By Heather Mullinix
Like them or not, the Common Core State Standards are on their way to all Tennessee public school students. In Cumberland County, teachers have begun training and collaborating to help develop plans and materials to implement the new standards in their classrooms.
"The only way we'll survive common core is to work together," said Rebecca Wood, assistant director of curriculum, instruction and accountability, during the Oct. 5 work session of the Cumberland County Board of Education. "We need our fellow teacher in order to be successful. The biggest concern we have is our teachers don't feel quite prepared."
According to the Tennessee Department of Education, Common Core State Standards were developed to emphasize problem solving, creativity and critical thinking, with an emphasis on "real-world" skills in math, reading and writing. However, the standards have become a controversial topic in political arenas and schools, with complaints of taking away local control of schools and undermining public education.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, noted there had not been wide-spread field testing of the common core standards before they were adopted.
"Every successful innovation we've had in education, in my career, was field tested and teachers had a chance to try them out and make changes and improvements," Tollett said. "There's an arrogance about common core that's inexcusable. When is someone going to tell the people this is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on public education?"
Wood noted there were many concerns, but the common core standards were the standards the school system would be judged by in coming years.
"We're being tested on it and judged on it. These are the guidelines I have to live by," she said, noting there were portions of the standards that were good and made sense.
With the new standards comes a new assessment program, as well, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). That will be administered beginning in the 2014-'15 school year and will be given online.
Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, noted immense amounts of public funds were being spent with the testing agency and computer companies in order to implement the new testing program, which would be very different from any test students had been asked to take previously.
"Our test scores will all tank. That's going to feed into 'Public schools are failing. Let's make them all charter schools,'" he said.
Tollett noted New York had implemented the common core test this past year and only 31 percent of students passed. Other states were trying to educate the public on what is expected to happen with the new assessments.
"The American public is not going to tolerate this. I'm afraid they're going to blame the public schools when the public schools are the innocent victim of this takeover plot by corporate America," Tollett said. "We have to come to our sense as a nation and say, 'No more of this.' What is this, the third change in five years?"
To help prepare teachers, Wood said additional training was being provided and pacing guides worked on to ensure material was being covered. Also, it was important to help teachers have access to appropriate learning materials, as textbooks were not yet aligned to the new standards.
"With the change in common core, they're having to teach in ways they were not taught. When we went to school, in math, for instance, you did formulas because they were easy to do. You may not have known why you cross multiplied, but you were able to do the steps to get the right answers," Wood explained. "What we're having to do now is asking students to explain why. So we've got to back up and make sure they're prepared to teach that way."
Tollett said, "We've got human capital and social capital, the relationships among teachers where they can talk about what they're doing."
Wood agreed that it was important to provide those sharing opportunities and that was offered through Professional Learning Communities.
"We've seen some pockets of success and several schools trying innovative things to help students," Wood said.
Reading is an area of concern with the change to common core and based on results of the 2013 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results.
Ina Maxwell has worked with a committee of teachers to develop a guide for reading standards, helping teachers stay on track and covering the material needed at each grade level for kindergarten through 8th grade. Maxwell is a state trainer, teaching teachers across the region how to teach reading.
"For a lot of teachers, it's been a while since they've been back to school, so she goes over the strategies and the things we need to do to teach reading," Wood said.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, asked about how Accelerated Reading, a reading comprehension program used in all county schools, related to the reading curriculum. Wood explained AR was a practice tool to encourage students.
"AR is not the curriculum. It is a tool to encourage students to want to read to get that fluency. But, it is not our reading program," Wood said.
Gordon Davis, 5th District representative, said of common core, "It used to be teachers could implement things in their classrooms they thought was important and be creative. It's not like that anymore."
Across the elementary schools, only Pine View met its reading and math goals for 3-8, though the school missed targets in third-grade math and reading. Martin, Crab Orchard and Brown elementary schools all were identified as meeting 3-8 reading goals through "safe harbor," available when schools show significant growth toward their goals. The remaining elementary schools did not. In 3-8 math, Brown, Martin, North Cumberland, Pleasant Hill and Stone elementary schools all received "safe harbor" status.
When asked what Pine View was doing that might be different than other schools, Wood noted the school had a smaller population and had made reading a priority in the base year. The school's small size also made it easier for teachers at different grade levels to confer and provide better vertical planning, making sure the teachers are covering the foundational skills necessary for the next level.
At the high school level, Cumberland County High School and Stone Memorial High School both met their goals in algebra 1, while CCHS, SMHS and Phoenix met targets in algebra 2.
Wood noted the federal government is not able to collect any additional student data through common core than is already allowed by federal law. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, personally identifiable information cannot be legally sold or even released to anyone without parental consent. Only those with a valid educational interest, such as school and district employees working with the student, will have access to student information. The federal government does not have access to individual student data.
Forty-six states have adopted the standards, with implementation taking place this year. In many cases, adoption of the Common Core standards was tied to Race to the Top federal funds, of which Tennessee was one of the first recipients.