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Change To The Common Core Will Be "Messy"

Sam Evans-Brown

Next year is the deadline for New Hampshire schools to transition to the Common Core State Standards. This means a change in topics for different grades, and a change in how teachers teach. For some schools this will be a big change, but others are well on their way to adapting to the new academic standards.

One thing that visiting schools makes abundantly clear is that companies are jostling to make money off of helping schools make that change. In Donna Palley’s office at the Concord School Administrative Unit, with only a few weeks left in the school year, the boxes of text books keep rolling in.

“So here we have a variety of workbooks and materials that have just come in the last few days,” Palley says as she slaps down a pile of the latest text books, grading books, workbooks that have deluged her mailbox.

The fact that there are 45 states that have signed on to the Common Core Standards has opened a massive market for textbook manufacturers. And with states signing on to big multi-state testing consortiums, there’s a big profit-motive for test prep companies to sell materials to teachers.

These companies were heavily involved in pushing for the Common Core.

“They just are flooding in,” says Palley.

All of this is designed to help teachers meet the new higher expectations of the Common Core. But districts are still free to choose whether to buy or not. Palley thinks Concord will make a few selective purchases, but most of the district’s resources will go toward making sure the teachers really understand what is different under the new standards, on their own.

“Standards aren’t curriculum, I know some people are concerned that somebody’s telling us what to use for curriculum. Standards are just expectations for students,” she explains.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
This stack of samples all came to the Concord School District in the course of a week. Districts have been barraged by materials from publishers rushing to profit from the market the Common Core has opened up. The SAU's Donna Palley says the district may make "some selective purchases."

Many teachers spoken to for this story – like Palley – say they don’t feel the Common Core is a threat to local control any more than the last set of New Hampshire standards. So, even though the Common Core says that 8th graders should be able to understand and apply the Pythagorean Theorem, or analyze the structure of a paragraph of text, it’s up to teachers to get the kids to that understanding.

Variety, District by District

Education consultant Heather Driscoll tries to help teachers do just that.  She was blown away by how quickly the text books started to roll out.

“Just for $29.95 you too can align to the Common Core Standards!” she jokes. “I would say that makes a great sales pitch but it’s a silver bullet before it’s humanly possible to have that.”

Many, like Driscoll, argue that only the hard, boots-on-the-ground work of professional development with classroom teachers will get them ready for the transition to the new Standards.

At Gilmanton Elementary, Driscoll is working with teachers doing something called curriculum mapping: basically, making a plan for what to teach, and then letting the next grade know how well the kids did on each skill. She wheels a cart between classrooms, briefing teachers on how to use her company’s software. Work like this is going on in schools all over the state. Teachers and administrators are digging into their curriculum and to make sure what they are teaching lines up with what the Common Core expects students to know.  And schools across the state are at all different points along that process.

For instance, in the Interlakes school district in Meredith, a few teachers from each grade have been working with consultants like Massachusetts based Mahesh Sharma.

Credit American Federation of Teachers / Hart Research
Hart Research
A recent national AFT poll of teachers found widespread concern that school districts don't have the resources to properly implement the Common Core. Though the poll finds that non-urban teachers feel they are in better shape which could be a hint that perhaps New Hampshire is in better shape.

Working with  a class of kindergarteners on their Math, Sharma calls out, “I’m going to say a number, and you will pick up that number from that tray, are you ready? Number three!” The students comply placidly, showing that this is clearly review for them at this point in the year.

Sharma helps Math teachers adapt their teaching to achieve what the standards are driving at: which is to say fewer ideas, but learning them to a much greater degree of depth.

“What were we doing before the Common Core?” he asks, “we were showing 2,900 GLE’s, or standards. And 6th graders were coming out on the other end counting on their fingers!”

Progress is a bit slow at Interlakes. So far, only a few groups of teachers have been consistently doing Professional Development based on the Common Core, the rest will start that work next year.

Meanwhile, in the White Mountains School District in Whitefield, they finished fully aligning to the Common Core this fall, a year ahead of the rest of the state. Superintendent Harry Fensom says switching to the more exacting standards was a major part of improving the school’s culture and test scores.

“We’ve had a year or so, we can ease in a little more gradually than some districts that haven’t paid this kind of attention to Common Core are going to be faced with over the next couple of years,” he said in a recent interview.

And for many districts that aren’t being proactive about the transition, it won’t come easy.

Producing More With Less?

Of the dozen or so teachers contacted for this story, almost all say they think the higher expectations of the Common Core are a positive development. But they are also uneasy, faced with big shifts in instruction and eventually a whole new regime of standardized tests.

For Erin Towle, a Kindergarten teacher at Interlakes Elementary, in Math her students will be expected to do more than just add and subtract. They are supposed to understand what numbers are and place value means, which is intimidating.

“Change is very messy, so, am I prepared? Yes I’m prepared, but will it be pretty? Probably not!” Towle says laughing nervously.

For some teachers, the demands of these standards push them beyond unease. One, who asked us not to use his name fear of losing professional standing in his district, said: “Teachers are asked to produce more with less, year after year, and heaping the common core on top of that ever-growing pile really means less time spent by teachers preparing lessons, developing interesting projects, and providing meaningful feedback on student work.  In the end, it really just seems counterproductive.”

Teachers have many concerns. The standards are only for Math and English, but others are expected to support those two subjects. This has prompted some science teachers, for example, to complain that they are now expected to teach English as well.

English teachers have complained that there is too much focus on non-fiction reading. Some think certain standards are developmentally inappropriate: as in kids brains aren’t developed enough to handle what they’re expected to learn at certain grades.

“My concern is just they haven’t been field tested. Nobody knows enough about them to see if they’re appropriate,” Penny Kittle teaches English at Kennett High School in North Conway.

She has a lot of concerns about the Common Core, but she also says something many teachers mentioned in interviews. Even if the standards were total garbage, simply the act of introducing them has lead teachers to take a second look at how they teach, which can’t hurt. “Probably my favorite part is it’s created this sense of urgency about what we’re teaching,” she says.

Implementation May Be All That Matters

And this is perhaps the nut of the issue: even those who agree that the Common Core is a good set of goals for schools to shoot for will tell you that how they are implemented in the classroom is what will really matter.

Consultant Heather Driscoll says she worries that some districts will do little more than rejigger the order of

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Heather Driscoll demonstrates her curriculum mapping software to a class full of elementary teachers. Driscoll and many others think professional development and attention to teaching practice is what will make the roll-out of the Common Core a success. Otherwise she says the standards will be just another "flash in the pan."

   when student learn what, which she doesn’t think will have any effect. “If you don’t keep a big, big focus on looking at this comprehensively, and owning it for your district, it’s going to become one more flash in the pan,” she says.

As deadlines for full implementation of the standards approach, and concerns mount, some are asking education officials for more time.

A national poll by the teachers’ union the American Federation of Teachers found that while 75 percent of members approve of the standards, only 43 percent think they’ve received adequate training, and just 27 percent think they have the tools and resources they need to teach the standards.

Another poll from a coalition of School Boards, Superintendents and Principals found a similar lack of confidence.

So Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, has called for a one-year moratorium on the consequences of low standardized test scores associated with the Common Core.

“These standards, which hold such potential to create deeper learning, are instead creating a serious backlash, as officials seek to make them count, before we make them work,” she said in a speech to the Association for a Better New York on April 30th.

It’s worth noting that even if New York had a one year moratorium on the consequences of their tests, they would still be enacted before New Hampshire ever takes a Common Core aligned test. Compared to the earliest adopters, New Hampshire is proceeding at a much more stately pace.

In New Hampshire, the Common Core will start to count in spring 2015. That’s when the first high-stakes tests based on the standards will be given. And it’s those tests that we’ll look at tomorrow.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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