Local school districts welcome Common Core

Monday, July 22, 2013
First grade teachers Ashley Kelley, left, Jennie McCord, Whitney Carter and Gretchen Bunch discuss plans for the coming years curriculum Wednesday, July 17, at the Cape Girardeau School District Office. Cape Girardeau schools are transitioning towards full implementation of the Common Core State Standards , which is planned for the 2014 school year. (Adam Vogler)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of two stories examining the controversy over Common Core Standards in Missouri and implementation in the Cape Girardeau and Jackson school districts. A link to the first story is available under "related links" on this page.

Common Core Standards will go into effect in fall 2013 for Cape Girardeau and Jackson schools, so the standards are nothing new to administrators and educators.

Parents, however, just started to really take notice of the standards during the 2012-2013 school year.

While many educators have said they see the new standards as improving students' knowledge and reasoning skills, making them better prepared for the world beyond school, some parents and advocacy groups aren't so sure. They question the wisdom of implementing uniform standards across the country, and see Common Core as taking freedom away from local schools, at a potentially large cost.

Cape Girardeau

The Cape Girardeau School District's curriculum coordinator, Theresa Hinkebein, said the district has had a transitional timeline in place for several years, because the administration knew Common Core was coming.

"Basically, at this time, all staff is aware that we have revised our curriculum to correlate with Common Core Standards," she said. "It doesn't necessarily change instructional practices or strategies. It updates what we expect students to know."

The district was up for new English/language arts books on its curriculum cycle. There hadn't been any new textbooks since 2005, so replacing them now worked out well, Hinkebein said.

"We were able to look for a textbook for the Common Core Standards," she said. In language arts, the standards Missouri had in place weren't very different from the standards in Common Core, though the new standards require more time be spent on persuasive writing and reading for information, Hinkebein said. The standards also require 50 percent of reading in a school day to be nonfiction material in elementary schools.

"They're more rigorous in the fact that we want to make sure students are learning conceptual knowledge deeply, not just on the surface," Hinkebein said. "We want to spend instructional time on those standards, delve into those concepts very deeply."

There's a lot of leeway when writing the curriculum, she said. Teachers need to include the core standards and any additional standards Missouri chooses, but local districts choose the textbooks and instructional materials.

Jackson

The Jackson School District began introducing Common Core in its schools two years ago, beginning with kindergarten and first grade, which were fully aligned last year. Those two grades were first, because they will be the only students to test completely on the new standards as they go through school.

This past year, the schools began aligning sixth through 12th grades with English and math. Teachers broke down the standards into pacing charts and began aligning assessments and learning activities to the new standards. There were weekly collaborations during which educators could ask questions about implementation. The schools also held curriculum work days with training that broke down the standards. Second through fifth grades are aligning this year.

Kindergarten teacher Krista Birk said Jackson teachers dove into the new curriculum and none of the teachers she works closely with seemed to be unhappy with the transition.

"I definitely felt very comfortable, because there were so many people I could turn to with questions," Birk said. "We made sure and discussed everything in our curriculum, shared ideas for implementation and teaching strategies."

Until this summer, Dr. Rita Fisher was assistant superintendent in the Jackson School District, and headed the change to the new standards. She said the schools will be fully aligned by the end of next year, with this year taking on the transition, because the schools will teach to the new standards but students still will test with the old end-of-course exams and the Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP, tests.

Brad Noel is a concerned Jackson parent. With two children in the Jackson school system, he worries about how their education is changing with Common Core.

He's a member of the Heartland Citizens for Education, a group that came together to discuss issues within the schools. Right now, one of the group's main goals is to educate the public on the group's view of what the standards are and how they will change the schools.

"We're just general citizens in the community who were concerned and keeping up with a lot of the educational reform," Noel said.

Noel said the group is worried taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the initiative. He said the bigger financial burden will come from schools having to create new curriculum or buy curriculum modeled for the standards.

Costs also could include technology needed to administer the assessments.

The assessments modeled for the standards are interactive, which means they'll require a digital device and sufficient broadband.

Fisher said she couldn't see how the assessments would cost the district any more than tests already do and Common Core wouldn't cause the school district any more financial burden than when it normally updates curriculum.

"I don't know where the expense would be any different, because we have to be aligning all the time," Fisher said.

Cape Girardeau and Jackson teachers already have aligned curriculum with the standards or are doing so. This entailed shifting certain knowledge or skills students learned to another grade level or switching around the order.

"Our curriculum is online, and teachers develop their units electronically," Fisher said. "Curriculum used to be something you looked at every six years or so, but now, it's a living, breathing document and it has been that way."

Fisher said this allows teachers to change curriculum year to year if instructional strategies change or if new resources become available.

Noel said, ultimately, he fears schools will realize they need to use model curriculum for students to perform well on the assessments, leading to extra costs to switch up the curriculum again.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides a model curriculum free of charge for districts either to adopt or revise for themselves. Department spokeswoman Sarah Potter said there will be no plans to write a national curriculum to accompany the standards.

"Curriculum will be headed by the local districts as it has always been," she said.

botto@semissourian.com

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