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‘Common Core is nowhere near dead'

  • Friday, July 18, 2014

Photos by Monica Kreber/Journal Scene Assistant Superintendent Sean Alford says DD2 is abiding by the law by implementing Common Core Standards.

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Dorchester District Two just finished up its bridge year of implementing Common Core State Standards in its English/Language Arts and math classes — and the standards are not out of the picture just yet.

Common Core has been a topic at board meetings and more, with parents expressing concerns over being able to help with their children’s homework and whether the district is going to continue to implement the standards.

DD2 Assistant Superintendent Sean Alford said DD2 is still implementing Common Core for 2014-2015 — because as of right now, it is the law.

History

In July 2010 the State Board of Education adopted Common Core. Alford said the implementation timeline was supposed to have school districts accountable for those standards and assessments in the 2014-2015 school year. 2013-2014 was supposed to be a “bridge” year, when DD2 was supposed to be “assessed and accountable” for the items that overlapped between Common Core and the old standards.

“This is what confuses a lot of people: CCSS was only adopted for E/LA and math,” Alford said. “Science has been totally outside that loop. Social studies has never been considered because social studies is not a subject area where tests are held accountable at a federal level.”

Originally South Carolina was part of SMARTER Balanced – the consortium that would assess Common Core. In May the Senate approved a “compromise bill” that took South Carolina out of SMARTER Balanced.

“That is pretty much the only major piece of that legislation that people are using as a cornerstone to say we stopped Common Core because they stopped the assessment that was associated with Common Core at the federal level,” Alford said.

However, this merely stopped the assessment, not the standards – and the same standards are going to be used this upcoming school year.

It will require cyclical review which, Alford said, means every two or three years the standards need to be reviewed. The law requires that Common Core be reviewed before Jan. 1, 2015. Officials will seek input on addition and changes so the state can adopt South Carolina college and career readiness standards, which DD2 has been pushing for two years.

“Common Core is nowhere close to being dead,” Alford said.

In April Gov. Nikki Haley signed a law eliminating the High School Assessment Program testing in high schools. DD2 officials said they’re OK with the change because the program didn’t particularly challenge students.

Alford said DD2 is hoping to replace HSAP with the ACT because “it is a test that is grounded in college and career readiness standards.”

As of right now DD2 is on the original time frame, ready for the 2014-2015 school year of being fully accountable for Common Core.

“We are abiding by the law,” Alford said.

Meanwhile Sheri Few, president/CEO of South Carolina Parents Involved in Education (SCPIE) and a former candidate for state education superintendent, has been vocal about her opposition toward Common Core.

Few told The Journal Scene she wanted a bill that would repeal Common Core, and that the outcome of the “compromise bill” was not what she originally wanted.

“We worked really hard to pass a bill that would repeal Common Core,” she said. “We were very pleased that we were able to accomplish as much as we did with that bill.”

However, she said, the bill is flawed; teachers are still implementing Common Core although the state is going to be adopting a new test. “The whole focus for teachers has to be up in the air, uncertain, and if I were a teacher that’d be very frustrating,” Few said.

SCPIE has five regional work groups across the state. Few is hoping to nominate the leaders of each of these work groups to be a part of the review process before Jan. 1, 2015.

That’s what we’re working on now,” she said.

Teachers

In February, DD2 surveyed district teachers asking for input on Common Core. The results of the survey were reviewed at Feb. 24’s board meeting.

Approximately 1,250 employees participated in the survey. Out of those who declared their roles on the survey, 90.1 percent answered they were teachers.

When asked if Common Core will “lead to improved student learning” for all of the students, 64 percent answered with “strongly agree” or just “agree.” Another 4.4 percent, representing 55 people, answered “strongly disagree” and 17.8 percent answered “disagree.” Another 13.4 percent said they were not sure how they felt.

Out of the classroom teachers responding, 89.2 percent said they have incorporated Common Core into their teaching or in some areas of their teaching.

“I thought it was positive feedback because we didn’t just ask E/LA and math teachers,” Alford said. “We asked all the teachers.”

Alford said the curriculum is more rigorous: It is not about “5+5=10”; it is about why 5+5=10. Students must show how they arrive at their answer.

“We are asking kids in fifth grade questions that you wouldn’t see until seventh grade — particularly when it comes to mathematics,” Alford said.

Tanya Robinson, DD2 board member and the president-elect for South Carolina’s PTA, said initially she liked Common Core because on a national level it would keep all students on the same lesson plan.

However, Robinson now dislikes the politics behind it.

“I took a completely different twist when I started reading the implementation and politics,” she said.

With that Robinson’s feelings went “completely the opposite way.” She said parents in DD2 do not like Common Core because of what it is doing to the curriculum, and looks forward to when it’s reviewed prior to the Jan. 1, 2015 date.

“I am their (the board’s) fly in the ointment when it comes to talking about Common Core,” Robinson said.

Few said the curriculum for grades kindergarten through third grade are “developmentally inappropriate” and could cause psychological damage.

“The standards require abstract thought, but students that age are familiar with concrete answers,” she said.

Few added that the math curriculum is “watered-down” and only prepares students for a two-year junior college instead of a four-year college, and the English/Language Arts curriculum removes classic literature.

She said most teachers are afraid to speak up about Common Core.

“There are over 20 states that are trying to get out from underneath Common Core,” she said. “It’s not just a South Carolina issue. It’s a national issue. I think we’re going to be hearing more and more about it in the next couple of years.”

Meredith Chinnis is a district teacher who has been teaching kindergarten since DD2 started Common Core but will be teaching first grade in the 2014-2015 school year. Chinnis said she really likes Common Core.

“It is a curriculum that grows with the students like building blocks. Each year it gets tougher yet it is an add-on to what the student has previously learned,” she said. “It promotes higher-level thinking. I think that higher-level thinking is so important as well as letting our students know that there can be more than one way to find the right answer.”

For example, according to teachers, a second-grade problem with addition and subtraction with regrouping can be done in different ways: a student could use a tens and ones chart, or a method called ten frames or another called tens blocks.

It’s still addition and subtraction, teachers said; the difference is students explaining how they got their answer.

A third-grade word problem could be: use a number line to subtract 654 from 920 and explain the steps taken to solve it.

The Summerville Journal Scene attended a parent workshop in hopes of seeing examples of math problems such as those floating around the Internet posted by disgruntled parents, and thus be able to explain some of the methods. Asked to do a math problem, though, DD2 officials said there is no such thing as a “Common Core math problem.”

Kelly Purvis, curriculum coordinator for middle schools, said there is a difference between “curriculum” and “standards”; standards are what students are expected to know at each grade level while curriculum is how those standards are taught.

Purvis said students have been doing the same curriculum for years. She said the idea of there being only one right way to answer a question is a myth.

“Math is so much more than just a calculation,” she said.

Purvis said parents who get frustrated are not familiar with the standards and are not used to the idea of there being multiple ways to find an answer.

“We’re going to do what we think kids should be able to do,” she said. “We think kids need to learn perseverence.”

Chinnis said parents likely get frustrated with their kids’ homework because when they were in high school, parents only learned one way to solve a math problem.

“Common Core is just setting you up to explain how you found your answer,” she said.

Chinnis said in the beginning Common Core was “a big scary beast.” Interventionists and support staff helped teachers understand each standard.

“In the best interest of our students and their future, I do hope that they continue with Common Core,” she said in an email. “I think it is doing a REAL DISSERVICE to our students by changing it. I think it would be setting their education back and do we really want to confuse the students even more just because there are groups of people that don’t like something?”

Parents

Chinnis added she can see where it would be frustrating as a parent of a student in a higher grade to deal with Common Core if said parent is unable to help a student with their homework.

“I understand that it was a hard transition because the higher grades were just thrown into it,” she said, “however, starting from the bottom in Kindergarten, I think if we would just ride it out then by the time the first K students reach 12th grade, I think they will be more than prepared for whatever they choose to do post-graduation whether that be the workforce, technical college, or pursuing a 4 year degree or beyond.”

In order to help parents understand the curriculum better, DD2 is hosting sessions throughout the summer to educate parents on what students are learning in class.

Victoria Simmons, a parent of two elementary students at Beech Hill, said initially she had a lot of “negative” feelings toward Common Core – but the educational session she attended has helped.

“Initially it was a lot of fear of the unknown,” she said. “I didn’t know exactly what Common Core was. The session helped because it showed me the basics of it.”

Simmons added she feels a lot of parents probably have the same fear she had.

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect but the more I learn the less anxiety I have about it,” she said. “I feel more prepared now.”

Simmons has encouraged her friends to attend the sessions, saying that fear is starting to melt away.

“If we feel more confident I feel our kids will pick up on that and they will become more confident,” she said.

Between E/LA and math standards Simmons finds both subjects challenging for her children but the math in particular is hard.

“When I was a kid two plus two equaled four and that was it,” she said. “You need to be able to write in math now because you have to explain your answer. It’s incorporating everything.”

However, like Chinnis, Simmons feels students will be better prepared for college with Common Core.

“I just have faith that the school administration are going to pick something that is going to help my children grow academically,” she said. “I know they want our kids to thrive. In the long run my kids are going to really benefit because they are going to be great thinkers. The school district has such a good reputation, I don’t think they would steer us wrong.”

Meanwhile Kayla Hall, a parent of three Summerville Elementary students and a member of the school’s PTA, said she initially felt Common Core was a good idea in the sense that, like Robinson, it would have all students on the same lesson plan.

For Hall, however, the pros of Common Core ends there. Hall said her biggest “con” with Common Core is data mining – that children’s data will be reviewed by government officials without parents’ consent.

“There was never a vote by parents to change our children’s education completely,” Hall said. “Just all of a sudden us parents wake up and see our children’s education was wiped out.”

Hall said one of her sons at Summerville Elementary loves math, but one day during the school year he came home from school, teary-eyed, saying he was not good at math anymore; he answered all the questions correctly on an assignment but had points deducted because his description of how he got his answers was insufficient.

“He doesn’t want to raise his hand because he knows the answer but he doesn’t know how to explain how he got that answer,” Hall said. “I don’t like that part of Common Core.”

Hall has received mixed reviews from teachers on how they feel about teaching Common Core. In preparation for the upcoming school year she tries to get her children to read every single day and practice writing/explaining what they read.

Hall hopes DD2 will discontinue Common Core.

“I think they could be leaders instead of followers on this, and I think it will be to their benefit,” she said.

The future

Alford said the goal behind Common Core is to better prepare students for college and the workforce.

“The biggest challenge has been parents being able to wrap their arms around processes and competencies that are strange to their educational construct,” Alford said. “And because of that they feel like sometimes we’re not teaching the basics.

“That lack of familiarity,” he said, “and the expectations and processes have changed so drastically, when young children come home now, they come home with questions, and they come home with projects and expectations that, sometimes, the parents aren’t familiar with. That, in itself, will impede their ability to support their child and no parent wants to feel like they can’t support their child.”

Alford said DD2 wishes to build a generation of “innovators” who will explore the “why” behind a problem.

Right now, since SMARTER Balanced is out of the picture, DD2 has no assessment that has been 100-percent aligned to Common Core, ergo there are no standard test scores indicating that Common Core is “working.”

“Teachers will tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, the expectations we have now for students are much more rigorous than what it used to be,” he said. “Although they may be frustrated by the higher expectations at the beginning of the year, by the time they get to the end of the year they see students are evolving to meet those higher expectations.”

Alford said DD2 is striving to have students graduate feeling prepared for their future.

“We, as a school district, refuse to get engaged in a political conversation,” he said. “When this subject is the critical mission of our organization, what we expect students to be able to know and do cannot be politicized.

“We are going to make sure students who attend schools in this community are able to not only survive but thrive in the future workforce,” he added. “So we are going to hold them to the highest standard possible. We’re doing that right now by following the law.”

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