Common Core backlash brewing?
First-grade teacher Lee Anne Heikkinen produced a box of bird's nests, one holding two blue robin eggs. As the box of nests was passed to the students scattered around her feet, she asked them to describe what they saw and felt. The kids, fascina...
First-grade teacher Lee Anne Heikkinen produced a box of bird’s nests, one holding two blue robin eggs.
As the box of nests was passed to the students scattered around her feet, she asked them to describe what they saw and felt.
The kids, fascinated by the tactile sensations, worked to connect descriptions to their experience.
The nests were rough, made by hardworking birds, they said. The eggs - abandoned by a long-ago robin - were “smooth” and “silky.”
Heikkinen’s class at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School in Duluth was in the middle of its 90-minute literacy block, during which several tasks - broken up by quick periods of energetic movement - focused on reaching certain
The bird’s nest discussion was part of a goal to read nonfiction, connecting students to the world and the things in it. A classroom book rack that day was full of books about birds and pets.
The goals are part of the Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards in English Language Arts, better known as Common Core State Standards.
The standards - written for both math and reading, though Minnesota adopted only the latter - are meant to better prepare students for college or a career, and show teachers nationwide what kids need to know each year. What’s taught to get the students to those standards is determined by individual school districts.
As part of education reform, Common Core standards were developed by state groups, including the National Governors Association, and released in 2010. They are sometimes tied to the federal government because of its incentive of money to states that adopted the standards.
States had the option to adopt the goals, and more than 40 did. Minnesota adopted only the English Language Arts, or ELA, standards because the state had recently changed its math standards and chose to keep them. Minnesota is now in its third year of testing the ELA standards, with Minnesota Comprehensive Achievement exams beginning this month.
The standards have become the subject of intense political debate in many states, with some teachers unions, parents and largely conservative lawmakers opposing them. Some states are reviewing the standards. A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University national survey showed 17 percent of Americans approved of the Common Core standards, 40 percent didn’t approve and 42 percent didn’t have an opinion.
But the backlash in Minnesota has been minor. Some opposition groups with social media presence have formed, asking parents to opt their kids out of state standardized testing - a step that Minnesota allows. The numbers so far are small. For example, five Duluth school district students were opted out of last year’s testing, with two of those for medical reasons. Statewide, fewer than 500 of the nearly 423,000 students eligible to take the ELA portion of state testing were opted out.
Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed cutting the number of state or federally required tests - 21 total that are given to students from third through 11th grade - by one-third. He’s previously talked about the toll excessive testing takes on the state’s classrooms, and said in a letter to lawmakers, “the disproportionate amount of time and test preparation that has resulted from the federal No Child Left Behind law and additional state requirements has stifled teachers’ creativity and ability to impart information to students.”
Opposition in the state of Minnesota could grow, said Mary Cathryn Ricker, a Hibbing native now in St. Paul who is executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Lack of information will certainly fuel that opposition … but in some cases there is an accurate and regrettable story fueling that opposition.”
While there is a plethora of myths - such as the one alleging that use of the Common Core standards includes federal collection of biographical data - there are real issues, teachers have said. Some think kids are being asked to learn beyond their years with standards that don’t necessarily allow them to learn at their particular level. Others say teachers haven’t received adequate training to teach new standards.
“Teachers are asking for guidance and strong professional development,” Ricker said. “In the nation, that’s where we are weakest, and teachers are craving that.”
More critical thinking
Compared to past standards, the ELA standards for reading have a stronger focus on critical, more deeply analytical thinking. And more higher-level questions are being asked of students.
“Teachers are working to increase thinking skills as they attack texts,” said Carla Harrold, English language arts and reading curriculum specialist for the Duluth school district.
In writing, students are asked to think about supporting evidence for their beliefs, for example. More emphasis has been placed on informational and technical text because of the reading and writing required in science, math and social studies - although fiction and literary novels haven’t left classrooms.
Teachers are more intentional about what they need to do to get kids to the place they need to be at the end of the year. In Duluth, Heikkinen and others translate the standards into kid-friendly goals on classroom whiteboards, making students aware of each week’s tasks.
Heikkinen last week had one goal that involved increasing vocabularies. Students used, and attempted to understand, six “robust” words. Those words included “mysterious” and “devoted.”
The Duluth district has a list of 220 most commonly used words that it hopes kids will know by the end of either first or second grade. That list hangs in Heikkinen’s room, and more than once a student referred to it.
Students entering first grade are expected to know 40 of those words, which is different than what was required 15 years ago, Heikkinen said.
“When a first-grader entered a classroom that many years ago they had to know zero words,” Heikkinen said. But now if they don’t, “a little red flag is supposed to go up.”
What used to be first-grade work has been pushed into kindergarten, she said, noting the problem isn’t a common set of standards, but the rigor of them.
“I do worry, as I look at some children who aren’t quite ready, that they get a lower sense of who they are because they aren’t keeping up,” Heikkinen said. “Am I asking a child to do what they aren’t ready for?”
At the high school level, the newer standards aren’t much different from before, except for the closer reading of texts, said Anne Wise, director of teaching and learning and a literature teacher at Harbor City International School in Duluth.
At Harbor City, curriculum is based on Advanced Placement standards, which she said are more difficult than what Minnesota uses, and work well in its small-school setting where kids get more attention.
The high school sees incoming students who aren’t proficient, and uses a reading specialist and foundational classes to help them.
Minnesota and the Duluth school district saw drops in state reading scores following the implementation of the new standards because of the increased rigor.
“As the standards are raised and the tests get harder, we’re going to see the passing rates go down,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank that advocates for the standards. “What that means is we are finally telling the truth of whether kids are on track for success in college or a career. The news is going to be sobering.”
The sooner educators know that, the sooner they can do something about it, he said.
In Duluth, most teachers will say they are OK with Common Core standards, said Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers. But she echoed Ricker’s training sentiment.
“These things come at us and people want it done,” Burnham said, noting there hasn’t been as much training as most teachers would want.
While it varies by school, teachers work together to make sense of new things, she said.
Educators want what’s best for kids, but there is concern about what the standards, and the curriculum created to teach them, are tied to, Burnham said. In Minnesota, students’ performance on assessments count for 35 percent of teacher evaluations, and the standards are seen by many as “one size fits all,” despite the variety of learning levels of individual kids.
Overtesting also is a concern for teachers and parents.
A downside to standardized testing is less time for instruction, said Beth Aune, director of academic standards for the Minnesota Department of Education. But No Child Left Behind testing has made it possible to dig deeper into data, and it has helped expose the problem of Minnesota’s achievement gap, she said.
Pushback in Minnesota?
The Minnesotans Against Common Core website lists what it says are the top five facts about Common Core.
Among them is the notion that there is a national student database related to the standards where medical information, for example, is collected by the federal government. Another says the standards were federally mandated. The standards are a list of expectations, Petrilli said, and there is no database associated with them. States had the option to adopt them.
A member of the board for Minnesotans Against Common Core, Linda Bell of Minneapolis, used to write standards and curriculum in Florida as a teacher.
She contends that Common Core standards bring about a “cookie-cutter philosophy” that remove a teacher’s ability to be creative. She says there is no local control and maintains that some Minnesota districts are using Common Core math standards. State education officials have said there are similarities between Minnesota’s standards and those of Common Core.
Bell wants the standards and No Child Left Behind repealed. Her group has about 4,000 members, she said.
The Fairleigh Dickinson survey showed that many Americans mistakenly believed the reading and math standards include the topics of sex education and global warming, for example.
“There is a lot of misinformation about Common Core,” said Aune of the state education department.
But Minnesota hasn’t seen the pushback that other states have because a lot of time was spent studying them, with input from many experts, Aune said. She noted that in Minnesota, unlike some other states, the state education department was involved in writing the Common Core standards.
The rollout wasn’t sloppy, with only some “hiccups,” Ricker said, which also contributed to the state having less contentious debate than elsewhere. But there has been frustration coming from some Minnesota schools where the new standards are treated more “nonchalantly,” she said.
Minnesota math standards are up for review next year. The education department says standards from around the world will be studied and Common Core standards will be considered. But Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has said those aren’t as rigorous as what Minnesota has right now.
‘They fall into their books’
Kids aren’t considered readers until they can talk about a passage of text with understanding, Heikkinen said, which is a change from the past when “decoding” words meant you could read.
Reading and writing are part of the Myers-Wilkins first-graders’ entire day. There is the required block, and there is more practice in science, social studies and math lessons.
“The ELA portion of the day is the plate that everything else can rest on,” Heikkinen said, describing 20 minutes of quiet reading time after lunch.
The kids each have a bin of books they’ve chosen for their particular level from the hundreds of titles in the class, which have been sorted and placed by subject throughout the room. Heikkinen moves from student to student, listening to each read aloud, checking for an incomplete finish to a word or a hurried pace that might show a lack of attention.
“The only voice I hear is the one reading out loud to me; they fall into their books,” Heikkinen said. “You can almost see them vibrate as I am getting closer to them because they are so excited to read to somebody.”