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Minnesota schools slow to implement the Common Core national academic benchmarks

Tyler Pederson, left, and Keenen Sherman, right, work on making a dinosaur in a toymaking and innovation unit in a studio arts class at Crosswinds School in Woodbury, Minn., on Thursday, March 9, 2017. In the center is Sidela Nyuga. The arts innovation program includes English, math and visual arts. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Six years after Minnesota signed on to part of the controversial Common Core national academic benchmarks, just one in six schools has fully implemented the new standards in English and language arts.

At this rate, it will be 2064 before the new standards are fully adopted statewide, according to surveys and analysis by Wilder Research conducted for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Brenda Cassellius, the state education commissioner, acknowledged the slow progress is troubling.

"You cannot wait 50 years for standards to be implemented and expect to have an equitable and excellent education for all kids," Cassellius said.

Fewer than half of Minnesota schools responded to the Wilder survey in 2016, so it isn't a complete picture of how well schools are doing. But state education leaders are using the data, collected each year since 2013, to chart progress and plan ways to encourage implementation.

Cassellius and other educators fear the slow implementation has hindered Minnesota students' academic performance. Students' reading proficiency plummeted nearly 18 percentage points in 2013 when state tests began to use the new material, and scores have yet to recover.

The adoption of updated mathematics standards, which were finalized in 2009 and began showing up on state tests in 2011, has also been slow. It is unclear how many schools have fully implemented those changes, and math test scores remain flat.

Statewide, just 60 percent of students scored proficient in math and reading on the 2016 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs.

"We are not going to be getting good results in Minnesota if we are not teaching to the standards," Cassellius said.

The problem isn't that students are being taught outdated or incorrect material, Cassellius said. It's that they're not being taught to think critically and analyze, skills they need to score well on the new achievement tests.

"I think the public would be quite surprised at the depth of knowledge expected on our assessments," Cassellius said. "The (Wilder) study is showing teachers are still trying to grasp the depth and rigor of the standards."

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership, which is a vocal supporter of academic standards and annual proficiency testing, said he was "shocked" when he first learned of the results of the Wilder survey. He questioned what needed to be done to expedite schools' implementation of the standards.

"These are the fundamentals," Bartholomew said. "It brings into question: Have we been preparing and supporting teachers like we thought we were? Apparently, no."

Staff cuts during the recession, leadership turnover and a lack of training are key reasons for the implementation delay, Wilder's survey found. Cassellius and other educators want the Legislature to commit more money and district leaders to set aside more time to train teachers.

Teachers need training

One of the biggest differences under the Common Core is that students' literacy is no longer just the primary responsibility of English and language arts teachers. All educators are supposed to be working to improve students' reading and writing skills.

That means science, social studies and even music and art teachers have to understand and help implement the new standards.

Leah Larson, a former English teacher who now leads collaborative training efforts at Crosswinds Arts and Science school in Woodbury, Minn., said that's a big change for a lot of educators, especially at middle and high schools where teachers typically are more specialized.

"In some ways, we are asking teachers to teach outside of their comfort zone," said Larson. "That's hard if they don't feel qualified or don't know where to start."

It's also time-consuming and expensive for districts with limited training resources.

"I don't think that it's easy, but I do think it is possible," Larson said. "A one-day or hourlong workshop isn't going to be enough."

Larson's colleague Danielle Staley, an English teacher in her second year, said the Crosswinds staff plans its curriculum as a team, which helps foster collaboration among teachers. It also allows the teachers to share literacy teaching methods, so students see the same techniques used in different classes.

"We are all using the same language, and academic language is so important," Staley said.

What is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative began in 2009 as a way to set national benchmarks for what students should know in math and English at each grade level. The standards were backed by the National Governors Association and education groups in hopes of ensuring high school graduates were prepared to enter college or the workforce.

The standards became controversial in many states after President Barack Obama's administration used adoption of the Common Core as part of eligibility requirements to receive federal Race to the Top grant money. Initially, 46 states adopted the Common Core, although four of those states have since repealed the standards.

In 2011, Minnesota agreed to use the Common Core-aligned English and language arts standards, but decided not to use the math standards since state education officials had just completed a rewrite of those benchmarks.

Jennifer Dugan, director of statewide testing for the Education Department, said rewriting academic standards and developing the proficiency test questions that go with them takes years and involves the input of educators from across the state.

The new Common Core-aligned standards are more difficult to master because they require students to think critically about one or more things they've read and then answer complex questions. That's different than the more simple "read and recall" or "scan and find" test questions under earlier benchmarks.

"The cognitive complexity, the level of problem solving, is much greater in these standards than in the past," Dugan said.

Next steps

Supporters of the state's rigorous academic standards and regular assessment of students skills like Bartholomew are careful not to put too much blame on teachers for the slow implementation of the new benchmarks. But he does want state and local leaders to push schools to step up their implementation.

"We are where we are," Bartholomew said. "The question is: how do we go forward and do better?"

There's no easy answer to that question, but teachers and state education officials say there are some simple things schools can do to expedite implementation.

Holly Brunson, outreach and training specialist for the Education Department, said the state has created a grade-by-grade guide for teachers of the skills students are expected to master. She hopes more teachers will use the guide to modify their instruction.

Brunson and her colleague Dugan also hope more educators will participate in future efforts to develop student tests. Doing so often gives teachers a new perspective of the standards that they can pass on to their colleagues.

"A lot of educators haven't heard of this opportunity," Brunson said. "Teachers are part of the process every step of the way. It gives them a voice."

State education leaders also are pushing more schools to provide feedback to the state. If state officials understand the challenges teachers face, they can improve curriculum resources.

Making sure teachers have a nuanced understanding of the state's academic expectations is paramount if Minnesota is going to improve student achievement, Cassellius said.

"I believe this is how you get results. It's the very basics of teaching and learning," she said.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.