Common Core: What is it anyway?

Common Core: What is it anyway?

“Stop fed ed.” “Rotten to the core.”

These have become battle cries of opponents of the Common Core State Standards, a national list of school benchmarks for K-12 students set to go into full effect in the 2013-2014 school year in Maryland.

The standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, aim to make students better prepared for college and careers by setting clear goals for reading, writing, speaking and listening, language and mathematics in school.

So, what’s the problem with Common Core? Tea Partiers, disgruntled parents and some teachers oppose what they see as increased centralization and teaching to the test. They also say schools’ technology lags behind what’s needed to assess the standards.

Throughout much of this back-and-forth between proponents and opponents, however, not much has been said about what Common Core actually is.

Like other standardized testing, including that imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, Common Core lists benchmarks that students in grades K-12 should reach each year. Where Common Core diverges from this previous path is that more nonfiction and informational texts will join students’ reading lists alongside traditional literature. In mathematics, fewer topics will be covered at each grade level, with teachers delving deeper into content.

Although debate over its introduction has become angrier in recent months, Maryland adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010. The state also began a program in summer 2011 to help transition to a new curriculum based on the goals.

A group of teachers and the principal from each of the state’s almost 1,500 public schools attended three-day Educator Effectiveness Academies led by the Maryland Department of Education in summers 2011 and 2012 and will go again this year to prepare for Common Core.

Worcester County Board of Education members are careful to distinguish between the standards set by Common Core and the curriculum being developed to meet them for Worcester’s 6,650 students in its 14 public schools.

While the standards set uniform English and Math proficiency goals nationwide, states and localities are charged with helping students realize them. To put it another way, the federal government might have set the goals for students, but it is up to the states and local districts to determine how to get them there.

“You can put a standard out there, but unless you have a teacher to implement it, it does no good,” said President of the Worcester County Board of Education Robert Rothermel Jr.

The year it adopted the Common Core standards, Maryland joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a group of 22 states working to develop a set of assessments based on the goal of preparing students for college and careers.

“There’s a real advantage of having standards across the states,” said Superintendent of Worcester County Public Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson.

With a uniform set of goals, schools can compare testing results and share common resources, he said.

“This would give us a way to look at student progress state-to-state,” Wilson said, highlighting school systems that test especially well “so we can learn about how they’re getting those results.” Lower-scoring schools could then adapt those successful teaching techniques to fit their own programs.

Standardizing goals across state lines will also boost resource sharing between schools, Wilson said. For example, Maryland has developed an online bank for teachers to share materials.

Critics of Common Core, however, say the homogenization of school standards is not the best way to prepare students for life after high school.

The Maryland-based Education Freedom Committee, formed this spring partly in response to Common Core, agrees with that assessment, according to its executive vice president, Jason Laird.

“The standardization and the ‘one-size-fits-all’ (approach) across an entire country as large and diverse as ours seems like a bad idea,” he said.

Different students learn at different paces and in different ways, and standardized testing stifles innovation and creativity, Laird said. Instead of federal standards, he proposed decentralizing education to the state or local levels to improve learning.

“Uniformity and conformity — that is the goal” of Common Core, Laird said. Students “may not be interested in learning if that’s what learning is.”

Some teachers are also concerned that changes in standardized testing anchored in the new Common Core standards could reflect poorly on their performance and the schools.

The Baltimore Teacher’s Union, echoing a cry by the American Federation of Teachers, called for a moratorium on penalties associated with the new Common Core assessments as schools adjust to the standards.

A Maryland State Education Association survey of 540 teachers in early May found that more than two-thirds of respondents said they do not feel adequately prepared for the new evaluation system. Close to the same number said they do not feel sufficiently prepared to implement the standards set by Common Core.

One change Worcester County schools are addressing is the lagging technology needed to shift from pencil-and-paper testing to web-based standardized tests. They asked the county for $30,000 to increase their Internet bandwidth and $200,000 for additional hardware, Wilson said.

When asked whether concerns over the Common Core standards are justified, Special Programs and Public Relations Director for the Worcester County Board of Education Barbara Witherow said, “I’ll give you an example of a recent Common Core program and let you be the judge.”

Snow Hill Elementary School art teacher Cindy Sullivan developed the idea based on a monster book her students were reading, Mercer Mayer’s “There’s a Nightmare in my Closet.” She had her kindergarteners create two-dimensional monsters using shapes and colors they learned in class.

The drawings traveled to Snow Hill High School, where students used them to create three-dimensional dolls. The dolls then went to Worcester Technical High School’s interactive media production class, where students designed packaging that would be used to market the dolls.

“That mimics real-life business,” Witherow said.

While the Common Core guidelines apply across state lines, Worcester County schools are “taking the spirit of … the standards — and how and why they evolved — and putting the meat on them,” Witherow said.

“What really matters is the local school board and the dedication of our teachers,” Rothermel said.

Witherow invited those who are concerned about the implementation of the Common Core standards to volunteer in the schools and observe what’s happening in Worcester County classrooms.

To learn more about the Common Core State Standards, visit

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