Schools roll out Common Core: A primer on what really changes and whether it will last

CINCINNATI – Ready or not, Common Core standards are in full swing this school year in Ohio. The state joins Kentucky and 41 others that have implemented the guidelines meant to make U.S. students better prepared for college and the working world.

Since Ohio lawmakers approved of the standards in 2010, school districts have spent millions of dollars retraining teachers and buying new textbooks and other learning resources.

What really changes with Common Core? A lot, it turns out.

This fall, students from kindergarten through high school will take new standardized tests in math and language arts administered by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC , comprising a dozen states and the District of Columbia.

The change has generated passionate opposition from some conservative groups who see it as a federal takeover of education. The Obama administration further raised suspicions of federal meddling when it embraced Common Core and helped states that won Race for the Top education dollars to pay for its implementation.

Indiana was one of the first states to adopt Common Core standards but repealed and replaced them with standards crafted by Indiana educators last spring after tea party groups and others decried the standards as having been developed with too little local input.

In reality, Republican and Democratic governors, through the National Governor's Association, in 2009 developed Common Core in collaboration with state education officials, academics and business groups in response to American students falling behind many of their peers in European and Asian nations.

Kentucky was the first state to adopt the standards, and is entering its fourth year using the standards. Early results  are generally positive. College and career readiness jumped to 54 percent in 2013 from 34 percent in 2010, according to state education department figures, but leaders expressed frustration at the slower pace of improvement in reading and math.

"Overall, the math and reading scores in grade 3 through 8 and high school did go up, but the concerns we have is they did not go up fast enough," Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said. "We anticipated when we implemented Common Core standards it would take three to five years for teachers and students to get ready, to catch up, because these standards were much more rigorous than what we previously had."

The standards set new expectations for what students from kindergarten through high school are expected to know in English and math. Common Core standards were only developed for math and English. Separately, Ohio also revised state standards  for science, social studies, fine arts, world languages, and several other subjects.

School districts decide for themselves how to teach to those standards. They retain control over what books and lesson plans are used. But students are expected to be proficient in reading, writing and math skills set by Common Core.

"Just about everything has changed," said Trisha Funk, a fourth-grade math teacher at West Elementary in Fairfield and a 25-year teaching veteran. "The structure of the class, the way we evaluate, the delivery. It's all because of the increased expectations we have for our students."

She still teaches students multiplication and division as she has in the past, but lessons deal with larger numbers and deeper decimals. Instead of merely writing down the sum in an equation, students have to explain how they come to their conclusions, part of the effort to encourage critical thinking development.

Funk's students apply math it to real-life situations. Before Common Core, when her students learned about determining the area within an object or the size of its perimeter, they might have been asked to do simple calculations.

In a recent example of the beefed-up model, her students were given a problem that showed some but not all of the dimensions of a park. They had to determine the size of the missing dimensions before having the information they needed to find the park's area and perimeter. They were told the park had 10 deer per square mile and asked how many deer were in the park– a figure they could only determine after finding the park's square mileage and multiplying.

But Funk is ambivalent about the rigor of the new standards. "I am concerned. I guess I see it from both sides. There's nothing wrong with increasing standards, but we might be pushing too hard. I think it's too early to tell."

Like many teachers and parents, she worries about over-testing. "We are pushing our children a whole lot, and they're feeling the pressure, especially with the number of standardized tests they have to take," she said.

Funk's fourth graders have to take five standardized tests a

year, including the two-part math and English tests and the social studies test.

"I end up having to find ways to get them to relax. If I mention the word test, you can see them tense up," she said.

At Fairfield Senior High School, Corey Simmins said it's been a big adjustment teaching AP Literature and other classes to juniors and seniors. The English department chairman and 17-year teaching veteran said he primarily taught American and British literature before Common Core. Now, Brit Lit has been replaced by world literature, with an emphasis on introducing students to a much broader array of cultures and characters.

Instead of "Jane Eyre," students might read "The Kite Runner," about a boy in Afghanistan who witnesses the tumult in his country from the fall of the monarchy, Soviet occupation and the rise of the Taliban.

"It's branching out in that regard. And it's stuff that we (veteran teachers) haven't really studied," Simmins said. "When we got wild in college, maybe we studied French literature or maybe Russian."

He said students are required to do more speaking in front of the class to develop their interpersonal communication skills and to work in groups on projects more often – both ways to pattern school more after real-world workplaces for white-collar workers.

But not all students are headed for white-collar jobs, and Simmins is charged with tailoring multiple lesson plans within each class – one for college-bound students, one for technical-school students, and one for those who may pursue jobs right out of high school.

"They want you to cater your lessons three different ways, appeal to all three groups," he said.

It's been a challenge for veteran teachers to make the big changes.

"Incessant use of data, data mining, it feels a bit of alien with the older teachers. Younger guys come out (of education programs) speak the lingo, but for the guys my age and older it is kind of different," he said.

This year's standardized tests will not reflect on school and student performance in a nod toward easing the transition for them, but the 2015-16 tests will count – unless Common Core detractors have their way.

House Bill 597  seeks to repeal Ohio's use of Common Core standards after this year and replace them for two years with standardized tests based on Massachusetts' pre-Common Core tests. In three years – 2017-18 – those tests would be replaced with new tests developed by Ohio.

That turnover in tests prompted Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Dayton Republican and chair of the senate education committee, to send out a rare tweet (her 14th ever). "OMG ..three sets of standards in four years! They have to be kidding.‪#CommonCore," she tweeted during a hearing on the bill on Aug. 18.

Reps. Andy Thompson, of Lima, and Matt Huffman, of Marietta, both Republicans, introduced the repeal-and-replace bill.  “Ohio's students deserve high standards that are proven to work, and the peace of mind that their privacy will be protected throughout the course of their education," Thompson said.

“Americans view Common Core as an intrusion by the federal government into a very personal matter: the education of their children,” Rep. Huffman said. “This bill will work to address their concerns in order to find a solution.”

The repeal's fate is far from certain in the state Senate and if it gets that far, in the governor's hands. Gov. John Kasich, who has supported Common Core, addressed the issue when he visited Cincinnati on Aug. 19. "There is a lot of misinformation. I welcome the hearings because if something emerges here that tells me something that is not true, then I'm concerned because I don't want to erode local control," he said. "I'm glad the House is looking at it. Let's open it up and let people hear what is going on with this thing and get all the facts on the table."

Kasich added that a state legislator who was opposed to Common Core came to talk to him "all fired up. I asked him what the problem was, and by the end of the conversation, he didn't have a problem."

The possibility of repealing the standards after three years of preparation has caused many statewide groups to rally to Common Core's defense, including the Buckeye Association of School Administrators; the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, and the Ohio School Board Association, which held a joint press conference in the statehouse attended by WCPO.

A series of superintendents testified to the importance of staying the course after deep investments in tax dollars and time. Robert Hill, superintendent of Firelands Local Schools in Lorain County, said his district devoted 1,571 professional days and $117,000 in local dollars to retraining teachers. "It is unconscionable that House Bill 597 has the potential to undo this," he said. 

"To get from where we were in 2010 to where we are today was a long journey," BASA Director Kirk Hamilton said. "If we change course, that's a generation of students who miss out and a generation of educators that we're going to have to work

real hard to convince that the next set of standards aren't subject to the same process."

The standards are supported by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which pushed for Ohio and other states to adopt them. Chad Aldis, Fordham's vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy, told WCPO that Tea Party groups and other conservatives began opposing Common Core in large numbers because Obama got on board after the bipartisan governors group had created the standards.

"When Obama came into office, he got behind it, made it part of Race to the Top.  It got supercharged by federal dollars and federal engagement, and that's where criticism comes from," he said.

Whether more states follow Indiana's lead and repeal Common Core may hinge on where the debate is focused. "When the debate goes on to things that are about conspiracies, that's where the opposition stems," Aldis said.

"When you actually sit down and analyze the standards, opposition tends to be diminished," he said. "As a parent myself, there was nothing in there that I didn't think my child should know," he said.

Lani Wildow, director of curriculum and instruction for Fairfield City Schools, said her district's teachers were very involved in crafting new lesson plans to adhere to the new standards.

Asked about the prospect of repealing the standards, she said, "I guess from the sake of our kids my hope is to give them some stability. I don't think things switching up in the middle of things is a good idea," she said. "But I 'd also like to see some reasonableness in terms of the amount of testing we do. I would like to find that happy medium."

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