States adopting Common Core see benefits, downsides

As many states work to integrate the Common Core State Standards Initiative into their curriculum, or develop their own framework, benefits and downsides to each approach are steadily being revealed.

According to some, the need for standards-based learning has been around for some time. Common Core is an initiative that seeks to establish education standards across the states and ensure students graduating high school are career-ready.

Though there were precursors to the initiative, the National Governors Association first began developing Common Core standards in 2009.

The standards, released for mathematics and English language arts in 2010, have been adopted in 44 states, the District of Columbia, four territories and by the Department of Defense Education Activity.

Virginia, Texas, Nebraska, Alaska and Indiana have chosen to not adopt the standards at the state level, and Minnesota has adopted the English language arts standards but not the mathematics standards.

The Common Core initiative has spurred some discord in the public sphere.

Before Common Core
Amid concern that public schooling was not rigorous enough for students in the U.S., in 2002 No Child Left Behind was launched to shine a brighter light on the student population. The law mandated an expansion of standardized testing and established a national framework for school accountability.

According to Chief Academic Officer Jack Smith of the Maryland Department of Education, the downside of NCLB was the assessments developed in accordance with this policy moved the country toward more drill-oriented foundational facts learning, but there is also a need for thinking-based learning.

“The need for a skill- and thinking-based curriculum became clear by 2008,” Smith said, “and too often one has been done at the expense of the other, and a lot of that got lost during the ‘No Child Left Behind’ decade.”

Virginia recognized the need for thinking-based learning assessments and worked on curriculum toward that goal before Common Core became a more national discussion.

According to Charles B. Pyle, Director of Communications for the Virginia Department of Education, Virginia began standards-based reform in 1995, focusing on math, science, English and history.

In 1998, they began testing on assessments, and measured achievements against content standards. The state board required that standards be reviewed and revised if necessary at least every seven years.

Virginia had already revised their standards a couple of times, and was in the midst of reviewing and revising the math and English standards to compare expectations with college and career-ready benchmarks by college boards and the ACT in 2009, according to Pyle.

In 2010 the new math standards were approved, and the Common Core standards came out after the Virginia math standards.

Virginia DOE staff did a comparison, and found that in some areas Virginia’s standards surpassed Common Core in specificity and rigor, and in some cases could be improved by Common Core standards.

An addendum was added to Virginia’s math standards reflecting that Common Core added to the standards, and would be improved by specific inclusions, Pyle said.

This led to the Virginia State Board of Education’s decision in 2010, upon the release of the Common Core standards, that it would be in the best interest of the state to continue with its established standards of learning program rather than adopt the Common Core standards, according to Pyle.

States and the implementation of Common Core
In the case of Virginia, the state decided it would be in its best interest to maintain standards because adhering to the newly presented Common Core standards would’ve caused disruption with no tangible benefit for students.

According to Pyle, the State Board of Education also did not want to cede, or be seen as ceding that authority to government.

Their main concern, however, was the disruption that pulling the foundation out from under Virginia’s schools would cause. “State sovereignty was not really a part of the discussion,” Pyle said.

Virginia is now learning they have to develop supports for teachers, resources for teachers, and curriculum framework documents that show teachers in great detail what they need to cover in classrooms so students can be successful when state tests are administered, which is similar to the work being done in states that have adhered to the Common Core standards.

“To Virginia’s benefit,” Pyle said, “was that what began as a standards and testing program in the ‘90s evolved into a statewide system of accountability and support.”

An example of one way in which Virginia’s standards differ from Common Core is that Virginia English standards call for students to be able to write legibly in cursive by the end of 3rd grade. Writing in cursive is not a part of Common Core standards.

Dr. Patricia Wright, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, supported the development of Common Core standards for other states to adapt or adopt.

Virginia chose to stick to its own standards, as did a handful of other states. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in some form, and did so for a variety of reasons.

“Common Core standards are by no means perfect, but they are a B+ or A- in terms of standards,” said Michael Brickman, national policy director at Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s mission is to be the leader in advancing excellence for every child through quality research, analysis and commentary.

The standards are something teachers have been working toward for a few years now, according to Brickman.

“Teachers, states and the districts deserve a lot of credit for that (developing the standards).”

According to Sean Dwyer, a teacher in New York,  a key problem in the state, which adopted Common Core in 2010, is it was easy for the politicians and the head of education to adopt the core,  but little to no guidance was provided on implementation of the initiative.

“Teachers teach the new core without the new core having a curriculum,” Dwyer said. “Scores on these tests could lead to termination of tenured positions so it was not fair, wise, or correct to make teachers’ livelihood based on test scores when the teachers themselves did not know what they should be teaching.”

Maryland adopted the framework of College and Career Ready Standards, based on Common Core model units, in 2010, with full implementation for the 2013-2014 school year.

According to Smith, the state worked with local school systems, who all build out their own programs. “Maryland has a voluntary curriculum,” Smith said. “Voluntary in that you can keep your own curriculum- it’s a framework rather than a set curriculum.”

Smith emphasizes a focus on what they will teach, the order they will teach it in, and the way in which it will be connected. “The new standards change the way it’s approached,” Smith said.

In contrast to Dwyer, Smith feels the lack of a set curriculum is an asset.

Adrian B. Talley, deputy director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, also emphasized it’s important to remember these are only standards, what students should have learned by the time they leave. It is not what they teach or how they teach it.

“The great aspect of the Common Core state standards is that it creates a floor standard of expectations for children in the United States,” Talley said.

“For our children, who come and go within our organization, what it means is that when they leave us or come to us, we know that our children will have achieved a certain level, again, that floor of expectations.”

According to Brickman, two different issues are at stake: tests and curriculum.

“Curriculum is a local school district decision almost always,” Brickman said.  “It should be up to teachers and school boards to figure out how to educate students. That said, state by state, there’s pretty uniform agreement on what students need to know before they graduate high school.”

Regarding standards-based tests, Brickman said a lot has been seen from Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, but we simply don’t know if other tests align yet.

“We know that Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests are going to be quality -- others we don’t know about,” Brickman said.

Karin Rosarne, national director of Parent Led Reform, feels the initiative is not ready to roll out.

“We are now at a stage where Common Core is an unfunded mandate,” Rosearne said. “We don’t know what training looks like.”

Cost of Common Core
New York adopted the Common Core initiative primarily for Race to the Top money, according to Dwyer. “My district saw a messy $11,000 for it,” Dwyer said. “This wasn't even enough to implement the reforms associated with Race to the Top. I think other states are wisely seeing how best to proceed, taking their time and implementing a better plan which may or may not include the Common Core.”

In Maryland, the state also received Race to the Top money. That has covered state costs, and local schools have also received funds, according to Smith. “The impact of Common Core has mostly been absorbed by the Race to the Top grant,” Smith said.

Smith indicated a separate issue having an impact on school district costs, that tends to be associated with but is not necessarily an effect of Common Core implementation, is technology-based assessments.

“The goal is to have tech-based assessments that are more rigorous and not pencil-and-paper-based- but that’s a separate issue,” Smith said. “There is a financial impact there.”

According to Brickman, there are school districts nationwide that have demonstrated efficient use of resources they have to meet higher standards, and others are not as thrifty with use of taxpayer dollars.

“A lot of this has to do with how states and districts handled standards in the past,” Brickman said. “It’s a bigger challenge to meet an even higher bar.”

In Virginia, where the state is adhering to its own standards, Pyle noted the state has an NCLB waiver. Virginia was ultimately approved even though it didn’t adopt Common Core.
Pyle also noted that there was no common factor in Virginia not getting a Round 1 Race to the Top grant, and that it hasn’t prevented Virginia from succeeding.

Student impact
According to teacher Dwyer, who spends his days in New York among students experiencing Common Core standards, the average student is dealing with new expectations and more testing to determine their abilities, which can be stressful. 

“I think it hypocritical that the Common Core is meant to prepare our children for a global economy, yet those same jobs never deal with standardized tests (except for some initial licensing),” Dwyer said.

“The Common Core should be evaluated in observations, writing, presentations and projects because in the global economy evaluations on job performance come from observations, writing, presentations and projects.”

In Maryland, Smith indicated that they are not far enough long yet to have seen a measurable impact on students.

“What I’m hearing reported is that kids are sometimes frustrated because (the new school work based on common core standards) it’s not as straightforward. The more school is easy, the more we’re under serving kids,” Smith said.

He also notes he has heard from many teachers.

“It’s hard to make changes, it requires everybody rethink how they’re doing business,” Smith said. “Adults don’t like to rethink, but it benefits the kids. Adults like inertia.”

Ideally, Smith thinks that if implemented with fidelity, Common Core will “bring about a more rigorous thoughtful experience for students as they begin to understand that information is only separated into subject areas in school. It should engage kids in learning algebraic learning in everyday life.”

Rosearne brings up the point that kids are different, just like every adult.

“There is a large segment of the student population that get stressed and emotionally worked up in a testing situation,” Rosearne said.  “How are they going to be using these tests for students? Will promotion (to the next grade level) be dependent on these tests?”

She voices concern that standardized education programs, not just Common Core, are designed to collect data from the cradle to the grave.

“We don’t know what information has been shared,” Rosearne said.  “We don’t want our children’s personal identifiable data being shared with who knows who.”

Speaking for Parent Led Reform, Rosearne said, “We believe the more local education is, the more successful it is. Our children didn’t learn how to walk and talk at the same time. We fear Common Core will remove individualization from education.”

“There is no research that shows gauging and measuring effectiveness of the teacher yields academic achievement that we want,” Rosearne said.

Patrick A. Dworakowski, assistant associate director for education for DoDEA, indicated it was premature for them to measure impact.

“For us ( DoDEA) it’s premature,” Dworakowski said. “We’ve all worked in schools, and we all believe in making sure opportunities are available to all of our students, that the opportunities we provide them have prepared them to be college and career ready, and for life.”

“What we’ve heard informally, is that our students come to us from states that have implemented common standards, and they are used to having standards-driven instruction. “

Teacher impact
According to Dwyer, the average teacher is feeling overwhelmed.

“Teaching has a very high turnover rate because managing children can be very exhausting and as a profession we feel under-appreciated,” Dwyer said.

“With all the additional stress (of implementing Common Core initiatives) many teachers are in the process of looking for alternatives for a profession.”

Dwyer said he knows of 6 teachers out of 70 he works with are exploring the option of a different profession.  He also noted that his school district purchased Common Core modules for math, and that many teachers have found them frustrating.

“These (the modules) are lesson plans for teaching the core every day of the school year. Over the last 17 weeks of school the modules have become a joke,” Dwyer said.

“Our teachers were ordered to follow them yet the pacing of the lessons, the concept manipulations and the amount of information is impossible to cover in one school year.  These modules took the art of teaching away from the teachers and replaced it with an impossible set of criteria that a computer might as well be giving the students.”

In Virginia, Pyle indicated they have discovered that they have to develop supports for teachers, resources for teachers, and curriculum framework documents that show teachers in great detail what they need to cover in classrooms so students can be successful when state tests are administered.

Patricia Ewen, Common Core state standards administrator of the DoDEA, said so far for them, implementation has been smooth.

“We’re looking to the states for their successes and looking to replicate those successes,” Ewen said.

Ewen noted a challenge that will have to be considered is professional development.

“Supporting teachers, helping them learn new technology practices and in a safe way so that they can put their best work in front of their kids is important,” Ewen said.

According to Smith, the importance of the idea behind Common Core can’t be understated, whatever difficulties are faced in the meantime.

“It’s critical that schools teach these skills, because life doesn’t teach them anymore.

Mechanization requires you to think differently than you did 20 years ago,” Smith said. “We need to teach kids that it’s not an either/or world, it’s a both world. Kids need to be taught things that apply in the world today, not in our grandparents’ world.”

Dwyer asserts that Common Core by itself is not a bad idea.

“It is the implementation and the testing (currently) associated with it that nullifies the intent of the Common Core,” Dwyer says.

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