A Lesson on Common Core State Standards

A Preface

                I set this blog up over a year ago, and I really haven’t had time to post anything. However, as more and more questions about Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are sent my way I think this is an easier way to post my thoughts. Before I even start, I have some ground rules. Any teacher who wants to keep her sanity sets up the rules and expectations before even launching into any lessons.

  1. Be Patient. This is going to take some time. It will take more than one post for me to say all I want to say. Once I post, things will continue to change so there will be more to discuss. The posts will be long. However, if you don’t have time to read this, you certainly don’t have time to have an opinion on the matter.
  2. Accept that this is a complicated issue. There are whole books written on this topic, and I am not claiming to have read them all. I am a player in the game, which is more than most people feeding you information can say. I try to stay informed, but I am fully capable of making mistakes and having misinformation. I know very little about High School, but as I learn I will be making edits.
  3. Outside of the school I am entitled to opinions. In the classroom, teachers are supposed to be careful about their opinions. However, this is not a classroom. I do not feel the pressure I do when I am in front of students to keep my opinions to myself. This is a blog, not a textbook.
  4. I welcome open debate and thought provoking conversation. As a teacher, I take enough verbal abuse from parents, community, and the media. Here, I don’t have to take that. I will call you out and send you packing..
  5. Do your own research, but do so carefully. Education is undergoing major changes on MANY fronts. It is easy to get wrong information or intentionally misleading information. Go ahead and read other people’s opinions, but read the primary source information, too. I will be including links to sites I use.

Part 1: Just What Is Common Core? A Brief Modern History Lesson

                                Simply put, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a set of standards. Nothing is ever really that simple, though. Standards have been a part of education since before I became involved. That has not always been the case. There was a time in teaching when every teacher or school decided what was taught. That had pros and cons. We are not here to debate the need for standards to exist at all, as it would be a frivolous conversation at this point in the game.

Standards came about as a way to address deficits in education. Standards were also needed in order to set up standardized testing. Pressure arose for districts to become accountable. For that to happen, there had to be a list of what they were accountable for teaching. Each state developed standards and testing. In Arkansas, standards and standardized testing have been around a long time, and the Benchmark Exam, in some form, has been around since the late 90’s.

It is crucial at this point for you to understand that standards and standardized testing are not the same thing. The standards are written, usually by a non-profit or state funded group. Then a separate entity, almost always a company that will make money is commissioned to create the test. Standards are the list of goals and expectations. Standardized testing is an assessment process to determine if those goals and expectations have been met. Standards existed before Common Core. High Stakes testing existed before Common Core. Federal involvement existed in education LONG before standards, high stakes testing, and Common Core.

Fast forward through about 20 years of local standards. Fast forward through conversations about the quality of each state’s standards, the validity of the high stakes tests, and much more. Fast forward through increased demands from the Federal Government for all children be proficient in the same way. It’s relevant to where we are now. However, it’s far too much information to cram into this spot.

All of that led to some states coming together to write the Common Core Standards. More specifically The National Governor’s Association decided to create a set of standards. You can read all about that history somewhere else. My point is, they weren’t federally written, but they were initiated through a national organization. That’s an important distinction. Further, they weren’t initiated by educators, but politicians. They were written by educators and professionals in specific fields of study, such as mathematics.

The way Common Core Standards became so prevalent so quickly is Race to the Top money. This was a Federal initiative offered to states. In education, money is something we often have to hunt down. This large sum of money was highly sought after. One of the stipulations for this money was the state had to have adopted “college and career ready standards.” There were a few of these out there for the taking or states could write new standards. Most applicants for Race to the Top money chose Common Core State Standards. In the end, not everyone who adopted Common Core even got Race to the Top money. However, most of those who adopted CCSS in the process of getting Race to the Top money have kept the standards. There were other reasons states chose to opt into CCSS, but this is the most common reason. Arkansas applied for Race to the Top Money and did not receive it.

Once the state of Arkansas decided to adopt CCSS, a plan for implementing had to be put into place. The state chose to implement in phases. K-2 implemented first, then 3-5. I cannot comment as to the implementation for other grades. 9-12 was mandated to implement this school year. It is important to understand that new books and curriculum aren’t out at this phase in the discussion. There are maps and suggestions, but no true curricula.  A later post will discuss this further, but not yet.

This plan was better than a slam everyone at once model. Common Core builds each year. Also, while literacy typically just went deeper, math made major changes in the grade levels where topics are covered. So, even with this progressive implementation, it is a difficult move. This is the case any time there is a change of this scale.

Now, here is where things get really messy. When Common Core standards were issued and adopted and implemented, standardized testing that aligned with the CCSS was not available. This caused a huge problem, and much of my daily frustration with the process. We were to be teaching one set of standards and testing an entirely separate set. This is a HUGE, MASSIVE, ENORMOUS problem. I will also discuss this more in depth in a later post.

In the beginning, the state department planned to hold districts “harmless” for their test scores. At about the same time someone (I honestly cannot tell you if the state department or a testing group), produced crosswalks. These documents claimed quite a large correlation between Arkansas State Standards and Common Core State Standards. However, it didn’t take long before it was apparent that those crosswalks were little more than key word searches. The correlations were weak at best. This made the use of the old Benchmark tests while we were teaching CCSS a problem.

At this point in time, I felt very little stress about the move to new standards without new testing. I felt massive amounts of money would be wasted on the tests, but understood that change comes with difficulties. As long as I wasn’t going to be judged by the wrong test, I felt ok with it.

Then, Federal mandates voided the “harmless” plan. This is a complicated topic, but basically we still had to be accountable to a high stakes test in order to be in compliance. No test is ready for CCSS. The state had to have a plan in place for identifying under performing schools according to test scores. So, all the old Benchmark exam pressures returned, but I wasn’t teaching Benchmarks anymore. I was expected to teach Common Core Standards. Basically it amounts to reading a map of Florida to get around in Utah. It confuses parents, community members and even teachers when we are torn in different directions.

At this point in time, the State of Arkansas is on its last year of Benchmark Exams. We have given Benchmark Exams for 3 years in which Common Core Standards were implemented. Some districts are piloting the new tests, but these scores will not replace their Benchmark scores. The new tests will be in place next year, according to current plans. Officially, all public school teachers in the state of Arkansas are teaching the CCSS.

I have many more posts planned including my take on the quality of the CCSS, the new assessments, special education and CCSS, and more. However, it would be difficult to touch on these topics without some background knowledge. I welcome your questions, but please remember your manners. As a homework lesson between now and my next post, I suggest you go take a look at the Common Core standards.

Common Core Standards – www.corestandards.org

              Arkansas Department of Education FAQ page on CCSS – http://www.arkansased.org/faqs/faq_categories/common-core-state-standards

The National Governor’s Association –  http://www.nga.org/cms/home.html