Battle lines drawn over ‘Common Core’

Supporters of the Missouri Board of Education’s 2010 decision to adopt a set of “Common Core” standards believe the new guidelines have the potential to boost academic achievement and prepare more students for the workforce.

But recently a growing contingent of opponents have garnered attention for questioning “national” standards, which they view as an affront to a long-cherished ideal — local control of the public schools.

What is ‘Common Core’?

The Common Core State Standards are a set of academic expectations in two subjects: English/language arts and mathematics. The standards define the knowledge and skills all students should master by the end of each grade to be on track for college and career success. They were developed in 2009 after the National Governors Association began advocating for more rigorous math and English curricula in the nation’s public schools. Since then, they have been adopted by more than 45 states, including the Missouri State Board of Education in 2010.

Many schools — including Jefferson City Public Schools — have already begun transitioning to the standards, which are set to be fully implemented in Missouri during the 2014-15 school year.

Gretchen Guitard, assistant superintendent for staff services, said one of the strengths of the Common Core initiative its relevance to real life and the workforce.

“I do believe the Common Core standards really attempt to address college and career readiness skills,” she said.

Guitard said the process to convert from the “old” standards — sets of state-approved grade-level and course-level expectations — to the Common Core standards started three years ago in the Jefferson City Public Schools. She said giving teachers as much time as possible to convert their lessons was the goal.

“The first thing we did — and we have really stayed true to our timeline — is I asked folks to attend Common Core conferences to learn more,” she said.

In the summer of 2011, the JCPS faculty sat down and simply started comparing the differences between the old standards and the new. The results of that work were both eye-opening and startling, Guitard said, because it revealed that both students and teachers would have to step up their game.

“There are shifts in expectations,” Guitard explained. “Not only did some units of study drop to earlier grades, many of the standards are more rigorous.”

Fractions and algebraic thinking, for example, are shifting to earlier grades.

“And there’s going to be a much stronger emphasis on quality writing,” Guitard added.

Backlash against the Feds

Not everyone who has studied the Common Core standards has embraced them. In recent months, a growing backlash has been brewing, primarily among conservatives who disapprove of anything that smacks of federal intrusion.

Gassel, co-founder of the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core, said there’s no evidence that having national standards improves student outcomes or will raise America’s rank when compared with other nations.

“It’s a false premise. There’s no evidence it leads to gains,” she said.

She said “plenty of countries” have national education standards, yet perform worse than the U.S.

For their part, people who like Common Core argue that the standards are not “national,” but were created by hundreds of state-level educators working together. However, once educators developed them, the Obama administration endorsed them. And the U.S. Department of Education made adoption of the Common Core an option for states to receive a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law — a waiver which Missouri has procured.

Gassel, and others in her camp, have raised concerns students’ personal information will flow to the U.S. government, where officials might lose control of it or give it away.

“The concern is for student privacy,” she said. “It will contain their Social Security numbers. The state cannot claim any control over that data. There are breaches all the time.”

But Gassel said her main concern is the loss of local control of the public schools.

“That means having control in the state over the standards. We don’t want to have to convince 26 other states, plus private trade associations (the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) to change the standards,” she said.

“Thirteen other states are working against Common Core.”

At recent meetings around the state and in House of Representatives hearing, the dislike of the Common Core Standards was palpable in the crowd, as opponents openly jeered and clapped.

At the hearing, Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles, expressed his disapproval of Missouri’s participation in Common Core.

“The meetings DESE held (on May 2) were a joke. They sat taxpayers down and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do. Sit down, shut up and take it.’”

In the last moments of the legislative session Friday, members defeated a law requiring DESE to hold more meetings in order to give residents a forum to share their thoughts about Common Core and do more fiscal analysis of what it is expected to cost the state and school districts.

Gassel said when her coalition questioned the Common Core claim that the new standards were “internationally benchmarked,” the advocates had a tough time proving that assertion was true.

“We said, ‘Show us the test’ and they couldn’t,” Gassel scoffed. “Now they have to say the Common Core standards are ‘informed by’ international standards.”

History

The Common Core Standards are not the first time Missouri’s education leaders and lawmakers have dabbled in accountability measure.

“Here in Missouri, academic standards first were implemented in 1993 with the Outstanding Schools Act. They were called the Show-Me State Standards,” said Sarah Potter, DESE communications coordinator.

By 1996, they were approved and adopted by the Missouri State Board of Education.

But by 2004, new requirements — called “GLEs” and “CLEs” for grade-level and course-level expectations — were devised.

“When that happened, we had a more-defined idea of what students should know in the various grades and courses,” Potter said.

She said problems arose when policymakers began to realize that every state had different expectations for students.

“The Governors Association and the Chief State Schools Officers got together and said, ‘We’re being compared all the time, state to state. But all of our standards are different. All of our proficiency rates are different. Our tests were different. There’s no way to compare how a student in Missouri is doing to a student in Kansas.’ So the idea came about that we needed a similar set of standards and assessments. So they started with English-Language Arts and Math, K-12.”

Guitard said steady pressure to hold schools accountable made it necessary to find a fair way of doing so.

“People were saying, ‘If there is going to be this much accountability, then there needs to be more standardization from state to state, so that we are comparing apples to apples,’” she said.

Potter said the Common Core standards have received bi-partisan support, are liked by the state’s business community and were reviewed by Missouri professors knowledgeable on the subject. Also, teacher organizations like the National Education Association and the Missouri School Boards Association are on record in support.

“We played a big role in helping review and write them,” Potter said.

Guitard said she recognized that not all school patrons are comfortable with a loss of local control. But she added the public schools have always been tied to some kind of state and national accountability, because of the ways schools are funded.

“We still have quite a bit of autonomy,” she said. “With society being as global as it is, it’s what has to occur in order for our students to be successful.”

Tech upgrades aren’t free

Gassel complained the Common Core initiative is expensive because it requires all Missouri public school districts to retrain their teachers. The cost of administering a paper statewide exam is $9 per student; to administer a Common Core exam is $28 per student, she estimated.

“The online tests are incredibly expensive,” she said.

Because the Common Core Standards require schools to administer tests online — as opposed to paper-and-pencil exams — the expense to schools has been difficult to calculate. School districts across the state are in the middle of the process of calculating how many computer terminals and what kinds of broadband upgrades they will have to implement to make the statewide online testing feasible.

“When your fiscal dollars are finite, it’s a huge expense,” Guitard said. “In this district, we have a solid financial base, but it’s still an issue. I think it’s the smaller districts that are really being challenged with these expectations.”

Some elementary students in both the Blair Oaks and Jefferson City Public Schools have participated in pilot projects to experience the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) new exams.

Led by multiple states, the consortium has developed assessments to measure student progress toward college and career-readiness by the 2014-15 school year. The U.S. Department of Education in 2010 awarded SBAC grants to develop the tests, which are being phased in to Missouri’s public schools, along with the better-known MAP tests.

Even though every JCPS elementary school has a computer lab or laptop cart, Guitard said administrators were concerned about the technology requirements of Common Core, Guitard said. The fear was that very young students wouldn’t have the keyboard and mouse skills to perform well.

The pilot project proved “it was better than we anticipated, but we know there are going to be some challenges,” she said.

At Blair Oaks, principal Julia Gampher said to avoid overloading the building’s wireless hub, the school administered the test in two upstairs and two downstairs classrooms.

Also, she noticed the SBAC exam has a few online tools — such as calculators and rulers — students aren’t completely familiar with.

“But it was a golden opportunity to get a sneak peek and see what we’re up against in the future,” Gampher said.

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