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Event clarifies realities of Common Core

School board holds 'Speak Up for Education' session during meeting

Event clarifies realities of Common Core

Event clarifies realities of Common Core

Dr. Mary Felton, right, the Bulloch C...


Editor's note: This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification, which will appear in Tuesday's print edition. One of the criteria the federal government used to determine which states won a share of $4 billion in Race to the Top funding in 2010 was that the states adopted "common, high quality standards." A front-page article Sunday stated that one of the criteria was states adopting the Common Core State Standards. These standards, while the only multi-state standards that meet the criterion in question, were not actually specified by name in Race to the Top instructions given to states that applied in 2010.

Bulloch County Schools used one session of Thursday night’s “Speak Up for Education” to tell parents what the Common Core isn’t and what it is.

With sign-in sheets, organizers counted 202 participants in the event at Statesboro High School. During the two hours, three sessions were held, simultaneously, on three topics: early learning, the Common Core State Standards, and college and career readiness. Participants could attend two sessions each.

Listing some myths about the Common Core, Teresa Phillips, one the school system’s two directors of curriculum and instruction, noted that it is not a federal mandate or program. Nor is it an effort by the federal government to gather personal information about students. For the government to do so, she said, would violate federal law.

“Local systems maintain control,” Phillips said. “There is a myth that Common Core takes away the control from local systems, but that’s just not true. We still have local control over our curriculum.”

Common Core isn’t even a curriculum, she said. Instead, the Common Core State Standards describe reading, writing and math skills students should learn at each grade level. The National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers had the standards developed to create consistency and close “the achievement gap” by which the United States lags behind some other developed nations in measures of student success.

However – this wasn’t part of the Thursday’s presentation – the federal government endorsed the Common Core through its Race to the Top education reform program. Adopting "common, high quality standards" was one of the criteria for states to win a share of the $4 billion funding, and the Common Core State Standards did meet that requirement for the grant. The Georgia Department of Education adopted the standards in July 2011, and the Bulloch County Schools began implementing them in 2012.

Although the nationally promoted standards do not prescribe what must be taught the way a curriculum would, the state of Georgia released “framework units,” sets of suggested lesson plans.

“Our district used these units as a starting point, but we decided to change some of the books because we thought that they were inappropriate,” Phillips said. “Our teachers decided which books we’re going to use in place of those books.”

For example, the state list suggested “Rosa Parks: My Story” for fifth grade, but this was a controversial selection because of an attempted rape scene, and local teachers replaced it with “Watsons Go to Birmingham.”

A list of the changes made in the reading list can be found on the school system’s website, at www.bulloch.k12.ga.us/commoncore. Look under “Quick Links” for the reading list.

Their first year adapting to Common Core, Bulloch County educators found there was a shortage of materials that fit, with publishing companies struggling to catch up. They also found that the state frameworks left little room for teacher creativity, Phillips said. So this year, teachers were given more leeway.

“Now that teachers have a better understanding of the skills, we told them to use those state-provided framework units as their guide,” she said. “They’re expected to teach the skills and can pull lessons from those units as they see fit.”

Phillips described several major shifts that the Common Core standards are bringing in the way that reading, writing, and math are being taught. Common Core does not include standards for science and social studies content, but it does prescribe literacy standards for those subjects, giving social studies and science teachers a role in teaching writing and reading.

More nonfiction

In English and language arts — in other words, reading and writing — one major shift is from students reading mostly fiction to reading nonfiction and fiction in about equal amounts.

This reflects what most people read in the real world, Phillips said. She used the examples of directions and manuals.

But Statesboro High English teacher Denise Beardon spoke up, noting that her 11th-grade class had just read Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia convention.

“That’s nonfiction as well,” Beardon said. “It’s not just recipes and directions and things like that; it’s memoirs and essays and speeches and newspaper articles.”

Another shift is an emphasis on reading more complex material, with some novels that were once taught in high school now recommended for middle school, for example. In writing, students are supposed to learn to write from sources, instead of just their own experiences, and are being taught more academic vocabulary in preparation for college and careers.

Many paths in math

In math, the standards put an emphasis on speed as well as accuracy, thinking about problems but solving them fast. But the changes eliciting the most discussion have students spending more time mastering fewer concepts and, related to this, learning more than one way to solve a problem.

“There is more than one way to get the right answer, and that’s OK. That’s our message to kids,” Phillips said.

Teachers still teach the traditional formula, but often last — after students discuss different ways to solve the problem — as a way to understand it better.

Students are often being required to show their work and explain how they got the correct answer. Sometimes, they even draw pictures to illustrate. One grandfather, who asked not to be named in the newspaper, said his elementary-school grandson, a straight-A student, was frustrated to the point of tears with the extra calculations he had to do instead of just giving the answer he already knew.

Phillips said it also frustrates her that highly capable students feel frustration at the new approach. But, she said, the old way wasn’t working.

“Our students cannot compete globally with other students with what we’ve always done,” Phillips said.

Calling the old approach of learning a single formula and plugging in numbers “plug and play,” SHS Principal Marty Waters said the new approach better reflects what people have to do at work.

“It’s moving from a recall-based curriculum to an understanding conceptually of what the content is and how do I take that into a situation and apply it with higher-order thinking skills and problem-solving skills,” Waters said. “That’s where industry has had an influence on education to produce students who are college and career ready.”

Waters said he believes the Common Core approach will benefit many students if given time to work.

Not everyone is convinced. After attending Speak Up for Education, parent Susan Sneathen referred to the school system’s Common Core messages as “marketing.” A member of the Southeast Bulloch High School’s school council, Sneathen is also a volunteer for EmpowerEd Georgia, an education advocacy group. She is watching efforts to repeal the state’s adoption of Common Core and says repeal could be a good thing, depending on what replaces it.

“Money is behind everything, there are businesses and corporations that are backing things, and unfortunately what’s happening is that teachers, the ones who are trained to do the job, the ones who know how to make success for students in the classroom, don’t have a voice,” Sneathen said.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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