The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is an education initiative in the United States that details what K-12 students should know in English, language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. Note there are no standards for Science or Social Studies. The Common Core State Standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, essentially replaces state-by-state benchmark standards with one uniform guide about what skills a student should have at each grade level. For instance: all third-graders should know how to find the perimeter of a shape. How that skill is taught is up to each state, teacher and school. (See the Wikipedia entry on Common Core.)
My experiences as an elementary principal shaped my generally favorable opinion toward Common Core (though I have concerns about its implementation). My last school was located near Interstate 77 about twenty miles south of Charlotte. I can’t be sure its location increased the transiency of my students, but it seems so. One year the school had a change of over 40% of our students from August to June. Change happened at the start of a month or most frequently after holidays when we might have five or six new students enrolling and soon discover that we had also lost as many students.
We would find that our students might have missed the units of study on the Civil War that we had just completed. Or they had already completed the science unit on plants that grade one was about to start. Trying to reteach those students who had been present but had not mastered the material along with teaching those who had just enrolled with us created difficulties. This problem caused by student transience was helped somewhat when our school district began to coordinate curriculum guides and units of study across schools. At least within our district we usually had coordinated instruction. I often wished we had similar agreements within and across state lines to help those students who moved frequently.
Apparently the National Governors Association shared this desire for continuity for our students. In 2008, they convened a group to create a set of unified national education standards so that students moving across state lines would not find themselves passing math in one state and failing in another. The Council of Chief State School Officers (Superintendents) in 2009 joined them in seeking consistent education standards across the states. This latter group added the goal of ensuring that students graduating from high school would be prepared to successfully enter two or four year college programs or enter the workforce.
The Governor’s Association engaged a group called Student Achievement Partners to oversee writing the standards utilizing input from the states. The State School Officers added “a diverse team of teachers, parents, administrators, researchers and content experts who developed the CCSS to be academically rigorous, attainable for students, and practical for teachers and districts.” An expert validation committee supposedly provided an independent review of the standards. (Overview of the process.)
The minutes of both the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee (minutes in PDF) and the SC State Board of Education (minutes in PDF) during the first half of 2010 describe their discussions of and eventual vote to accept South Carolina’s participation in the Common Core. One member, a 20-year veteran of the military, supported the common standards because she had observed the problems military children faced with so many different systems. A report to the SC Education Oversight Committee stated that adoption of the Common Core “deepened what students are to learn, did not lower our current South Carolina state standards, and cultivated conceptual thinking.”
The then SC Superintendent of Education Jim Rex described the Common Core as a states-led effort and not a federal government initiative. In a phone conversation on January 21, 2014, former Superintendent Rex added that South Carolina had input into developing the standards in two ways. First, each state did not have to accept all of the national standards but could reserve 15% to be written specific to the emphases within each state. In addition, a delegation from each state was involved in actually writing and reviewing the standards. He remembered there being over 90 educators from South Carolina taking part over an 18 month period.
The Federal government did not write the Common Core or the assessments. Education is a right reserved to the states. Therefore, the US Department of Education cannot designate the curriculum of the individual states. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded much of the writing of the standards as well as the planned yearly evaluations. Note that the Common Core Standards and the assessments are separate. The assessments had to be newly written to tie into the standards and were written by two groups; Smarter Balanced or PARCC. States signed on for one or the other which will be computer based. The old state tests, such as SC’s PASS, no longer fit with the new standards. Field Testing the tests for Common Core will take place in the governing states from March to early June, 2014. South Carolina is listed as a governing state. However, numerous states have decided to stay with Common Core but write their own tests.
The Federal Government’s involvement in evaluating the quality of education provided by the states began under Bush’s initiative No Child Left Behind and continued under Obama’s Race to the Top. Under No Child Left Behind states were asked to agree to certain performance standards or risk sanctions and loss of federally allocated funds for certain programs. Under Race to the Top states were asked to agree to provide certain data on students AND teachers in order to qualify for federally allocated funds. SC has not taken part in the Race to the Top applications.
Common Core sets the skills needed in language arts and math by students at each grade. It does not specify how these skills should be taught. For example, a first-grade reader should be able to use a story’s pictures and details to describe its characters. In math, a first-grade student should be able to add and subtract, and in third grade to multiply and divide. A fifth-grader should be able to compare and contrast two characters from a story. Teachers still design their own lessons to teach these skills. The most important change is that students are required to use facts they have learned to solve problems. The standards specify that it is not enough to recall facts or do a math problem. Students have to explain how they got their answers. At the core of the standards is less memorization and more reasoning and critical thinking or higher-order thinking. Given our increasingly high tech society these analytic skills are crucial.
Even so, I have great concern about our students in kindergarten and first grades being required to take the Common Core. Their progress needs to be monitored frequently but in small individual evaluations such as running records by teachers with whom they have a relationship. In my opinion, they do not need to take extended computer based evaluations.
The Common Core represents a recognition and plan for dealing with the change in the skills needed by our students to compete in our information computer age world of today and tomorrow. Teachers have the challenge of becoming highly proficient in teaching critical thinking rather than just memory for facts and to teach the writing skills for more complicated answers than multiple choice offers. Our teacher training institutions must upgrade also.
I am opposed to the SC Common Core assessment (called Smarter Balanced Assessment) OR any single one-time test being used as the primary high-stakes tool to annually evaluate a particular teacher’s skills. Too many factors vary annually in the make-up of each year’s class of students and too many changes in the daily vicissitudes of a student’s life to think that teachers could ever be evaluated fairly on a test given on one day a year. Such would also disregard the stark differences in the socioeconomic statuses of different schools. However, I do think we need to evaluate teachers and schools and that outcomes on the yearly test over several years should be part of the data considered.
In addition, the most effective teaching, especially at the elementary level, often requires team-work among a group of teachers. One member of the team may re-teach concepts missed by some of the students in a grade level, a second may move on with those ready to new material, while a third offers advanced enrichment to children who already understood the concept and are ready to expand their understanding. Thus assigning credit for advances in scores to single individuals makes little sense when teamwork is involved, and to assign salary differences based on arbitrary tests destroys cooperation.
In many ways the Common Core implementation is already well under way. Our state teachers have been learning the more rigorous teaching strategies required by the Common Core for the last two or three years. Certainly during this year most teachers across the state are using the new standards. The new tests that the students in SC are intended to begin taking in 2015 are based on the Common Core grade level standards. Since we are already teaching with the Common Core, the PASS tests we have taken for past five years are no longer relevant and cannot be used. These new tests will be administered via computer while the old tests were paper and pencil.
States already testing the new assessments have had drops in the scores of their students. The likelihood is that every state’s average test evaluation scores will drop for the next year or more. In my experience scores have dropped at first when we have changed state tests though not as much as reported by various states. However, these prior test changes did not require the rigorous upgrade in how teachers and students were being asked to teach and learn.
In the end, this shift in educational philosophy and practice should better prepare our South Carolina students to succeed wherever they go. More students will be ready to transition to college or will be work ready when they graduate from high school. In addition, the thinking and reasons skills associated with the Common Core State Standards will carry our students beyond their education toward success in whatever occupation they seek.