Local schools are grappling with a dramatic shift in what gets taught at which grades, courtesy of something known as the “Common Core” standards. Critics contend it’s massive overreach by a federal government determined to control education; proponents counter that it’s a voluntary, state-initiated effort to make sure students graduate ready for work, college or the military regardless of where they live.
“There are a lot of changes,” Luzerne Intermediate Unit Director of Curriculum Filomena Covert said. “In math, almost everything is pushed down a year, so what was taught in seventh grade is now taught in sixth grade.”
The new standards not only teach material a grade earlier in many cases, but they also shift the emphasis from making sure a student can do the work to making sure he or she knows why he or she does it.
“Common Core is the application of real-world problem solving,” said Covert, who has been helping teachers in area school districts adapt to the new standards. “The emphasis is no longer on work sheets or ‘drill and kill’; it’s more cooperative learning. It’s getting the students to understand ‘Why do I have to learn this?’.”
And while Common Core is only being instituted in math and English Language Arts (ELA), the impact will be felt across all grades and most, if not all, subjects, Covert said. The standards adopted by Pennsylvania — each state has some wiggle room in adjusting the standards — run from pre-kindergarten through grade 12, and a key part of the ELA standards is to teach them across subjects.
“The ELA standards apply across content study areas,” Covert said. “So a lot of social study teachers adopted literacy components in their classrooms, which is a shift for them. The same is true in other subjects.
Initiative of the states
Proponents stress that Common Core standards were neither developed nor mandated by Washington.
“Common Core is not a project of the federal government,” said Joan Benso, president of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the change. “The states got together and worked with post-secondary and military and business experts and said ‘What do our kids need to know to succeed after graduation?’ ”
Development of the standards was spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Adopting the standards is voluntary — 46 states did.
“Common Core will create consistent expectations for what children should learn from early grades through high school completion,” Benso said.
But critics point out that, even though the standards were developed by the states and are voluntary, Washington threw a great deal of federal weight behind Common Core, particularly through the $4 billion “Race To The Top” Program launched as part of the federal stimulus effort at the onset of President Barack Obama’s first term.
States competed for a piece of that $4 billion pie by embracing education reforms favored by the current administration. Adopting Common Core increased the odds of getting some of that money.
The federal government also provided $360 million in grants to help states develop assessments aligned with the new standards. Pennsylvania has revised its state tests — known as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSAs — to align with Common Core. The new tests will be administered for the first time in 2014-15 in grades three through eight. The new high school “Keystone Exams” are already aligned with Common Core.
And adopting Common Core increased the likelihood a state could receive a federal waiver that eases requirements to have all students scoring proficient or better on those state tests. That requirement was built into the 2001 law known as No Child Left Child Behind. Pennsylvania has applied for such a waiver, allowing it to change how student achievement is measured when meeting federal requirements.
It is true the federal government made it attractive to adopt Common Core, Benso conceded, but she insisted allegations that it will lead to federal control of education are nothing but “fear mongering.”
Several federal laws bar Washington from establishing a national curriculum: Public Education has long been recognized as a state matter. And Benso stresses it remains that way under Common Core.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that Common Core standards are goals and expectations,” Benso said. “They are not a curriculum, they are not a mandate.”
Covert concurred. In fact, once Pennsylvania agreed in 2010 to adopt Common Core — the new standards go into effect this fall — the LIU began offering help to districts in developing new curriculum that will fulfill the standards.
Depth but not breadth
Aside from many math concepts being taught a grade earlier, the most obvious change in moving to Common Core may be a narrowing of what is taught, while exploring individual topics more completely.
“There seems to be a lot more depth with Common Core, but not as much breadth,” Hazleton Area Superintendent Francis Antonelli said. “So you have fewer topics or concepts being taught, but those particular concepts are more fully explored.
That may fix an issue with old state standards, Antonelli said. “I think one of the problems that Pennsylvania had with the old academic standards was that they had too many. We have a lot more than most other states I think establishing a more concise focus on what we expect our students to be able to do seems to be a move in the right direction.”
Common Core should make it easier to teach students in districts with high transient populations; With different standards in different states, a student could arrive from another state whiteout having learned something in a certain grade that students here already mastered, putting them at a disadvantage.
“I think it may eliminate that variability and those curriculum discrepancies,” Antonelli said.
Covert agreed, suggesting that adopting Common Core Standards can make it easier to teach increasingly diverse student populations because it provides more ways to engage students and gauge their progress.
“You can do more differentiated instruction,” she said. A recently arrived foreign student who is still learning English may prove he understands a lesson by, say, “drawing a picture,” while a gifted student may develop a web page.
“Every teacher is still responsible for making sure students master the same content,” Covert said. “It’s how you get there that’s different.”
But the concern of losing more local control remains. Dallas Superintendent Frank Galicki, who said his district has had no problems adapting to the new standards, said Common Core, intentionally or not, makes it easier to adopt other “common” education requirements.
“If you’re looking at a national set of standards, maybe we should be looking at a national teaching certificate,” Galicki said. It would mean less state control, but it would eliminate an existing problem: Currently, teaching certificates are useless when crossing state borders unless the states have a reciprocity agreement to recognize each other’s certifications.
Even though Common Core is voluntary, “it kind of opens up some other doors,” Galicki said. “Do we look at a national graduation test? That would take away some fundamental responsibilities of the states in determining what they feel is most important.”
But Benso believes the emphasis needs to be on clear benefits, not on potential pitfalls.
“We graduate far too many children in Pennsylvania and nationally that can’t go into the military, college or jobs because they haven’t mastered the skills needed,” she said. “We think that’s the most unfair and unjust thing you can do to a kid.”