Administrators and teachers brace for changes with Common Core

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by Jordan Green

The implementation of Common Core has not gone smoothly at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, but teachers and administrators aren’t convinced that what replaces it will be an improvement.

The implementation of Common Core standards has been a rocky transition for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, but administrators and teachers hold reservations about an initiative touted by Republican lawmakers to replace Common Core with a new set of standards tailored for the state.

The Common Core State Standards were developed by a consortium of governors and state superintendents, and adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The goal of the standards is to promote rigorous instruction and critical thinking.

“I think the standards are very sound and they’re rigorous; I don’t have any issue with the standards themselves,” Superintendent Beverly Emory said. “What I think we have not done well is training support and acknowledging that kids are not going to walk in the door and perform well without some adjustment.”

Public school districts across the state of North Carolina are now in their second year of implementation. Other states have phased in implementation by starting staging the standards from kindergarten up through 12th grade or delayed assessments for three or four years, Emory said, but North Carolina implemented the new standards all at once. Because the new standards were more rigorous and required a higher number of correct answers for students to be considered proficient, test scores for the 2012-13 school year in Forsyth County predictably dropped.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools spent about $300,000 on training teachers to implement Common Core, out of a total of $9.6 million received in federal Race to the Top funds, district spokesperson Theo Helm said.

Emory said training hours for each teacher varied from 18 to 60 depending on their respective areas of content. For example, an elementary school teacher responsible for teaching all content areas would require more training than a 7th grade math teacher. The more rigorous standards challenge teachers because they have to leap forward in new curriculum while continuing to work with students who are performing at a lower level, Emory added.

Inadequate classroom resources have also challenged the implementation of the standards.

“The funding for textbooks is a state line item that’s always diminishing, and we have not had sufficient funding for textbooks in years,” Emory said. “We don’t get enough money to buy textbooks even to cover the increased enrollment. We barely have enough textbooks to accommodate the 500 to 600 new students that are coming in every year.

“There are books in certain content areas where it’s been eight to ten years since they’ve been replaced,” she continued. “We can only buy a classroom set and not have the books to send home. That’s incredibly frustrating for parents and kids. They’re under pressure to meet these new standards, and they can’t help their kids study.”

Emory said that even though the state is responsible for textbooks, the local school district had put aside some funds to purchase new ones. With uncertainty about whether Common Core will remain in place, the district must put plans for new textbooks on hold, Emory said.

But whether Common Core remains in place or is replaced with new standards tailored for the state, curriculum remains a moving target. And many educators look to technology to replace textbooks.

“A good teacher can take the standards and will look at the standards to create effective lesson plans,” said Ann Pettijean, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators. “I think we have to look at textbooks — are they like cursive writing? Is it much better to invest in devices that can pick up the curriculum that can be changed year to year.

“I think math stays the same,” he added. “But in social studies things happen so rapidly, you have to [update curriculum] every three years. Really you should change every year.”

Local school administrators acknowledged that the quality of technology infrastructure is uneven, with newer schools having more sophisticated systems. The school district recently submitted a plan to the Forsyth County Commission to update technology across the system in a way that would equalize resources from school to school.

While the district has struggled to overcome challenges with inadequate textbook supply and technology infrastructure, the national alignment of standards under Common Core has mitigated some of the difficulty.

“When teachers are creating materials they’re looking at what other states have done,” Emory said. “One of the good things about Common Core is that since it’s been adopted by 45 states there are a lot of common resources. And of course, it benefits a kid who might have to move from one state to another to have some consistency.”

The use of Common Core standards as an assessment for evaluating teacher effectiveness has also caused consternation. Pettijean said that provision was a requirement for the district to accept Race to the Top funds from the US Department of Education, but is not directly tied to Common Core.

Emory expressed sympathy for the position teachers find themselves in.

“Teachers now have an effectiveness rating on their evaluation,” she said. “Standard 6 is directly tied to student assessment. It’s high stakes for them. All of these things are tied together. They’re pretty worried. I can’t say enough about the hard work they’re doing to prepare students. To an extent, I think they feel caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Pettijean said she disagrees with using student test scores to evaluate teachers, and said she believes the linkage discourages teachers from working in schools with a high proportion of poor students.

“I have trouble with holding teachers accountable with test scores,” she said. “I believe the scores should be used to drive instruction. It’s a great tool for us to look at and say, ‘Where are we missing the mark?’ But individually we have no control over so many factors in the kids’ lives, whether they’re hungry or sick or whatever they’re dealing with at home.”

Even if the state mothballs Common Core, there’s no guarantee that the use of test scores as a measurement of teacher effectiveness will go away.

State lawmakers seem more concerned with the principal of states’ rights than with training, curriculum resources and teacher assessment.

“We sold our soul away,” state Sen. Jerry Tillman, the Republican co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, told the News & Observer in April. “That’s all we did.”

Expressing support for the idea of reasserting state control, he said, “It puts it back in our hands, and constitutionally, that’s where it belongs. If you’re taking issue with North Carolina controlling its own standards, that’s not where I’m coming from.”

Draft legislation prepared by the Legislative Research Commission’s Committee on Common Core State Standards proposes the establishment of an Academic Standards review Committee comprised primarily of state lawmakers and the lieutenant governor to approve ne standards developed for review by the state Board of Elections.

If the General Assembly elects to do replace Common Core, North Carolina might end up with something similar, although re-branded as a project with no association with the federal government.

“The standards has raised the bar and going back to the standards we know that did not meet the needs of children is ill advised,” Pettijean said. “States that are opting out are using the core of the Common Core for their new, state-based standards.”