Schools all around the state are currently working to “tweak” a set-of academic standards that have been adopted by nearly the entire country: the Common Core. The highest profile example of that tweaking is going on in Manchester, where critics of the standards claimed a political victory last fall when the city announced it would create its own standards. Reactions to the revisions in Manchester show that no set of standards is going to please everyone.
In New Hampshire local school boards choose what standards to adopt, even though ultimately all schools are accountable to the same standardized test, based on the same standards. So last October, after a series of heated Manchester school board meetings, board members voted to create the Manchester Academic Standards. The idea was to take the Common Core – a set of yearly goalposts for K through 12 students – and make them even more rigorous.
Ever since then, a group of sixty-five Math and English teachers from various grade levels have been meeting monthly to make that happen.
“We’ve looked at standards from Alaska, we’ve looked at standards from Indiana, we’ve looked at standards from Massachusetts just to name a few,” says Lesley Fallu, before being interrupted by an announcement over the school’s PA system. Fallu teaches math at Central High School, and is one of four Manchester teachers who the district provided to talk about that work. “When we look at the standards that we feel we want to include, we’re not finding a great deal of difference in what we’re already doing.”
This was a basic theme from these teachers: yes, they are changing things, but in general, there’s not that much that needs changing.
“They’re just organized a different way,” says Gina Bell, a middle school math teacher, who notes the Common Core didn’t start from scratch, but was built on what its creators considered best practices, “maybe less language, maybe certain topics are within different grade levels, but this is not magic.”
Reactions Vary Predictably
A few weeks ago the Manchester School District released a first draft of some of their proposed standards to the public. Some of the changes are minor tweaks: like changing the term “linking words” to “transitional words,”
Others are more obvious.
In the Common Core a third grade standard reads “Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections,”
In the Manchester Standards that became “Use specific vocabulary to talk about text.”
Without many deep changes, reactions predictably vary based on what people think of the Common Core.
“In many respects, the standards are remarkably like the Common Core Standards,” says David Pook, a consultant and teacher at the Derryfield School who helped to write the English side of the Common Core. “As someone who had a hand in crafting those there’s a lot to like here.”
But similarly, critics of the standards will find a lot to complain about.
Sandra Stotsky – another contributor to the Core’s English half, who has since become its leading national critic – says that many of the Manchester standards amount to “you’ve got to read a variety of stuff of increasing complexity.”
In response, Stotsky says, “Duh. I’m sorry, this is a floor.”
The stated goal of the Manchester Academic standards was that they were going to take the Common Core as the floor and make something even more rigorous.
Pook and Stotsky both agree there isn’t much evidence of that in what the district has come out with.
“I certainly didn’t see that, in part because I think the standards they were working from were very rigorous to start with,” says Pook.
“If you want to get educated, informed citizens, you’ve got to start out with something more specific than ‘read texts of increasing complexity,’ which tells you ‘do whatever you want,’” says Stotsky.
Skills vs. Content
Stotsky’s critique of the Common Core is that none of its standards point to specific content – like mid-century British novels, or epic Greek poetry. Instead it just talks about skills students should have – like the ability to pick apart a text. Stotsky calls these “vague aspirational goals.”
Indeed, Manchester’s new standards stick to skills. But on the other hand, the standards they replaced, the New Hampshire Grade Level Expectations (GLEs), were also skills-based. Which is perhaps why the teachers in Manchester are so comfortable with what they see in the Common Core.
“Those people who are looking at Common Core and saying this is not right this is awful… well it’s not,” says Manchester English teacher Selma Neccach-Hoff, “What is is that it’s a mandate. That’s what sets people off.”
And for better or for worse, people all over the state have been set off: an official with the New Hampshire DOE estimates that about a quarter of the districts in the state are planning to do their own tweaks to the Common Core.
The four teachers assembled by the district say that even though they didn't make a great many changes to the standards, just the act of digging into them was worthwhile, because it gave them a deeper understanding that they will need when they begin to write curriculum.
And at least now they can call the standards their own.