Common Core: Big change coming this year to Arkansas schools

National standards in math and English language arts are coming, but not from the federal government. Starting next school year, classroom expectations will become more focused, more rigorous, and more in-depth. In many cases, students will learn material earlier than they do now – sometimes much earlier. It’s the latest revolution in education, but it’s no fad. And it will change the way schools operate, whether they are ready or not.

Initiated in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core State Standards (Common Core) has already gained acceptance in the District of Columbia and in 43 states – including in Arkansas, where it was approved by the state Board of Education in July 2010.

The standards will be in place by 2014-15, but unlike some states, Arkansas is adopting a phased-in approach. The Common Core will make its first appearance in grades K-2 this August. Grades 3-8 will follow in 2012-13, while grades 9-12 will incorporate it into the curriculum in 2013-14. By the following school year, assessments will be in place in participating states.

Arkansas has been involved in many education reforms in the past, but this may be the most significant. Dr. Gayle Potter, who has seen her share of reforms come and go during her 20 years of serving as director of curriculum and assessment for the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE), said its size and scope are “sort of awe-inspiring.” Ron Harder, Arkansas School Boards Association policy and advocacy director, said, “It probably is the biggest thing to hit education in a very, very long time.” And Dr. Laura Bednar, who is managing the transition as ADE’s assistant commissioner for learning services, said, “I think it will be one of the best things that’s ever happened for education, not just in Arkansas but anywhere.”

What’s the big deal?
The Common Core addresses two major issues, the first being that today’s uneven state standards are ill-suited to a mobile society. At the classroom level, students who move across state lines often find themselves in a foreign academic environment. Such was the case after Hurricane Katrina, when schools in Arkansas had to swiftly incorporate an influx of Louisiana refugees, some of whom tested above their age groups and many who tested below. Some students even had to be moved into lower grades. The problem was further illustrated by No Child Left Behind, which requires all schools to produce proficient students but lets states define what that means, all with federal dollars at stake.

The other major issue that the Common Core seeks to address is what might be called the current standards’ “mile wide and inch deep” problem, where students cover a lot of material but learn too little. The new standards are more rigorous, with less material covered more thoroughly. Expectations are more clearly defined than in the current frameworks, and much of the material will be pushed downward so that students will be learning some subjects earlier – sometimes several grades earlier. In math, lessons involving fractions that currently are spread through grades 3-5 will be compressed into third grade, and algebra skills currently taught in ninth or 10th grade may be introduced as early as the sixth grade. According to Quentin Suffren, chief academic officer with The Learning Institute, an educational services company based in Hot Springs, eighth grade expectations for formal essays will be tougher than current expectations for high school seniors. High-quality literature will be stressed over popular or young adult literature. Particularly in older grades, nonfiction reading becomes more important than fiction. Students will read more about U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Bill of Rights, technical subjects and science, the thinking being that they will need greater mastery of that kind of reading after graduation.

Meanwhile, there is less redundancy between grade levels, and classes are more vertically aligned, meaning each grade level builds on the one preceding it. For example, slips, slides and turns, which currently are covered year after year through geometry, now will be taught in only one grade. That means students must master skills in one grade to excel at the next.

According to Suffren, these changes represent a fundamental shift in the business of education. In a report titled, “Game-Changer: Transitioning to the Common Core in Arkansas,” he wrote, “It is difficult to overstate the differences in clarity, specificity, and rigor between Arkansas’s current framework and the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts. Historically, Arkansas’s framework has been a document largely concerned with process: the process of reading comprehension, writing, and listening and speaking. Yet, in devoting so much focus to process, the end product – what students should be able to do with a text, what writing products should look like – has been largely absent. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Arkansas’s framework is concerned more with the means than the end. It places the burden of understanding what students should be able to read and do on the teacher.”

Previous efforts to adopt national standards have flopped from fears of an overreaching federal government, but so far Common Core has aroused little opposition – probably because it’s a voluntary, state-led initiative. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers took it on as a project starting in 2009 and began gathering input and support from various stakeholders. Previous ADE Commissioner Dr. Ken James was an early big supporter of the idea. When he mentioned the movement at the end of a presentation to superintendents about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the response was spontaneous applause. “I remember they’ve just heard about all of this money they’re getting, and the only outbreak was at the mention of those common standards,” said former ADE spokesperson Julie Thompson.

Bednar is the point person on the project, but she’s hardly working alone. Two committees of educators, one involved in math, one in English language arts, embarked on what they called a “crosswalk” in which they studied how the current standards align with those in the Common Core. The good news: standards are more similar than different. In fact, 96 percent were rated at least a “weak” match, and most were rated “excellent,” although they will be taught at different times and in different ways. K-2 standards were found to be the most aligned, which is part of the reason the initiative is starting in those grades. Representatives from across the educational community are collaborating to create content frameworks and professional development recommendations. “We want to be proactive in beginning the transition now and not wait until ’14-’15 and say, ‘Here we are. Common Core begins,’” Bednar said.

Changing from the current standards to the Common Core will be a bit like remodeling an airplane while it’s in flight. There will be many challenges – for students, teachers, administrators and school boards. And getting that transition right is the key, said ADE’s Potter. Looking back in history, she compared this change to the one involving “new math” – an education experiment in which she said a poorly engineered transition created “a whole generation of kids, I think, that hated mathematics.”

The thorniest issue will involve how students – and their districts – are assessed. During the transition, students will be tested using benchmark exams that are based both on the old standards and the Common Core. And yes, their scores will still affect how their districts are judged in relation to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law that gave us No Child Left Behind. At the state level, some sort of double-coded testing system will have to be created that monitors how well students are learning based on two sets of expectations.

Arkansas won’t be alone as it works through the problem. The state is a member of the 25-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of two consortia of states – the other known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – using federal Race to the Top funds to create new assessments. According to Potter, Arkansas is reasonably prepared for the change. Unlike in some other states, current Arkansas student assessments use a variety of formats, including multiple choice and essay questions, so young people should be familiar with the style of questions that will arise once the tests are in place. Moreover, schools throughout the country are more accustomed to testing because now they do so much of it.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with implementing the Common Core curriculum will involve the students, particularly those in middle and later grades, who will be trying to get an education amidst this transition. Some will find themselves lost in the middle of an Algebra II class because they were on track to learn material in the ninth grade that was shifted behind them to the eighth grade under Common Core. Planners are trying to address this, but if the problem is that the current standards cover too much material too thinly, then how will teachers cover two sets of standards adequately?

Bednar acknowledges the dilemma but points out that the current standards already sometimes leave some students behind. “We’re going to do all we can to try to make sure we don’t have huge gaps in this transition,” she said. “I guess that’s the best way I can answer that. I wish we had all the answers. I wish there were a magic book that came with this and said, ‘Now, if you do this for this child at third grade, this will be a seamless transition.’ And I think we’re in a good place to pretty confidently say that these transitions will be smooth. But there will be some that are missed.”

Teachers also will be dealing with a new set of standards. Some middle grade teachers will be teaching material that is much different, and in some cases, much more advanced, than what they were teaching before. Two consequences seem certain. First, some teachers, particularly veterans at retirement age, will decide it’s not worth the effort to re-engineer themselves and will retire from the profession. And second, those that remain will have to undergo individualized professional development that emphasizes subject matter over educational theory. According to Suffren, a survey by The Learning Institute of teachers and administrators generated about a thousand responses, and most were positive. “There is a lot of anxiety, but overwhelmingly, when you ask … whether or not they thought that the Common Core was an integral step in improving student achievement, overwhelmingly, the answer was yes.”

No matter how well the state prepares for the transition, planners expect an implementation dip – a lowering of test scores that always accompanies change. Gayle Potter, ADE’s director of curriculum and assessment, points to the state’s current benchmark exams, which registered very low scores when they were first implemented that have been steadily climbing ever since.

And that’s where school boards come in because at some point, newspapers are going to print the results of the latest tests that will appear to show that scores are dropping. Beloved veteran teachers will retire rather than go back to school to learn new skills. Parents will walk through the schoolhouse doors wondering why their children’s test scores are so low. School boards will have to be ready to answer questions. Meanwhile, they must make decisions in the board room that make the path a little smoother.

“Children perform well on assessments when the instruction has really focused on the standards,” Potter said. “That’s the key, that we need high-quality instruction that is standards-based. And so the whole system needs to be focused on that, making sure everything is lined up, and I mean everything. So what the school board can do is focus on that question. Do we have a system that is a standards-based instructional system, and have we done everything to ensure that?”

Even though the Common Core Standards are more strictly spelled out than the current ones, local districts will still have a lot of say in how they meet them. According to Bednar, while the expectations will be clear, school districts will still be making many of the final decisions on implementation. “Nobody’s going to come in and say, ‘Julie, you have to teach this at this time, and this is how you do it,’” Bednar said. “This is general information. It’s not going to say on August 19th at 2 o’clock, you have to be teaching this specific skill in your classroom.”

Despite the challenges, Bednar said support for the new standards has been surprisingly universal. Early childhood and higher education representatives have been cooperative. The ADE’s general email inbox hasn’t been filling up with angry missives from a distrustful public wondering about national standards. The legislative session produced no outcry. So far, a revolution is occurring, and no one is opposing it. “I don’t remember ever a time when we’ve had such support for how can we help, we want to be a part,” Bednar said. “Because nobody can argue that we want our children prepared when they graduate.”

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