Education Matters: Common Core — A Parents' Primer

common-coreWhile you've been enjoying these last precious days of summer vacation, your intrepid education reporter has been busily learning everything she can about the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which have been heralded as "the most important education reform in the nation's history."

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have adopted these grade-level academic standards for English/language arts and math.

Depending on what you've been reading, you might think a national set of academic standards is a good thing; or you may have concluded new standards herald a further erosion of our beleaguered public school system.

More likely, if you're a parent, you are confused by the jargon and the scare tactics and want to know how you and your child will be impacted by this change.

If you are a Seattle parent following the difficult contract negotiations between Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the Seattle Education Association (SEA), you may be wondering how Common Core-aligned standardized tests relate to teacher evaluations. Here's the nitty gritty:

What is Common Core?

Common Core is a set of national K–12 grade-level standards in language arts and math that will be used in almost every state. The idea is that a third-grader in Arkansas or Massachusetts will be expected to master the same academic standards as a third-grader in Washington State.

Common Core standards were developed collaboratively by education experts throughout the United States. They are internationally benchmarked and are aligned with college and work expectations. The set of standards place a greater emphasis on reading and understanding informational texts across disciplines, including science, social studies and technical subjects.

How will Common Core standards be implemented in Washington State?

This is the first year Washington State classrooms will see full implementation of Common Core. That means teachers have to adapt their lesson plans to fit the new standards.  In some instances, these new standards go deeper into the subject material than before. This new level of rigor will be an adjustment for students and for parents and will require teacher training and, in some cases, the introduction of new instructional materials.

It’s important to understand that these are “standards,” not a curriculum. Teachers and school districts still have the freedom to design lesson plans that best meet the needs of their students. The standards guide what students are expected to learn in each grade. We’ve had state-designed, grade-level academic standards before.  Common Core just refines them and makes them consistent with what other states are doing.

What about testing?

In the 2014–2015 school year, we’ll be transitioning to a new state standardized test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which will be aligned to the Common Core standards.

Testing is part of the controversy surrounding the Seattle teachers' contract. Though standardized tests are an already agreed-upon portion of the teacher evaluation system, SEA wants the testing portion suspended until  teachers have had a chance to work with and develop curriculum for the Common Core standards. Since there is a one-year delay between Common Core implementation and use of the new Smarter Balanced test, teachers don't want to be evaluated based on the current standardized tests that don't match the new standards.

Common Core has been controversial, especially since New York City released results from its first round of Common Core assessments, in which the number of students deemed “proficient” dropped significantly from standardized test results in years past.

The New York City test results have certainly fueled the national debate on education. Some say the Common Core standards are too rigorous and the Smarter Balanced assessment is too difficult; others say these test results demonstrate that our kids have not been adequately prepared academically and that it's good to raise the bar for all students. Since teacher evaluations will be tied to student growth measures, including standardized tests, there is concern that teachers will be negatively impacted if test scores drop.

In Washington, we need to hold our government and education leaders accountable for a smooth, well-thought-out transition and implementation process, one that makes sure our teachers receive adequate professional development and have the materials they need to adapt curriculum. Follow the experiences of other states ahead of us in this transition and learn from their successes and mistakes.  And keep parents informed.

So, is Common Core a good thing?

I think so. Having a consistently applied national set of academic standards means students who move from state to state won’t risk missing learning important concepts or repeating material they’ve already learned in another grade, in another state.

Increasing the level of academic rigor for all students in the U.S. is important to adequately prepare them for 21st century jobs in the global economy. Teaching them to closely read and interpret a variety of materials is a crucial tool for college and career readiness.

Adrienne Minnery, a first-grade teacher at Adams Elementary School in Seattle, says she and her colleagues have spent much of the summer adapting their teaching materials to fit the Common Core standards. Designing lessons with a clear end goal in mind is a welcome departure from having to teach from a prescribed curriculum.  This new approach allows teachers to use their expertise and creativity to benefit students.

"Before, it felt like the car was driving the driver, " Minnery explained. "Now it feels like the teacher is the driver."

Where can parents go to learn more about Common Core?

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education has a variety of tools and information, including answers to frequently asked questions, on its website.

Check your local school district website for further details of how Common Core is being implemented in your area.

Also, the organization Stand for Children provides a Common Core toolkit for parents and community members.

If, like me, you find yourself fascinated by Common Core and what it could mean for public education, but wonder about implementation, take a look at this article on Treating Common Core Syndrome.

Still want more? In October, Harvard Education Press will publish Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice, a book which argues that the Common Core can transform teaching, and that such transformation is completely within reach for educators.

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