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Focus On Education: Breaking down the Common Core standards

Ashley Hirtzel

In some school districts across our region students are struggling to grasp the Common Core Learning Standards.  All this week WBFO’s Focus on Education is bringing you a series of stories about the new standards. In the third installment the Common Core standards themselves and how they are working in local districts is examined.

In classrooms across western New York students are being taught under the Common Core learning standards. The requirements specify what students should know in English Language Arts and Math by grade level.

Students are expected to read more nonfiction text and analyze them more thoroughly as part of the English requirement. In Math students must have a deeper understanding of concepts and memorize certain formulas. The creators of Common Core expect that if students have those understandings they will be better prepared for college and career, but many believe the learning standards are developmentally inappropriate and the worst way to prepare students for the future.

“One of the concerns we have is Common Core kind of narrows the curriculum and isn’t expansive enough. Because it’s tied to high stakes testing teachers don’t feel free to illicit creativity from kids and provide opportunities for kids to express their creativity,” said West Seneca Schools Superintendent Mark Crawford.

Crawford says the district believes the standards have taken the joy out of learning, and they don’t allow students to learn at their own pace.

“The curriculum is not set in place yet. Children are being tested on material that they’ve not seen before. The teachers haven’t had adequate time and professional development to communicate it to the children and 40 percent of their evaluation is tied to those tests, which are flawed,”

The standards have even been called a “one size fits all approach” for students. Parent and Teacher at Gowanda High School, Shannon Styles says under the Common Core model Math students might have the right answer to a division problem, but the whole problem could be incorrect without proper proof. She explains with an example from her son’s homework.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News
Amherst Schools Superintendent Laura Chabe

“So, 54 divided by 6. He looked at it and said okay that’s 9, which is what any 3rd grade kid should know, but what they have him do is break it into two different parts. They have this main problem, which you’re trying to solve, they break it into step one, step two, step three, and step four. So where you need to know 54 divided by 6 is 9, you now have four different ways to create error. And if he made an error in step three he gets the whole thing wrong,” said Styles.

Styles says in English, students are taking too much time reading the same text.

“You give them a three page short story and it takes two weeks to get through, because you have to go back and do what’s called close reads, this is all in the module work, where you go back and have to read a paragraph and work on it for 40 minutes. And the next day you’re going to look at paragraph two and you’re going to work on that for 40 minutes. So, it’s very redundant, it’s very repetitive, and I see it killing reading,” said Styles.

Shannon Styles 6th grade son Nate Styles agrees.

“We do the same thing every single day instead of doing something different. And for homework for a whole week we would have to read the same chapter every night. It gets me mad, because it’s really boring,” said Styles.

Lorraine Elementary School Teacher Sharon Pikul says many of her students are starting to develop avoidance behaviors, because they feel the tasks they’re being asked to do are too hard.

“My difficulty comes when you’re asking them to do something that we didn’t give them the beginning steps to do. So, now we have to go backwards and start at square one, but they’re going to expect them to be at step six. Well, we’ve got five steps of catch up to play,” said Pikul.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News
Sweet Home Schools Superintendent Anthony Day.

Districts across New York State were given the option to adapt the Common Core standards to suit their individual needs or to adopt the standards as they are, using materials that the State Education Department provides. Amherst Central Schools Superintendent Laura Chabe says her district chose to adapt.

“I think a piece of it is we’ve always had very rigorous curriculum and we’ve always tried to make sure that our teachers are provided with the professional development that they need. I wouldn’t say it has come without some pain. It has been an incredible amount of work. We’ve had to increase the amount of money that we’re spending on our professional development. And we’ve had teachers who are pretty seasoned veteran teachers say to us in some ways it feels like my first year of teaching again, because I’m leaning new curriculum and I have to adjust how I’m teaching,” said Chabe.

But, Chabe says on the flip side.

“When I’m in classrooms I see some pretty exciting and interesting activities going on in terms of student engagement, and through different small group work. In some ways there are ways to be more creative, because we’re encouraging kids to think more critically and more deeply,” said Chabe.

Chabe says prior to Common Core the district was teaching more to the test, because they didn’t have a lot of guidance from the state and they were using the exams as instructional tools.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News
Parents sit for Jamestown education forum.

“Now it’s really about concepts. It’s really about learning, it’s about pedagogy being transferred to what they’re going to be asked on those exams,” said Chabe.

But it’s not just in the Amherst School District where Common Core is working well. Sweet Home Schools Superintendent Anthony Day says his district is also succeeding with the learning standards.

“They represent a higher level of learning and achievement for kids, but there more focused. There’s less breadth and more depth, which I think is very much necessary and needed and actually helpful. Our staff is working really hard and I know our kids are working really hard, and I’m really pleased with some of the progress we’re seeing. Where some people would say there’s no joy and there’s kids crying when they take the test, honestly we’ve not seen that yet,” said Day.

The districts that didn’t adapt Common Core chose to adopt by utilizing curricular modules and unit materials provided by the State Education Department. Some adopting districts chose that route, because it was cheaper than creating a new curriculum based on Common Core. Shannon Stiles says adopting also assures that districts are teaching information that will eventually show up on the state assessments.

“I think the ones that adopted really wanted those test scores to go up and they’re scared if they didn’t that maybe some of the things from the modules will be on the test and now our kids won’t do as well. But, again they’re only looking at test scores. They aren’t looking at 180 days of what students are actually doing if you only have modules,” said Styles.

But, not all districts that adopted the new learning standards are struggling. At an educational forum in Jamestown, Randolph Central Schools Superintendent Kimberly Moritz told State Education Commissioner John King that achievement has increased there since Common Core was introduced.

“I can say that from my little piece of New York State your agenda has helped us to accomplish more. I have not had the resources that big districts may have… There are problems, but it’s working for us,” said Mortiz.

But it’s more than the Common Core learning standards themselves, a bulk of controversy lies on issues with testing tied to the teacher evaluation system. Tune into WBFO 88.7 FM Wednesday to hear how Common Core affects testing and how those tests affect teachers, parents, and students.

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