Common Core education standards leave many with unanswered questions
VERMONT — As districts across the state prepare for the new school year, educators and administrators are gearing up to continue the transition to the Common Core State Standards, a new approach to education that has been prompting changes in testing and classroom instruction in recent years.
Vermont, which adopted the Common Core in 2010, is among 44 other states and the District of Columbia overhauling their educational approach.
Yet despite the ubiquity of its implementation, a striking majority of Americans are unfamiliar with the Common Core, according to a national poll released by PDK/Gallup last Wednesday.
“Almost two of three Americans have never heard of the Common Core State standards, arguably one of the most important education initiatives in decades, and most of those who say they know about Common Core neither understand nor embrace it,” according to the poll’s accompanying report.
When reached for comment by the Independent, PDK/Gallup representatives said the poll did not have statistically significant data on a state-to-state basis, and could not speak to how the national numbers might compare to Vermont.
But Vermont’s Deputy Education Commissioner John Fischer said that he was unsurprised by the poll’s findings.
“Unfortunately, low public awareness and engagement around the Common Core is an issue we’ve been aware of,” Fischer said.
The issue, Fischer added, had been present among educators as well as parents and the general public. Beginning two years ago, the state Agency of Education has worked to increase awareness in its educators, and Fischer said the agency is aware that it must work to better engage a public that has little familiarity with the standards themselves.
“What Gallup (and PDK’s poll) really highlights is that we need to redouble our effort to get accurate information to the public,” Fischer said.
The Gallup polling organization and Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional society of educators, conducts a national education poll each year. This year’s 45th-annual poll ignited a firestorm of debate, as it became clear that just over one-third of the American public and one-half of those who had children in the public schools recognized the name of the standards that are overhauling the way classrooms are run across the country.
“I think people are aware that public education is in need of improvement,” Fischer said. “It’s as if you were to ask people, ‘Do you know what chocolate is?’ People would probably know what chocolate is, but they might not recognize a Hershey’s chocolate.”
The “chocolate” in Fischer’s metaphor is likely not public education in general, which has been approached in different ways since early schooling first became legally required at the turn of the last century, but rather the “standards-based” education reform movement that began much more recently.
The Common Core is the latest incarnation of an education reform movement that developed in the 1990s, which called itself the “accountability movement” and stressed mandatory testing and standardized curriculum that were intended to provide each public school student with a basic “core” of knowledge.
It touts discipline-specific principles like proficiency in “complex” literature, particularly non-fiction (by 12th grade, the Common Core recommends that students be assigned 70 percent non-fiction, including “informational texts” like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or the Declaration of Independence), and “problem solving” instead of rote memorization in mathematics. It also stresses an interdisciplinary approach, which its authors call “cross writing” across disciplines, meant to encourage teachers and students to make connections and apply knowledge in the real world. How those standards are applied in the classroom is not set in stone.
Fischer said the agency hears from teachers all the time who know the standards but need a better idea of how to implement them in the classroom in practice. This year, the agency is launching “very deliberate outreach and trainings” to help teachers create instructional models that can be used in the classroom, he said.
Local superintendent David Adams, of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, explained that education was a “state’s responsibility” to implement, and would vary state-to-state as well as district-to-district.
Adams, whose tenure at the ANeSU began last September, noted that understanding the design and implementation of Common Core meant recognizing the multitude of organizations and agencies involved in the design and implementation of the wide-reaching reform.
“A lot of people don’t understand how these organizations intersect,” he said.
But he added that Vermont, due to its participation with the New England Common Assessment Program, had been working toward offering a more uniform and assessments-based curriculum across a region, putting it ahead of what some other states, operating on their own, were able to offer students.
That is a good thing, as far as proponents of the Common Core are concerned. The underlying assumption of the approach is that every pupil should be proficient at a certain level across disciplines, and the goal of the reform is to implement those standards as completely as possible, across the board.
If teachers and schools fail to meet standards, demonstrated by student test results, their school goes into a “corrective action” phase until the school can demonstrate students’ success on the tests. Data-based assessment is, again, a logical method if one accepts that a uniform curriculum results in uniformly knowledgeable students and graduates.
Interestingly, the Gallup/PDK poll indicates that most Americans do not accept that assumption about standardized testing. According to the poll, the majority of Americans believe that testing has actually hurt the public schools, or made no difference, and 60 percent opposed using test scores to evaluate teachers, a common tactic of standards-based education reform.
Adams felt as though the Gallup numbers were not particularly pertinent to Vermont.
“Everyone in our school district is aware of the Common Core,” Adams said. “I would predict that the numbers would be different from the Gallup poll.”
Superintendent John Castle of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union disagreed with Adams’ assessment, saying he did not believe that the public was well informed about the standards in a substantive way, even if they recognized it by name.
“Awareness is a relative term,” Castle said. “I would say that very few people in the public are, in any way, truly aware of the Common Core standards.”
Tom O’Brien, of the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, echoed Castle, saying that while he believes most families in his district were aware that changes are aß∑foot, the lack of public knowledge did not surprise him “in the least.”
O’Brien said that the new standards would cause significant changes.
“Parents should know it’s going to ask a lot more of the kids, and certainly more of teachers and administrators,” O’Brien said. “It absolutely will change the curriculum, at least to some degree.”
Castle said he finds it most helpful to think of the Common Core as a guideline or framework, one that stresses high standards but does not replace or supersede the high standards and hard work that schools and teachers have engaged students with for years.
“It is really not something that is revolutionizing the way we look at teaching and learning,” he said. “In my opinion, there are far more important and progressive developments in the way we think of learning right now, like personalization and project-based learning.”
Castle is concerned, however, that the approach favors data-based accountability in ways that ignore the needs of individual students, and that set a bar that is “not realistic or not indicative of the type of learning that some students need.” He worried that strict accountability systems, like the Smarter Balance Assessment that Vermont is due to adopt in 2015, would produce data that shows students and schools are failing.
At its best, he said, the Common Core is “an opportunity” to assess public education.
“The Common Core is, in a sense, effecting some of the shifts,” Castle said, “but it is just part of a larger process.”
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