Common Core offers promise, raises questions for education
Posted August 3, 2013
Updated August 5, 2013
New reading, writing and arithmetic standards that North Carolina schools began using last year aim to get students to do more than just plow through "Of Mice and Men" or crunch numbers by way of the Pythagorean Theorem.
Known as the Common Core, the standards, developed by national nonprofits and the states, are expected to do a better job of preparing students to apply what they learn in the classroom in the real world.
"We are preparing students for a world that we cannot even begin to imagine," said Jennifer Aguilar, a math teacher and instructional support specialist for Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham.
In order to tackle those unknown problems, she said, students have to not only be able to do calculations, but understand why those calculations are done and how they apply to a variety of situations. Q&A: Common Core
Real-world applicability is a theme for the Common Core State Standards, which North Carolina schools began using last year. The standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in cooperation with other nonprofits and state leaders. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards in some form, replacing a panoply of individual state academic standards.
Few people argue that giving students academically rigorous benchmarks that can be compared from state to state is a bad idea. But there is vocal and vigorous opposition to the Common Core, which has begun to surface in North Carolina. Tar Heel lawmakers adopted a budget provision this spring that will keep educators from moving forward with certain changes to how students are tested, and North Carolina's lieutenant governor is using his position on the state school board to give voice to those skeptical about the standards, their costs and federal involvement in pushing them through.
Change is hard
Proponents of Common Core standards are quick to insist they are not a curriculum, which would imply they prescribe how lessons are taught across the country.
"This is the goal line," said Ryan Reyna, education program director with the National Governor's Association. "Ultimately, it's up to the teachers and principals and other educators to move students down the field to that goal line."
Skeptics will point out that if Common Core standards prescribe what students need to know, and tests developed in response to the standards assess whether they know it, it is not a big leap to suggest that the curriculum for school districts that adopt the core standards will have to follow along as well.
The North Carolina State Board of Education voted to adopt the standards in 2010. Teachers throughout the state have been preparing for the transition since then, but the 2012-13 school year was the first time that parents began to see their impact.
Meg Ryan O'Donnell's son is a rising seventh grader at Ligon GT Magnet Middle School. And although she wouldn't describe herself as an opponent of the new standards, she said they can be confusing for parents who grew up in an era of memorizing times tables.
"It was hard to communicate as a family, to figure out where to help, how to help with homework, especially in math," O'Donnell said.
That is not an uncommon reaction said Aguilar. She who said parents – more so than students or teachers – have struggled to adapt to the new standards.
In math, her specialty, the standards push for students to be able to approach problems in different ways, evaluate how other people are approaching the problem, and understand why the solution they chose works. That said, getting the right answer is still important.
"Two plus two will still equal four," Aguilar said. Now, it's just important to understand why it is four.
Another source of confusion for parents, she said, has been that classes with name like Algebra and Geometry have been replaced with titles like "Common Core Math 1" or "Common Core Math 6 Plus."
That's because the Common Core standards introduce elements of algebra, geometry, probability and other math concepts throughout several grades, rather than lumping them into discrete courses.
Math classes will cover fewer topics, but they will cover them more deeply. Students will be asked to approach problems in multiple ways.
O'Donnell said it seemed like her son's math lessons seemed "redundant," especially for a student who has been a good learner.
Earlier this year, parents of advanced math students in Cary and Chapel Hill openly worried that the new Common Core math courses would hold their students back.
The NGA's Reyna argues the standards represent the basics. School districts, he said, can offer students instruction above and beyond that baseline.
From her viewpoint in Durham, Aguilar said, the new standards leave more room for, and in fact encourage, introducing new and more challenging material.
"The expectations are for high rigor," she said.
But skeptics point out that along with new standards, come new tests. And those tests won't measure what students know that's above and beyond the basics.
"That content will not be tested, so there's a disincentive for states and districts to add to the Common Core," said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
Whither Tom Sawyer?
English classes are also changing. The common core standards place a greater emphasis on tackling nonfiction material like science papers, historical documents and even software manuals. This shift has lead some to complain that students will be left without a working knowledge of great books.
"A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation," wrote Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, for the Heritage Foundation in 2012.
Proponents of the standards say that as with math, the language standards are a minimum, and don't prevent teachers from adding more texts to the curriculum. And, they point out, the Common Core does more than remix the proportion of nonfiction and fiction.
Students in elementary school grades learn speaking and listening skills in addition to reading and writing. And in upper grades, students are expected to use what they read to build arguments and offer their own assessments.
"They're taking a stand. They're supporting it with facts. They've dug deep into a topic," said Luke Miles, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Durant Road Middle School in Raleigh.
Although North Carolina adopted new standards for all its subjects in 2010, Common Core applies to just math and language arts.
Miles isn't an English teacher, but the middle school Common Core standards cross disciplines, he said. For example, Miles said, students are expected to take what they learn about the Columbian exchange – the exchange of people, animals, ideas, plants and diseases that followed Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage – and build an opinion about whether it was beneficial or not. Students, he said, are expected to use sources they've read from the time and contemporary works to help reach their conclusions.
"There's not really a right or wrong answer," he said. Rather, what's important, Miles said, is that students show they have mastered the material and can apply it.
Even students who are not in public schools will be seeing pieces of the Common Core standards in their coursework.
"So many of our children go through eighth grade in the Catholic schools and then they go onto public schools," said Rosalie Innacelli, assistant superintendent for the Diocese of Raleigh Catholic Schools. "We want to make sure that the students in the Catholic schools know the language that's going to be used when they go into high schools."
This is particularly important in math, she said, in which students may know how to do the same operations but may have described those functions differently.
Overall, Innacelli said, the Common Core standards are well written.
That said, Catholic school will still be Catholic school. Innacelli said the diocese incorporated ideas from Common Core into its existing curriculum, but still places an emphasis on things like memorization and handwriting that have long been staples of the religious schools.
And North Carolina lawmakers are having their say as well. Even though the state is in the process of adopting Common Core standards, the General Assembly passed a measure this year that requires students to memorize multiplication tables and be drilled on cursive handwriting.
Battles to be fought over costs and testing
In North Carolina, Common Core standards have the backing of some high-profile political players. On Wednesday, the N.C. Chamber issued a statement embracing the standards. The next day, Gov. Pat McCrory gave a speech to the chamber in which he praised the Common Core.
"The reading and math standards in Common Core are high, relevant and can be applied internationally," McCrory said, reserving criticism for how the state is approaching them. "It's not the standards that are bad, it's the execution that must be improved."
McCrory did not specify how he thought teaching ought to change.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, has been more outspoken, issuing a list of 67 questions that he wants the Department of Public Instruction to answer about Common Core. Forest is a member of the North Carolina State Board of Education, which oversees the department.
"I don't consider this a fight, or a battle or any of that," Forest said during a recent interview for WRAL's "On the Record." Rather, he said, he's just trying to answer questions. On the Record Extra: Lt. Gov Dan Forest
Forest told WRAL's David Crabtree that he believes North Carolina under then-Gov. Bev Perdue rushed into adopting the standards. He argues that the standards and the tests that will measure student performance have not been "field tested" and that nobody knows whether they will actually improve education.
"A third of all states in our country have either rejected Common Core or are currently seeking legislative action to pause or back out of implementation," Forest said in a video he posted. "The question is why."
Five states never adopted the Common Core standards. But rejection of the standards is not quite as complete or widespread as Forest suggests.
Most states that raised questions are still sticking with the new benchmarks even given the political furor that has sometimes accompanied the discussion.
However, it is correct to say that there are leaders in states such as Florida raising questions about the costs that come along with new exams designed to test students' knowledge.
North Carolina already has state-developed end-of-grade exams that test students on the new material. But the state is a leader in one of the two consortia developing national tests for the Common Core.
"We don't know in North Carolina what Common Core is going to cost us," Forest said, citing estimates that national Common Core could cost twice as much as existing evaluations.
Superintendent of Public Education June Atkinson, a Democrat and backer of the new standards, told WRAL costs shouldn't be a concern. On the Record Extra: June Atkinson
"The cost is no different for the Common Core tests than the test we've had in the past for reading and mathematics," she said.
In a follow-up to Atkinson's interview, Vanessa Jeter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Instruction, said the estimate that testing costs will double is probably an overestimate, although there will likely be some change in cost.
"The estimates we have seen so far on costs for the (national) tests after field testing are in the $15 range per student. State tests are currently approximately $10 per student," Jeter said.
Lawmakers aren't so sure about the testing costs or the standards themselves.
The state budget that became law in July prohibits the state from buying any tests developed by an outside consortium and geared toward the Common Core without explicit permission from the legislature.
"All I want to do is make sure that before we spend a bunch of money on an assessment, everything is the way we want it to be," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, the author of the test purchase freeze. Like Forest, Tillman said lawmakers have questions about changes that will be wrought by the new standards. But, he added, it is unlikely the state will completely reverse course after spending three years and countless man-hours preparing for the new standards.
"It doesn't have to take a full course reversal to make some common sense changes," Tillman said. The General Assembly's Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Education will be examining the costs and curriculum associated with Common Core over the next nine months.
Federal involvement a concern
Opposition to the Common Core has become something of a cause célèbre in conservative circles. Stoops, of the John Locke Foundation, cautions that it is important to sort out legitimate criticism from tangents that posit the Common Core is part of a United Nations conspiracy to steer education or other unverifiable flights of fancy.
"Federal involvement is a concern," Stoops said. "It's unprecedented to have the federal government involved with something that will influence what will be taught in every classroom in America."
In prior years, he said, federal No Child Left Behind laws required testing and tracking of student progress. But those laws did not prescribe what will be taught. While the federal government didn't create the standards, President Barack Obama's administration has embraced them and pushed their adoption, he said.
"It's one thing to be reporting how low-income students are performing on tests. It's another thing to say to the states, 'If you want to play ball with us, you have to abide by the Common Core standards,'" Stoops said.
Federal officials have pushed back against the notion that they are foisting Common Core standards on the states. In a recent speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called their adoption voluntary.
"There's a huge difference between creating an incentive – which was absolutely the right thing to do – and mandating particular standards – which is never the right thing to do, and we never will do," he said.
The national political back-and-forth over the standards is curious. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, is backing the standards even as very conservative groups, such as the nonprofit FreedomWorks that was instrumental in organizing the Tea Party movement, describe the standards as an "unprecedented level of federal intrusion into education."
On the other end of the political spectrum, some liberal commentators have also complained about the rush to implement unproven standards and their reliance on testing. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has raised questions about how testing will be used to evaluate educators.
But the most straightforward arguments are over whether schools using the standards will teach students what they need to know. Stoops is among those who say Common Core improved on what North Carolina had before, but doesn't go far enough academically. Arguments over literature and befuddlement over math concepts will likely persist in classrooms and at kitchen tables throughout the state.
On the ground in North Carolina, educators at year-round schools who have just begun their new academic year report that students and teachers alike seem to be getting used to the new set of expectations.
"Midway through last year, we saw people really begin to embrace it," said Michael Fuga, principal at Rogers-Herr. Initially, he said, teachers, parents and students found themselves having to adjust. This year, he said, most people understand what's expected. "It's no longer this big unknown."