Eventually the national controversy about the Common Core State Standards adopted by 45 states for K-12 schools will die down. Before long all the best schools will be cheerfully applying them, even if they call them something else.
In Louisiana, even as some politicians draft legislation to back away from the more rigorous grade-level standards, many New Orleans educators are already teaching in new ways. Over time, old ways of instruction that emphasized quantity over quality, memorization over understanding and teacher-focused drills over student interaction will be all but forgotten.
“We are moving forward with Common Core,” says Kirsten Feil, director of Academic Support for FirstLine Schools, an organization that operates six charter schools in New Orleans. “We get to make our own decisions about whether to continue.”
Most New Orleans schools are charters these days, which operate semi-independently. They are able to ignore the ruckus over standards at the state and national level, and continue planning for the inevitable. The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has agreed to slow down some of the more stressful aspects of the new standards to satisfy reasonable objections to testing consequences. But so far, state education leaders and State Education Superintendent John White are standing firm on their belief that higher standards are necessary in the long run.
Even Gov. Bobby Jindal, who’s thought to have national political ambitions, has shown consistent support for the kind of rigorous standards that compose Common Core. He has been widely reported in the media opposing any nationally mandated curriculum, but since the standards evolved from a cooperative effort among state governors and are implemented at the district and school level, the qualification is a moot point.
Jindal’s comments about not supporting a “federalized” academic curriculum stem from the blooding that Common Core has taken from neo-anti-federalists. In some ultra conservative quarters, the word “federal” is synonymous with “evil,” not a word deriving from “federalism,” the founding principle of state and national power sharing that created the globe’s only superpower.
The Common Core Standards were spearheaded by the National Governors Association and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia of their own free will, but when the U.S. Department of Education got too chummy with them after the fact, they suddenly took on an atomic glow. In St. Tammany Parish, NOLA.com reported in October, opponents calling the standards an “anti-American, anti-God curriculum” received enthusiastic applause at a school board meeting.
Such venom spooks some Republican governors. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer tried renaming the standards to soften opposition, but according to Arizona news reports, the effectiveness of that strategy is iffy.
The standards’ giant leap to critical thinking and problem solving across the curriculum, at the same time teachers face other stressful reforms, has also caused alarm at the school level.
Preliminary testing based on the Common Core in other states resulted in lower student test scores. The same results in Louisiana could cause schools’ overall performance ratings to take a nosedive. Recent adjustments to testing policies, however, provide protections against academic sanctions for the first few years of implementation.
BESE and the DOE have responded to district and teacher concerns with a number of initiatives to make the transition easier. For example, paper and pen testing will continue for students whose schools haven’t yet prepared them for taking tests on computers. In January, the DOE also posted a notice on its website that quoted White promising “as much support as possible to districts.” Among other initiatives, the DOE promised to train 4,000 teacher leaders to “re-deliver” training.
Officials and many schools are moving forward with the standards because they were developed for good reasons: Researchers say that the typical high school graduate’s skill level is one to two years below what’s needed to succeed in college. The gap between current high school expectations and college expectations explains why so many first-semester college freshmen end up in remedial classes or flunk out.
American students also lag behind many of their international counterparts in academic achievement. Students in the small Eastern European country of Hungary do better in math and science than U.S. students, a 2012 Harvard University study found, and students in China and Japan far outpace U.S. performance.
The study, reported by the Huffington Post last year, said American students taking international tests scored 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading.
And Louisiana students still score in the lowest ranks on national standardized tests. Last year, only 75 percent of the state’s fourth graders scored basic or above in math and only 26 percent scored proficient or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. National Center of Education Statistics data show that most states scored better. For example, 84 percent of Texas’ fourth graders scored basic and 41 percent reached proficient or above in math.
Common core standards are designed to bridge the achievement gaps nationally and internationally.
“We have seen a lot of change in math,” says Greta Anderson, a math instruction specialist and teacher at John Dibert Community School. “It’s really exciting.”
Math instruction geared to the Common Core is much more “hands-on,” Anderson says. For example, lesson plans include visual modeling exercises. Students examine a photograph of a structure, such as a staircase, and then write mathematical expressions to guide the construction of a matching model cut from foam.
The assignments are also discussion based, and students take turns critiquing the reasoning behind the methods chosen to solve the problems.
“I think our kids are going deeper in math,” Anderson says. “They are going to be better problems solvers.”