Special edition: Common Core standards
To understand why the phrase “Common Core standards” is creeping into discussions outside the education community, it helps to appreciate what the Common Core effort could mean to your child.
The answer is simple at the highest level. If followed as planned, the Common Core State Standards Initiative would bring about the biggest change in American classrooms in at least a generation.
It’s often easy for parents to tune out the seemingly endless debate about education reform and then miss something that really matters. This is one of those times.
“This is not just another set of standards,” Jere Confrey, a professor of math education at NC State and Common Core advisor, told Wake County school board members recently.
In fact, the standards are so much higher that some educators are concerned the public will simply interpret the drop in scores as an academic train wreck.
And why would public schools in North Carolina voluntarily get on this train? To understand that, it helps to appreciate the path that has brought Wake County to the opening of an era called the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
The path to the Common Core
For young teachers and young parents today, understanding where we are requires a quick reminder of a time just before they were born, a time when North Carolina’s school leaders approved something called the Basic Education Program.
The BEP, as it was known, was revolutionary thinking for its day. It came out just a year after a 1983 national report titled “A Nation at Risk” -- a narrative that in itself is often considered the catalyst for the modern-day school reform movement.
The Basic Education Program was about “inputs.” It assumed that if students were provided with enough instruction in subjects such as math, science, art and foreign language, the march to success would begin. The program brought desperately needed upgrades to many North Carolina classrooms, but – as naïve as it might sound by today’s thinking – there was no way to track its success based on student achievement.
By the early 1990s, with the expense of the program drawing critics, attention turned to statewide student testing. But testing at that point was supposed to provide insight into whether teachers were actually teaching the state’s Standard Course of Study. It had little to do with whether a student was promoted or retained.
Again it might seem naïve by today’s thinking, but plenty of teachers looked at the Standard Course of Study in the 1980s and early 1990s mostly as a guide. The idea of measuring a student’s progress on a specific goal or objective using an end-of-grade exam was considered a futuristic – and slightly frightening – conversation.
That future happened faster than most expected thanks largely to a push by the federal government in the mid-1990s that required schools to have accountability standards. Most states did not have statewide testing programs at that time, meaning North Carolina was ahead of the curve.
But it wasn’t long before Congress approved No Child Left Behind in 2001, bringing with it an unprecedented era of mandated testing in every state. Standards and curriculum still varied greatly, but it was now clear every child was expected to succeed in the classroom.
Unfortunately, this approach also had the effect of splintering the curriculum into thousands of multiple-choice questions on exam day. The hope this time was that students who correctly answered enough multiple-choice questions would figure out by themselves how to connect the dots before graduation day. Applying the knowledge was rarely required.
This was better than 1983 when there was no guarantee of even a basic level of instruction and all students clearly weren’t expected to succeed. But the world was a different place by 2009 when a group of governors and school leaders came together to talk about schools built on international standards of excellence.
They were defining a common set of skills students should know how to apply if they expected to succeed in the 21st century. They were looking for a roadmap schools could follow to instill those skills in students. They were calling their project the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
What makes the Common Core different
Now adopted by 45 states, the Common Core initiative is designed to bring state standards into basic alignment with each other. Schools throughout the country will have a clear and consistent understanding of what students are expected to learn in math and language.
Much of the content will remain the same, although in some areas the new standards call for fewer content details. That’s because content matters in Common Core, but knowing what to do with the content matters more.
This is worth repeating because it is at the core of the Common Core. Students will be expected to use facts to infer, to predict outcomes and to solve problems.
Applying skills isn’t a new idea in education and it has been among the primary demands of business leaders for years. In lay terms, it’s often described as needing schools that produce “better thinkers.”
But the Common Core State Standards Initiative forces the issue. From the way lessons are organized across grade levels to the way students are tested, the standards put far more emphasis on appreciating context and the way in which facts relate to each other and across different subjects.
For an initiative that involves most states in the nation, it is notable that Common Core is not run by the U.S. Department of Education. It is overseen instead by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association – the two state-led groups that launched the initiative in 2009.
By agreeing to be a part of the Common Core project, states such as North Carolina are committing themselves to the standards and goals of the initiative. This is not a little step. It requires rewriting standards, using new exams and moving much of the testing to an online system. The early work is already done.
North Carolina, which was among the first states to adopt the Common Core standards, took the process a step farther and created something known as Essential Standards for subjects outside math and language arts such as science, social studies, world languages and the arts.
Both Common Core and Essential Standards start with the belief that years of research and countless observations of high-achieving schools throughout the world underscore the need for more rigorous standards in our schools.
That means that no matter how good you think your school is today, chances are excellent test scores will drop significantly when the new standards are formally assessed in 2014-2015. To gauge the possible decline in test scores, it helps to consider how many North Carolina students meet the current federal definition of proficient.
Source: NC Department of Public Instruction/ National Assessment of Educational Progress
Understanding why Wake is moving toward the Common Core and what the schools hope to accomplish doesn’t offer much detail on how classroom lessons will change.
At the moment, this is a significant frustration for some teachers who say they still feel unprepared despite numerous workshops and other online resources offered by the district.
Jere Confrey, the NCSU math professor who spoke to the Wake school board, is also working to answer some of those questions. Her insights are valuable because she is among a group of people from throughout the country who served as advisors on the new math standards.
For example, Confrey told the school board, the concept of place values in a number will begin in kindergarten, regrouping will be a second-grade skill, decimals to the hundredths will be content for fourth graders. Statistics will be a part of the middle school curriculum and at least one-third of today’s Algebra I content will be taught to all children by eighth grade.
In general, all of this is happening one to two years sooner than today’s curriculum.
In high school, familiar names of classes will be replaced by Common Core Math I, II and III. The ways in which mathematical concepts are related to one another will be stressed instead of teaching subjects such as algebra, geometry and calculus in isolation.
More importantly to teachers, Confrey and a team of graduate students have developed a web site that breaks the standards down into individual goals displayed across time stretching from kindergarten to high school.
Visit interactive site at http://www.turnonccmath.com/
At the surface level, a graphic shows how the various strands of math such as counting or addition and subtraction in primary grades eventually lead to lessons on linear equations and modeling in high school. The site also allows users to drill down inside the strands to see examples of specific questions and how they relate to the larger objectives.
Wake school leaders are unaware of a similar site for language arts, although a recent education summit for business leaders, parents and school employees stressed the point that younger students will be asked to read more in general and especially more informational text. Reading today is focused largely on literary text.
At the same time, the literacy strands of the Common Core will be integrated more deeply into other subjects such as social studies and science. Much of this will be done by emphasizing the need to find the original source for information and requiring students to develop written arguments.
For those who prefer a single indicator to gauge whether their child is ready for college or the workplace, Wake County’s senior administrator for high school English suggests a definition by David Coleman, who was central to the development of the standards.
The single best indicator, Coleman suggests in a video, is the ability to “read a complex text independently with confidence.”
What happens next:
Even without a detailed roadmap, educators are getting ready for the coming changes. Beginning next year, for example, the math sequence in middle school will reflect the Common Core goals.
The pace of information coming to teachers is also expected to increase significantly in the coming year as they prepare for the first full year of classroom changes in 2013-2014.
At the same time, the state will continue to revamp mandatory tests that will take the place of today’s end-of-course exams. By 2014-2015, the standards will be in place at all grade levels with year-end exams in the spring.
Given the tight timeline and breadth of change, it won’t be a surprise if problems surface along the way. Textbooks, for example, have yet to be written for the new standards, let alone lesson plans.
Students are also expected to take the new assessments entirely online, although it isn’t clear how those exams will be administered or who will grade open-ended questions. This matters because open-ended questions will be far more important in determining a student’s ability to use knowledge and “become a good thinker.”
And in a refrain that is now familiar since the recession froze school budgets starting in 2009, money is tight.
Keep in mind that these are just the issues inside the classroom. With some people just beginning to realize what is scheduled to happen, a political debate seems inevitable at any or all levels of government – local, state and federal.
But at this point, the momentum is clearly on the side of the states that launched the initiative in 2009.
Much like the Basic Education Program, statewide testing and No Child Left Behind, the Common Core State Standards Initiative won’t magically produce legions of high-flying schools.
A critical thinker, of course, knows this because standards – at least by themselves – do not make children smarter. Rigorous standards simply help the process along. Children better understand the world around them when they are engaged in learning with guidance from a skilled teacher.
That truth has always been at the core of education.
Sources and additional information:
Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local business. For questions about this report, contact Tim Simmons, VP of Communication) or Julie Crain, VP of Programs. This topic review can also be found at our website, www.wakeedpartnership.org, under the tab titled News Center.