Q. What is the Common Core?
A. “A sea change” for education
New standards known as the “Common Core” are coming to all Maryland schools next year, designed to ensure that future high school graduates are career and college ready. Whether the Common Core will succeed as intended is unknown, even as Harford County Public Schools must prepare to implement the mandated new standards in all grades. New tests will soon follow.
Development of the Common Core State Standards was led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, to create a single set of expectations for what students should learn in grades K – 12. According to the Common Core Web site, the standards are research and evidence based, and informed by practices in top performing countries. Adoption of the standards has been voluntary for the states, with 45 signed on thus far, aided by billions in funding incentives from the federal Race to the Top program.
Among the first in line to adopt the Common Core was the Maryland Board of Education, which approved the standards in 2010. Statewide implementation is set for the 2013-14 school year, via a state-mandated curriculum in math and reading/English/language arts.
Unlike the current state curriculum, which set minimum expectations, the new curriculum will be “clear, focused and rigorous”, said Dr. Susan Brown of HCPS, who is leading the local implementation. Harford County students can expect “increased opportunities for problem solving, increased engagement in complex text, and increased rigor in daily lessons”, she said.
The Harford County Board of Education got a closer look at the Common Core, in a presentation by Dr. Brown and other senior staff at a board meeting on March 11. A link to full presentation, including sample problems, appears below.
Following the presentation, Board Member James Thornton called the Common Core “a sea change” for K-12 education.
In math, rigor shifts to a combination of conceptual understanding (why the math works); fluency in basic skills; and application (solving real life problems and checking to make sure the answer makes sense), said Sarah Morris, HCPS math supervisor.
Responding to a question from Board President Rick Grambo, Morris said that it was not yet known whether HCPS would continue using Everyday Math, a controversial program developed by the University of Chicago. Asked a similar question by The Dagger prior to the Board meeting, Dr. Brown said that Every Day Math would continue “for the immediate future.”
The Common Core also shifts toward informational texts, said Kristine Scarry, HCPS supervisor of reading, English and language arts. The shift in English includes literary non-fiction such as memoirs and historical documents, but Scarry said it will also be seen in classes like science and social studies.
When asked about the relative emphasis on phonics, grammar and cursive handwriting in the Common Core vs. the current curriculum, Dr. Brown provided the following response to The Dagger:
“Phonics is included in the Foundational Skills of the Reading Standards in the Common Core. The foundational skills focus on the ability to know and apply grade level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words. Grammar is addressed under the Language Standards of the Common Core.
The Common Core Standards do not specifically address cursive handwriting. The state review of the Common Core identified second grade as the year when students show the ability to produce writing that is legible, including the correct formation of cursive letters.”
Along with the new curriculum will come new tests – and more of them. Currently in development by a multi-state consortium known as “Partnership of Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers” (PARCC), four periodic tests are tentatively planned during the school year, said Superintendent Robert Tomback. The earliest two tests would be diagnostic and therefore useful for teachers, he said. The third test would be equivalent to a mid-term, he said, with a final exam at the end of the year.
The new PARCC tests will eventually replace the Maryland State Assessment (MSA). However, due to a lag between implementation of the new curriculum next year and administration of the PARCC tests a year later, students will take the MSA during the transition; a mismatch that Tomback deemed “awkward.”
Support, With Caveats
Noting that many high school graduates need remedial classes in college, Board Member Thornton asked, “Have we somehow been able to validate that all this is going to work?” Tomback said that won’t be measured until the new tests are administered. Tomback added that the new tests will be more accurate in determining college readiness.
Board Vice President Nancy Reynolds, a former Bel Air principal, lauded the rigor of the new standards and was joined by other Board members, including the student representative, Panashe Mutombo. However, Reynolds said that she was concerned about the additional tests taking time away from teaching.
Board President Rick Grambo, a frequent critic of state and federal mandates, said , “I’m not necessarily sold on the Common Core” but, he praised the staff, telling them, “I know you’re going to maximize the potential of this and be as successful as we possibly can.”
Support, with caveats also came from Ryan Burbey, president of the teachers’ union. Responding via email, Burbey said of the Common Core: “It encourages critical thinking, as well as analytic reading and writing. It deemphasizes teaching of skills in isolation. I don’t really see a drawback except the cost of implementation and adaptation.” However, Burbey said he doesn’t think teachers have had enough training, and budget constraints have limited the school system’s ability to buy necessary materials. Burbey concluded, “This will be a difficult transition.”
On the national front, the Common Core has been the subject of some debate:
To hear from supporters, including educators and organizations representing government, business and parents, the Common Core Web site has assembled an extensive list:
An expert review of the math standards, both pro and con, can be found here, including an insider’s view on the development of the Common Core.
An overarching criticism by former U.S. assistant secretary of education Diane Ravich can be found here. In the following excerpt, she cites a lack of field testing to determine if the Common Core will succeed as intended: “We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time… Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?”
To assist parents in understanding the new standards, National PTA partnered with Common Core experts to create a summary of what students will learn by the end of each grade. The summary is linked on the HCPS Web site and can also be found here.
A link to the March 11th presentation to the School Board can be found here.