The way North Carolina public school students learn math, reading and writing has changed with the state's adoption of the Common Core standards. Those benchmarks for what students should learn in each grade were crafted by national groups and have been adopted by 45 states as well as the District of Columbia.
However, there is not universal agreement among policymakers, teachers or parents that meeting Common Core standards is the right thing to do, and the new approach to learning has been confusing for some parents.
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The Common Core state standards are benchmarks for what children should know in reading, writing and math from Kindergarten through Grade 12. School districts began teaching classes geared toward meeting the new benchmarks last year, although the transition for many districts will continue into the 2013-14 school year.
In general, the standards emphasize giving students the ability to understand concepts – whether in math or reading – well enough to apply them in the real world. Backers say they will make students more ready for the career or college they encounter after high school. Testing being developed to go along with the standards will be designed to better compare students across counties and across the nation.
These standards apply to public schools, including public charter schools. Private schools will not have to adopt the standards but many will change their curriculum in response. That's especially true for schools that will feed students back into public schools, such as private schools that only run from Kindergarten through 8th grade. Administrators at some of those schools say they want to be sure their students will understand the language being used, particularly in math, when they join their public school peers in high school.
According to the group that compiled the standards, 45 states, the District of Columbia and four territories have adopted the standards.
Not exactly. Backers of the standards say they provide "clear goals for student learning," but they don't set out how teachers reach that goal. However, it is fair to note that states and local school districts have had to change what they teach and how they teach it – their curriculum – in response to the standards and the tests that will assess if students are hitting Common Core benchmarks.
The idea behind the standards is that students will be better prepared to face real-world problems when they leave high schools, whether they go on to college or go to work. Strands of this idea run throughout the curriculum, with Kindergarten students being expected to ask questions about text they have just read and being able to "describe the connection between two individuals, events, ideas or pieces of information in a text."
In high school, students are asked to use math functions not just to solve for a particular number but to answer questions. The idea is to take numbers from the real world and use math to describe how, for example, changes in the amount borrowed and interest rate might determine how much someone would repay for a loan.
In language arts, high school students are asked to analyze texts. One standard, for example, asks students to "analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas or events interact and develop over the course of the text."
Backers of the standards also say they represent a baseline, the minimum that students have to live up to. Schools and districts can and should go above and beyond the standards, particularly for very bright students. However, critics point out that such additional material won't be tested, so schools won't have an incentive to make such extra instruction widely available.
Common Core only deals with math and language arts. There are other national standards being developed in areas like science, but they are not part of the Common Core, and North Carolina has not moved to adopt those.
However, teachers in different subject areas will find themselves dealing with the pieces of the Common Core standards. For example, social studies teachers will participate in reinforcing lessons on using real-world documents and may find themselves working with English teachers on assignments that deal with writing about historical or government topics.
And it is worth noting that the state Board of Education adopted new state-developed standards in 2010 for all other subjects at the same time it adopted Common Core.
The North Carolina Essential Standards cover topics ranging from what elementary school students learn about information technology to high school science, physical education and arts education.
Two groups led the development of the standards. The National Governors Association represents the chief executives of the 50 states. The Council of Chief State School Officers is a national group made up of the heads of state schools systems, such as North Carolina's superintendent of public instruction.
These two groups insist the process was "state-led" and sought input from educators and experts, such as the Durham-based Hunt Institute. But critics have complained the process was "top down," with not enough input from local school districts.
The U.S. Department of Education has also embraced the standards, sparking more controversy. Although the federal government did not play a direct role in developing the guidelines, states were asked to adopt Common Core standards, or something very similar, as part of the Obama administration's Race to the Top process. This push from the federal government – which offered big grants in return for adopting certain policy ideas – created an additional point of conflict, both from political partisans as well as those who believe that the federal government should stay out of local education policy no matter who is in charge of the government.
In general, literacy standards focus much more on reading original source documents – such as the Declaration of Independence – and nonfiction material. Throughout the K-through-12 curriculum, there is an emphasis on students using what they read to draw conclusions and build arguments. In middle school and high school grades, there is emphasis on being able to read, digest and apply material in social studies and science.
For math, experts describe the curriculum as more focused. Instead of covering many topics but maybe doing so in a superficial way, the standards focus on learning fewer things but understanding them very well. Students are asked not just to arrive at the right answer but to know how and why they arrived at that answer.
Not really, although they may be exposed to less literature. There are standards and recommendations for reading fiction throughout the curriculum. For example, in the grades 9 and 10, students will be asked to do things such as "analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature."
However, it is true to say that the standards place a lot of emphasis on being able to read and comprehend real-world documents. The standards talk about "career readiness," so students may be asked to tackle computer software manuals, scientific papers and letters written by historical figures as well as textbooks and novels.
Educators and experts acknowledge this may mean students will be exposed to less literature while they are in high school. But they say students should be encouraged to read more on their own outside of class.
Q: My child's math homework confuses me. Why isn't it enough to get the right answers? And what happened to algebra and geometry in high school? What about students who are advanced in math?
Students will still learn algebra, geometry and advanced math concepts, but, as the Wake County Public Schools website explains, the names of the classes are changed. There are more and less advanced versions of each level of math depending on how well a student is doing in a subject. As explained by the Department of Public Instruction, children will learn concepts associated with probability, geometry and algebra throughout several grades.
Overall, the math standards focus attention on understanding why a particular answer is right. Students are being asked to explain their answers and to approach the same kind of problems in different ways, rather than just being taught to get the right answer and move on.
"There is a world of difference between a student who can summon a mnemonic device to expand a product such as (a + b)(x + y) and a student who can explain where the mnemonic comes from. The student who can explain the rule understands the mathematics, and may have a better chance to succeed at a less familiar task such as expanding (a + b + c)(x + y)," explains the website for those who developed the curriculum.
It would be fair to say the U.S. Department of Education encouraged their adoption. Just after the NGA and CCSO developed the standards, the federal government issued a release praising them.
"The Department plans to support state implementation efforts by providing federal funds for high quality assessments, professional development to help teachers enhance the knowledge and skills needed to help students master the standards, and research to support continual improvement of the standards and assessments over time," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in that June, 2010, release.
However, the federal government cannot require states to adopt particular standards. At least five states have chosen not to participate. But the federal government did offer incentives for states through its Race to the Top grant program. North Carolina was one of several states to receive "second round" Race to the Top funding, and all of those states had agreed to adopt Common Core.
The federal government's involvement has been a flash point for critics. The strum and drang over federal involvement prompted Duncan to give a speech pointing out that Common Core standards were already in development when President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
"It was voluntary — we didn't mandate it — but we absolutely encouraged this state-led work because it is good for kids and good for the country," he said.
Still, the level of federal encouragement has been one of the many criticisms leveled by national commentators such as former Fox News personality Glenn Beck.
Q: So is this all political? Is it as simple as Democrats / liberals are for this and Republicans / conservatives are against it?
Not really. You can find proponents and opponents of Common Core on both ends of the political spectrum. For example, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, embraced Common Core standards during a speech before the Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, writers for conservative groups in the state such as the John Locke Foundation and the Civitas Institute have urged the state to scrap the standards.
North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat, is a backer of the measures. Meanwhile, Diane Ravitch, an education expert whose work is frequently cited by liberals in North Carolina, has written that she cannot support the new standards until she sees more evidence that they will improve student performance.
However, it is fair to say that grass roots push-back against the standards has come more from conservative voters than liberals.
Q: Why shift to the Common Core? Why not just keep North Carolina's old standards or develop new guidelines of our own?
Backers and even some critics of the Common Core say they are better than the standards that North Carolina and most other states had in place. And many backers, particularly businesses, have pushed educators to develop curricula that allow students to transfer their knowledge into the real world. Some individual multinational companies as well as business groups such as the N.C. Chamber has come out in favor of the Common Core.
Backers also say it is important for students across the country to learn similar material, share similar goals and be tested in ways that allows for meaningful comparison of their performance. Many in the military have backed the standards because it means students from families who frequently move from one base to another will have an easier time transitioning from one school system to another.
Q: It sounds like there could be a lot of testing involved. What happened to other North Carolina accountability programs like the ABCs or the existing end-of-grade tests?
North Carolina has already adjusted much of its state-developed end-of-grade testing to apply the new standards. The state budget this year makes adjustments to other testing requirements and school accountability measures, but those shifts are not all directly related to the Common Core. There will not be separate Common Core tests. Rather, existing tests have been changed to adapt to the new material.
However, testing is one of the biggest concerns of those who are skeptical of the state standards. When Lt. Gov. Dan Forrest sent a letter asking 67 questions about Common Core to the Department of Public Instruction, many of them focused on the adoption of new tests.
North Carolina is helping to lead development of a new test that could be used by multiple states. That new nationwide test would make comparisons of students from one state to the next easier. However, critics have worried about the cost of that new test and whether North Carolina is ceding too much control over student learning to national groups. The budget passed by the General Assembly in 2013 orders the Department of Public Instruction not to buy any new tests related to the Common Core without legislative permission.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said lawmakers included the provision in the budget because they were concerned that the national Common Core tests would cost twice as much as existing exams. That has been the case in other states, including Florida, where top lawmakers have asked the governor to pull out of the testing consortium. State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told WRAL's David Crabtree that there should be little difference in cost between Common Core exams and prior exams. North Carolina is already using state-developed tests to cover Common Core material.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Instruction later emphasized that while North Carolina is involved in developing the tests, no decision has been made about buying them. "There are some good reasons to consider the Smarter Balanced assessments, though, including the ability to measure NC's student performance against other states," said DPI spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter. The tests developed by the Smarter Balanced consortium in which North Carolina is participating may be more expensive than state tests, she said, although they probably won't be double the price.
"The estimates we have seen so far on costs for the tests after field testing are in the $15 range per student. State tests are currently approximately $10 per student," Jeter said.
As for other accountability measures, the ABCs ended with the 2011-12 school year.
These measures focus both on grading the teacher and the schools' performance.
Forrest, who is one of the highest profile critics of the standards, says he is not fighting them but rather trying to get the state to think about key issues. Writers at the Stop Common Core NC website have raised a number of issues, including the cost of testing and federal involvement.
"Lawmakers in eight states introduced legislation this year to opt out of the Common Core State standards, according to Education Week," reported Governing Magazine. "But only two of those states ended up passing a bill, and those bills were scaled back to only halt funding for implementation and require further study of the standards."
For some, it was the Obama administration's embrace of the standards that sparked opposition.
Q: What are some common misunderstandings about Common Core?
WUNC did a report on seven common myths and complaints about Common Core, including the allegation that it requires inappropriate reading material and will set NC students behind in math.
The Common Core initiative website and the testing consortium website provide detail on what the standards should be. And each school district, such as Wake County Public Schools, typically provide their own resources for how the standards will be applied locally. North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction also provides a website with material that explains more about Common Core. Terry Stoops, of the John Locke Foundation, has also developed a Q+A about the standards from his viewpoint as a skeptic about the standards.