to make them better writers, able to persuade and inform.
In the memo sent to principals, city officials said they expected elementary schools to double the emphasis on the new standards in math classes, covering fewer topics but in greater depth. Elementary school principals can also choose whether to apply the Common Core in English, science or social studies next year.
At the middle- and high-school level, there is less flexibility. Officials are requiring each school to use the standards in two units of study in science, social studies, math and English.
In science and social studies classes, this will not change what students are taught, but how. The chief academic officer for the city's Education Department, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said in an interview on Tuesday that he expected science teachers to ask their students to do more writing next year.
"As they design their units this year, we want them to introduce opportunities to write, opportunities to use what we are calling text-dependent questions, where they're really asking kids not just to summarize a text, but to analyze and to take the information from the text and construct an argument about it," he said.
Next year's state math and English exams, taken by nearly all third through eighth graders, will test students on elements of the Common Core for the first time.
In place of the fiction narratives that dominate the English exam (see: the pineapple and hHare fable) half of next year's test will be composed of nonfiction works and more of the questions will ask students to compare multiple passages. In their classrooms, some English teachers are already moving away from asking students to summarize what they read, asking them to analyze instead.
And because the Common Core standards call for students to learn particular subjects at different grade levels than New York State's own regulations, the math exam will also be different. For example, next year's fifth graders will not be tested on probability or statistics, but they will have to be more familiar with fractions.
None of the Regents exams taken by high school students in order to graduate will be affected next year, but they will in 2014, when the English, Algebra I and Geometry exams will change to meet the new standards.