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My Turn: Common Core hits the sweet spot in American education

In this April 22, 2011 photo, High Plains Elementary School teacher Jennifer Williford, center,  works with Colette Jackson, 11, and Skyler Matteson, 10, right, on a computer project in her fifth grade class at the school in Englewood, Colo. Colorado has long debated the standardized tests it gives schoolchildren. Now state officials are talking about a dramatic answer to standardized tests in many grades _ none of the above. State  lawmakers are expected to consider joining other states in turning away from testing requirements except for those required by the federal government.  (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

In this April 22, 2011 photo, High Plains Elementary School teacher Jennifer Williford, center, works with Colette Jackson, 11, and Skyler Matteson, 10, right, on a computer project in her fifth grade class at the school in Englewood, Colo. Colorado has long debated the standardized tests it gives schoolchildren. Now state officials are talking about a dramatic answer to standardized tests in many grades _ none of the above. State lawmakers are expected to consider joining other states in turning away from testing requirements except for those required by the federal government. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

This is the first article in an occasional series on New Hampshire public education.

Writing education standards is hard. The debates about what we should teach our children are endless. But so are the issues facing American education. Too many of our students graduate from high school unable to read well enough or do the math they need in college or work. There are surely many reasons. Some, like the fact that low-income children start out behind and never catch up, are tough, long-term problems.

But there are other, obvious challenges that we can do something about.

For instance, how many times do you want your child to be taught fractions? My answer is, “Once, thoroughly.” But most of our students get taught fractions two or more times. The fifth-grade teacher probably starts at the beginning of the math book and gets as far as possible by the end of the year. Some students keep up, some get bored because they could go faster and some fall behind, but she keeps going because the curriculum covers a lot.

Since the sixth-grade teacher doesn’t know what her incoming students know, she’ll review all that, and your sixth-grader will be taught fractions again – and again. And maybe never get good at fractions.

Another obstacle to real learning is that very few children stay in the same school for long. Low-income and minority children move the most. A federal study in 1994 showed that fully 40 percent of third-graders had changed schools since the first grade. Many had moved twice. Groveton High School in New Hampshire’s North Country had a 30 percent turnover just between September and January this year.

You’ve just scrambled that fifth-grade class with an eggbeater. Some students are coming from states with good schools and some from poor schools, but seldom with the same academic preparation.

Educators have been trying for a generation to set standards that would make their curricula more consistent from grade to grade and among schools to solve these two problems so that we could set high expectations for our students and allow them to learn each topic thoroughly once.

Then, seven years ago, the governors for 45 states set up a project to jointly develop goals for what students should know and be able to do in math and English by the end of each grade, leaving it to the states to develop curricula that fit their students. Teachers and experts from all over the country, including more than 200 New Hampshire teachers, worked on what became the Common Core State Standards.

The new standards enable that fifth-grade teacher to focus on fractions in a way that allows her to challenge the fast learners while giving others extra help when they need it. And she can assure the sixth-grade teacher that her students, regardless of where they have come from, are ready to move on.

But she’s creating her own lesson plans based on a locally developed curriculum while achieving goals shared by states across the country. That’s the sweet spot the Common Core standards managed to hit.

Virtually all New Hampshire school districts now build their curricula around the Common Core. Teachers are in various stages of incorporating the standards into their day-to-day lesson plans, and the results they’ve seen have led to broad support among educators.

Politically, it’s another matter. Conservatives are concerned about federal overreach because the Obama administration made clear that adopting high educational standards would enhance states’ applications for federal funds and the Common Core was a safe way to do that (though non-Common Core states were also funded).

Some liberals have been concerned that Bill Gates both funded the development of the standards and has promoted linking high stakes for teachers to students’ test scores. They see the new standards as a Trojan horse for punitive testing policies.

Some states, like New York, have indeed made a mess of their Common Core effort by introducing destructive high-stakes testing at the same time, tying teachers’ jobs and pay to test results immediately, even though it will be years before we start seeing the real results in what students learn.

But in New Hampshire, the annual assessments are no-stakes initially and can remain low stakes over time, depending on local school district policy.

The political debate will continue in the media, but the educational debate is all but settled in New Hampshire classrooms.

Wendy Mahoney, reading specialist at Derry’s Barka Elementary School, told visitors recently, “The new standards allow us to personalize education. . . . I have never seen results like this.”

Her colleague, fifth-grade teacher Julie Hall, said, “The standards have rejuvenated us to teach at a higher level.”

(Bill Duncan of New Castle is the founder of the advocacy group Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.)

Legacy Comments16

CONGRATS ON YOUR CONFIRMATION MR. DUNCAN!

One only has to google " common core" to read the multitude of articles proving the dismal failure of this Obama NATIONAL control of schools

Correction: One only has to google " common core" to read the multitude of articles from right-wing propaganda websites written by scared individuals who haven't a clue what Common Core is really about.

Yes, yes...that's it...all those sites and posts were simply made up just to make life hard for Obummer....that's it. You have the GOP all figured out don't you.

It's not the GOP - it's the idiot anti-education crowd. A bunch of folks who either failed at school themselves or failed at being teachers . . . and now want to "get back" at the institution that shamed them.

Good luck to you Mr. Duncan . . . you've sure got the ultra-right-wing anti-education crowd's panties in a bunch!

When did Diane ravitch join the ultra right wing?d

Good point. But Ravitch's objections to Common Core have less to do with the standards themselves than with testing based on CC. While there are issue with some of the standards--questions whether some of the standards are developmentally appropriate for our youngest learners, for instance, the larger issue is with the mindset behind CC. CC as pushed by Arne Duncan (who is no friend of public education) and the Obama administration continues the theme of "No Child Left Untested" that NCLB began, and may take it to another level entirely. Students are being tested too often, in the view of many, and the tests are often of questionable validity. Critics like Ravitch believe they're designed ultimately to suit a privatized, corporate charter school model that relies on teaching to the test, relying on a narrow, prescribed curriculum that teachers will be under increasing pressure to conform to, because their own evaluations will be tied to and judged by how well their students do on those tests.

You heard it hear first - Common Core and privatized, charter schools go together like PB and J. And yet the "usual suspects" abhor one and love the other. Go figure.

I don't like two things about common core. It preaches political correctness and focuses too much on a "celebration of diversity", which, on its face is not compatible with the progressive inclusionery politics. I also have read American history excerpts which are really anti-American, pointing out the wrongs with the "white settlers" and calling the founding fathers "slave owners". History in retrospect is an easy target, but the mores of the day accepted that practice.

I object to federal control of our schools

Some of the founding fathers were, in fact slave owners. That is incontrovertible, as is the fact that the settlers were white. All of these practices may have been accepted at the time, but there's no question that the settlers' treatment of the native population had an intensely negative affect on that population. Common core does not prevent teachers from putting things into historical context. Would you rather that educators simply skip over this aspect of history? IMO, it's better to take the lessons of that time and see how we can apply them to our present and future. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Many of the founding fathers were slave owners. That is incontrovertible, as is the fact that the setters were white, and that their treatment of the native populations, although standard for the time, had an undeniably negative effect on that population. Should educators simply not talk about this aspect of our history? That doesn't seem particularly helpful. Better to take the lessons of that time and see how we can apply them to current and future world events. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemed to repeat it."

FOF, we need heroes and role models. What happens is that talking about the founding fathers as slave owners and displacing native americans is a liberal guilt lesson. It emboldens certain groups to be politically motivated and looking for things like reparations, etc. 250 year later, we ought not be second guessing our forefathers and demonizing them based on 21st century cultural thought. If it is taught that it was a part of life, the societal norm and that we have evolved and changed, that is fine. When you read things on this board like "the Constitution was written by wealthy white men who had slaves", that changes the entire context of history and the entire message. Your comment on repeating the past is curious as that is what we do every time we elect a Carter, Obama, etc. We practice the same failed social policies and learn nothing.

NO, tests are necessary. A teacher is a facilitator, if you can't facilitate, that will show up on test results. If a teacher can't teach and has low scores, well, that means that they should not be protected by the teachers union. We want the best for our children, we also need measures. I don't care what pressure teachers are under, if you want the job, it comes with the territory. People who go into the teaching profession are most often passionate about it, they know the pay and pressures going in. And, by the way, YOU should be judged on the performance of your students. In real life industries, if your team does not perform, you are not shielded and excuses are not made for poor performance.

got a source for that stuff - thought not

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