This opinion piece appears in the Wednesday edition of the Concord Monitor. It tries to talk about the Common Core from a little different direction than we usually do. I’m looking forward to doing many more in the Monitor.
This is the first article in an occasional series on New Hampshire public education.
Writing education standards is hard. The debates about what we should teach our children are endless. But so are the issues facing American education. Too many of our students graduate from high school unable to read well enough or do the math they need in college or work. There are surely many reasons. Some, like the fact that low-income children start out behind and never catch up, are tough, long-term problems.
But there are other, obvious challenges that we can do something about.
For instance, how many times do you want your child to be taught fractions? My answer is, “Once, thoroughly.” But most of our students get taught fractions two or more times. The fifth-grade teacher probably starts at the beginning of the math book and gets as far as possible by the end of the year. Some students keep up, some get bored because they could go faster and some fall behind, but she keeps going because the curriculum covers a lot.
Since the sixth-grade teacher doesn’t know what her incoming students know, she’ll review all that, and your sixth-grader will be taught fractions again – and again. And maybe never get good at fractions.
Another obstacle to real learning is that very few children stay in the same school for long. Low-income and minority children move the most. A federal study in 1994 showed that fully 40 percent of third-graders had changed schools since the first grade. Many had moved twice. Groveton High School in New Hampshire’s North Country had a 30 percent turnover just between September and January this year.
You’ve just scrambled that fifth-grade class with an eggbeater. Some students are coming from states with good schools and some from poor schools, but seldom with the same academic preparation.
Educators have been trying for a generation to set standards that would make their curricula more consistent from grade to grade and among schools to solve these two problems so that we could set high expectations for our students and allow them to learn each topic thoroughly once.
Then, seven years ago, the governors for 45 states set up a project to jointly develop goals for what students should know and be able to do in math and English by the end of each grade, leaving it to the states to develop curricula that fit their students. Teachers and experts from all over the country, including more than 200 New Hampshire teachers, worked on what became the Common Core State Standards.
The new standards enable that fifth-grade teacher to focus on fractions in a way that allows her to challenge the fast learners while giving others extra help when they need it. And she can assure the sixth-grade teacher that her students, regardless of where they have come from, are ready to move on.
But she’s creating her own lesson plans based on a locally developed curriculum while achieving goals shared by states across the country. That’s the sweet spot the Common Core standards managed to hit.
Virtually all New Hampshire school districts now build their curricula around the Common Core. Teachers are in various stages of incorporating the standards into their day-to-day lesson plans, and the results they’ve seen have led to broad support among educators.
Politically, it’s another matter. Conservatives are concerned about federal overreach because the Obama administration made clear that adopting high educational standards would enhance states’ applications for federal funds and the Common Core was a safe way to do that (though non-Common Core states were also funded).
Some liberals have been concerned that Bill Gates both funded the development of the standards and has promoted linking high stakes for teachers to students’ test scores. They see the new standards as a Trojan horse for punitive testing policies.
Some states, like New York, have indeed made a mess of their Common Core effort by introducing destructive high-stakes testing at the same time, tying teachers’ jobs and pay to test results immediately, even though it will be years before we start seeing the real results in what students learn.
But in New Hampshire, the annual assessments are no-stakes initially and can remain low stakes over time, depending on local school district policy.
The political debate will continue in the media, but the educational debate is all but settled in New Hampshire classrooms.
Wendy Mahoney, reading specialist at Derry’s Barka Elementary School, told visitors recently, “The new standards allow us to personalize education. . . . I have never seen results like this.”
Her colleague, fifth-grade teacher Julie Hall, said, “The standards have rejuvenated us to teach at a higher level.”
(Bill Duncan of New Castle is the founder of the advocacy group Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.)