Common Core for schools earns praise, derision

Sunday, July 21, 2013
First-grade teachers Ashley Kelley, left, Jennie McCord, Whitney Carter and Gretchen Bunch discuss plans for the coming school year’s curriculum Wednesday at the Cape Girardeau School District office. Teachers are preparing to move to Common Core education standards. (Adam Vogler)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of two stories explaining Common Core standards and the controversy surrounding them. The second part will be in Monday's edition.

Local school districts are working to move to the new Common Core State Standards and teachers and students prepare for implementation in Missouri by fall of 2014 -- the school year students will be tested on the standards' requirements. Common Core will replace the Missouri grade- and course-level expectations for English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.

But the transition isn't going smoothly in Southeast Missouri and other places, as some are casting a suspicious eye to the goals of the new standards and the means by which schools will have to reach them.

Boiled down, Common Core is a set of instructions stating what students should be taught in which grade. Each state previously set its own set of expectations for students but more than 45 states have adopted Common Core and will teach according to its requirements.

The standards offer an outline. Teachers and school districts still will devise their lessons and choose instructional materials as they have in the past. During the transition, they will align the materials and lessons to the standards, ensuring they teach the required concepts.

Students across the country will hone the same skills in the same grade, mastering the same concepts simultaneously. Experts and some teachers say this will make state-to-state comparisons of student assessments easier. Groups who oppose Common Core say tests such as the ACT, SAT and NAEP are sufficient to compare student performance, and say too much control will be taken from local districts and the state. Students in different states or even different districts don't have the same needs, detractors say.

Common Core's standards have caused a yawning divide for proponents and skeptics.

Concerned groups such as the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core and the Heartland Citizens for Education say holding all students to the same expectations will take away control from local districts and parents while providing more involvement of the federal government.

"If we're teaching everyone how to color in the lines, how are we going to get those entrepreneurs that think out of the box if we're teaching them to think only in the box?" said one parent of homeschooled children, Debra Jenkins, at a recent Cape County Tea Party meeting about Common Core.

Opposition has been so fierce, the state government organized a tour to talk to people about the new standards. The Cape Girardeau County meeting wasn't well-received. Skeptics said state officials dodged questions and gave incomplete answers.

Arguments against Common Core include: the uniformity it creates across state lines; lack of local control; its potential cost; and suspicion about the concepts being taught, which a few have said amount to liberal brainwashing. Some argue the 15 percent of the curriculum that's determined by local districts is too little; one opponent said it amounts to about 7 minutes of teaching a day.

Competitive balance

Proponents say common benchmarks across state lines will ensure that all students are held to higher expectations will make them more competitive for college or the work force.

The standards began as an initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The goal was to create a common set of academic expectations shared by the states. Missouri adopted Common Core Standards on June 25, 2010. Critics say its adoption was done with little to no public input.

Barbara Reys, professor and co-director of the Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum at the University of Missouri, was invited in 2009 to provide input on Common Core to a mathematics work team. About 50 people with various expertise from across the country comprised the group.

Reys' background helped her in the role. She took part in conducting a 2007 study on states' standards that found a wide variance; different subjects were taught at different grade levels across the country. Reys said the study helped make the case on why Missouri should consider common standards.

"All of the states have standards," she said. "Our task was to build on what was already being done and examine research and what we know about children's learning, along with the expectations universities and businesses have, and try and take all of that information and carefully lay out what we thought was the best kind of road map and guidelines for K-12 math instruction."

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter said the Common Core standards are clearer and simpler.

"We liked that it really decreased the number of standards, which would allow students and teachers to cover the major items more deeply," she said. "There are clearer, fewer concepts, which sounds crazy, but when we try and pack everything in, it results in a spotty education where kids aren't taking time to struggle with math."

The English-language arts standards focus more on nonfiction reading and informational text; 50 percent of reading in a school day is required to be nonfiction. The writing also focuses on argumentative and informational formats.

Implementation in Missouri is set for the 2014-2015 school year, when a statewide assessment modeled on Common Core standards will replace existing state testing on those subjects.

Schools that haven't aligned their curriculum to those standards may not prepare their students well for the test's content. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which consists of 25 states, including Missouri, is developing the tests. For those schools that haven't started teaching via Common Core standards, Potter said it's going to show on students' test results in two years.

"The reason why we give tests is to understand what students have learned, and it will give us much better feedback and how much they are learning in relation to those standards," she said.

However, Potter said the state expects a drop in test scores because the Common Core standards raise the bar.

"They're tougher tests, more dynamic," she said. "They actually work with the students."

The tests are interactive, so if a student answers several questions correctly in a row, the test generates tougher questions. Conversely, if a student is having a tough time answering questions, the test will administer easier questions.

Common Core might affect students in parochial and private schools, along with students who are homeschooled, because both the ACT and the College Board say their tests will be aligned with Common Core standards.


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