Laura Leitch kept her daughter home from Nate Perry Elementary School last Monday.
Leitch’s daughter wasn’t sick, nor was there a family emergency. She wasn’t playing hooky.
No, Leitch kept her daughter home in protest of New York state’s Common Core education standards.
“I have to say, the school is great and her teachers are wonderful,” Leitch said. “The reason I kept her home on Monday was strictly in protest of Common Core.”
Leitch was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of parents across the state to express their disapproval of the state’s new, more rigorous education standards on Nov. 18 by keeping their children home from school, sending them to school in T-shirts with messages or in certain colors or protesting outside the State Education Department offices in Albany. Parents and educators, as well as policy experts like former Education Secretary Diane Ravitch, have banded together in opposition to Common Core, citing concerns ranging from excessive testing to the age-inappropriateness of the materials to the interference of the federal government in education, which has traditionally been left to the states. Leitch kept her fourth-grader home because she believes Common Core doesn’t serve her educational interests.
“I do agree with the fact that kids have got to be better educated and learn more,” Leitch said. “My issue with Common Core is the age appropriateness and the fact that they’re not teaching them the basics first. They’re not giving them the foundation before giving them the opportunity to learn the material outside the box. I don’t mind them thinking outside the box, but they need to learn the foundations first. They’re missing out on a lot.”
Tiffany MacRae Sinclair of Jordan, meanwhile, sent her girls to school in Jordan-Elbridge on Nov. 18 wearing T-shirts she made bearing the words “I’m Not Common.” Her objection to the curriculum is the standardization of education that takes away the freedom of teachers to customize lesson plans according to the needs and educational abilities of individual students.
“A standard ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education goes against every grain of my educational beliefs,” Sinclair said. “The message on the shirt ‘I’m not common’ was to express to my school, community, and children that to be different, unique, and inspired should be what America embraces and seeks from education, not ‘standard’ or ‘common’ anything. I will never support a curriculum that removes the right of our teachers to share their knowledge in a forum that supports and encourage individuality and ‘uncommon’ intelligence. We ask our children to think for themselves, not tell them all to think the same, do the same, and learn the same as the child next to them. That is what makes this country special and rare. To standardize American education is to ruin the foundation of its strengths.”
Indeed, one of the goals of Common Core is to provide a standardized curriculum across the nation, so that any child, regardless of location in the United States, at a particular grade level will learn the same material. Common Core learning standards, which are aimed at helping children acquire more sophisticated reasoning skills, have been adopted in states across the nation, everywhere but Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia. New York’s Board of Regents adopted the more rigorous benchmark in 2010, though the 2012-13 school year marks the first time state-mandated standardized testing incorporated the standards. And according to those tests, the results of which were releases Aug. 7 of this year, less than a third of students in grades three through eight are performing at grade level.
Tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 4; levels 3 and 4 indicate proficiency. Statewide, 31.1 percent of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard, while 31 percent met or exceeded the math proficiency standard. In 2012, those numbers were closer to 55 percent, but state education officials said the tests are so different that they shouldn’t be compared.
“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century,” State Education Commissioner John King said in a press release after this year’s scores came out. “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration; we must be energized by this opportunity. The results we’ve announced are not a critique of past efforts; they’re a new starting point on a roadmap to future success.”
But educators and parents alike aren’t so sure Common Core should be the future of American education. At a forum held last week at C. W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville, the vast majority of testimony said the new curriculum had serious flaws.
Forum raises concerns
The forum, hosted by Assemblymen Will Barclay (R,C,I-Pulaski), Robert C. Oaks (R,C-Macedon) Gary D. Finch (R,C,I-Springport) Al Graf (R,C,I-Holbrook) and Edward Ra (R,C,I-Garden City), was the fifth such event held statewide to investigate the effectiveness of Common Core. Several groups, including district superintendents, members of the SUNY system, local chambers of commerce, school administrators, teachers, teachers’ union representatives, parents, parent-teacher-student advocacy groups and students themselves, came from across the region to present their views and concerns about the Common Core to the panel.
Many issues were connected to the Common Core rollout, including the lack of input from educators into the creation of the curriculum, the demand to teach curriculum modules that have not even been written yet, the fact that the current year’s module of instruction was received, in some cases, less than 24 hours before the 2013-14 school year started and the incompleteness of the modules, some of which had some glaring errors.
“We received Common Core curriculum a mere few days before school started,” said Marilyn Chase, who has been a kindergarten teacher in the Phoenix school district for more than 20 years. “There [were] over 500 pages of documents and instruction of lessons to review before school started, in a far-from-adequate time frame to be prepared to give our students the best instruction and learning experience possible.
“There are 180 lessons, and there are 180 days of school,” Chase said. “This leaves no time for testing of materials, to review of concepts or to properly ensure students understand lessons before using it as the building block or basis for the next concept.”
Chase also pointed out that the modules provided by the state are riddled with errors. She cited one worksheet that called for students to count the number of apples in each tree, then circle the correct number. However, the state’s worksheet doesn’t contain any numbers.
“Sometimes errors happen,” Chase said. “I can understand that. If it was one out of several worksheets it would not be that troubling. Sadly, this type of problem is the norm instead of the exception.”
Others expressed concerns about the amount of testing required annually. Testing is done at the end of the year, and has currently been expanded to include kindergarten through eighth grade. All are forced to take the test based on the module materials. This was expressed to be problematic, as each grade builds on the learning structure of the modules from the grade level before. Therefore, any grade above first grade has not been presented with the module learning structure of the Common Curriculum for the years prior to their current year. On top of their current module learning, they must simultaneously learn the prior years’ modules to be able to perform their current work and take assessment testing that is cumulative in its nature. Results from this testing are not shared with their teacher about the students’ performance until the following year.
“We are in a cycle that is not productive,” said Central Square first grade teacher Melanie Payne. “We spend a disproportionate amount of time and money doing standardized testing, but are not given the results of such testing until the following year. By then it’s too late to directly help students learning process by evaluating where they need support, because they’ve now already moved on from us to the next teacher.”
Educators were also beleaguered by the simultaneous implementation of Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), the state’s teacher evaluation system. The combination of the two proved overwhelming for many districts.
“Over the past school year, we were challenged to implement two huge initiatives, Common Core and the teacher evaluation system,” said David Sholes, superintendent of the Red Creek school district. “Both of these major initiatives were rushed and inadequately supported. The new teacher and principal evaluation requirements pushed schools to expand student testing. The SED-developed curriculum modules were delayed, flawed and required much more time than schools have in their day and in the calendar. It’s way too much for schools to handle. [It would have been better] to get the instructional piece off the ground and then start the APPR.”
Common Core in action
That’s not to say educators don’t think the curriculum itself is sound. Several districts have adopted Common Core to what administrators say have been successful results.
In the Fayetteville-Manlius School District, students pulled the highest scores in Onondaga County and the second highest in the state in the 2012-13 tests, but Superintendent Corliss Kaiser said she’s still not satisfied with the results.
“We still have a ways to go. A number of our students were not proficient, so we still have more work to do on individualizing our materials and the instruction,” Kaiser said. “We need time… this is a major shift for school districts and everybody needs time — time for teachers to write curriculum, implement the curriculum and time for the students to be able to learn what is in that curriculum. I think that as time moves on, schools will perform better.”
F-M made it a priority to begin writing curriculum to meet the new standards set by the Common Core three years ago. Kaiser believes that’s one reason why F-M students rose above the pack: while many districts are still scrambling to put together a brand-new curriculum, F-M teachers began teaching their new curriculum one year before students ever took the exam.
And Kaiser is adamant in her belief that one of the keys to success with the Common Core is a district’s ability to properly educate its teachers on how to best teach the new concepts to their students.
“Teachers need to know the curriculum and understand how to implement that curriculum,” she said. “What we’re doing at F-M is spending time on the type of teaching strategies that out teachers need to use in implementing that curriculum. And then, as we move on with those strategies, they are learning to differentiate the approaches they’re taking, depending upon the needs of our students.”
North Syracuse, meanwhile, began adapting its curriculum in the spring of 2013 and spent the better part of the summer working on professional development to prepare its teachers for the changes, writing curriculum based on Common Core standards.
“When a district adopts Common Core, the intent is to take it and develop a district-level curriculum,” said Dawn Wilczynski, assistant superintendent for instruction. “We’ve instructed our staff to look at the standards and prioritize, to look at where their priorities are and focus the most time on those.”
Wilczynski also said the transition to Common Core has been relatively smooth in North Syracuse.
“People buy into Common Core, the fundamentals of it, the higher expectations and the idea of an articulated curriculum,” she said. “The core clearly spells out, this is what you’ll learn in third grade and this is what you’ll know by the end of third grade, whether you live in North Syracuse or Tennessee or California. They like the concept. If there’s strife, it’s because people are bleeding the three together — APPR, state testing and the Common Core. They are interrelated, but if we’re talking strictly Common Core, the issue is not with that.”
But for many parents, that’s not the case. Both Leitch and Sinclair, though they have different concerns, are vehemently opposed to Common Core itself.
“We struggle with homework. She’s in fourth grade, and we’re doing algebra, from what it looks like,” Leitch said. “It’s just not appropriate for the age level and the material they’ve had before.”
Sinclair said she often can’t even help her daughters with their homework.
“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t doing these kinds of things at 12,” she said. “We’ve had mornings starting off in tears because of homework. I have so many issues with this insanity. It feels like our government and big business just hijacked my children’s future.”
Micha L. Crook contributed to the reporting for this article.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.