Common Core Raises Expectations—and Some Ire

By Peri Kinder

March 12, 2014

The fourth-grade students in Anthony Cusumano’s class at Midvale Elementary don’t know that 45 states in the nation got together to create national standards of learning. They don’t know their curriculum has changed, making math, English and language arts much harder. In fact, 80 to 85 percent of Cusumano’s students don’t even use English as a first language.

As a teacher, Cusumano is in the educational trenches, tasked with implementing the Common Core standards that schools across Utah and throughout the nation have adopted to jump-start dismal educational performances. Cusumano’s 10 years of teaching experience, plus a degree in educational leadership and policy, isn’t making the transition any easier.

“I think we need to move in this direction eventually, but not every child is a common learner,” he says. “The majority of our kids are two or three grades behind already. There needs to be more individualized learning. The ones that need it most are half the class.”


On the Same Page

Implementing the Common Core standards has created uncommonly difficult problems that Utah State Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Brenda Hales hears about every day. Hales was part of the first Common Core discussions held in Chicago in April 2009, when state education leaders from across the country took a hard look at the current standards and decided they weren’t nearly rigorous enough to ensure success in post-secondary schools, especially in a global economy.

The group worked to come up with elevated standards in English, reading and math that would be transferable from state to state, ensuring a consistently high level of education, no matter which part of the country a child was educated in. Teachers, parents and community leaders offered feedback, reviewed decisions along the way, and shared goals for students in their care.

States across the country, with the exception of Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Virginia, agreed to incorporate the Common Core standards into their schools.

Hales says that national standards allow a clear communication of what students need to learn and what teachers need to teach, and gives them a specific timetable to accomplish objectives. By establishing well-defined benchmarks, people working with students, and the students themselves, are better equipped to succeed.

Currently, many kids leave high school and end up taking remedial courses just to catch up to college levels. With stricter standards, educators hope to have kids college-ready by the time they receive their high school diplomas—and in many cases, even before.

“In the last century, about 25 percent of students wanted to go to college and get a four-year degree, and the rest were in good shape if they had a high school education and were prepared for a profession,” Hales says. “But in the last two decades, and especially in the last 10 years, there’s been a dramatic shift, typically due to the influence of technology. It seems that more students need something post-secondary. In fact, most jobs require some type of certification, two-year degree or four-year degree.”

The standards, completed with lots of feedback and revision, were adopted in August 2010 and have been introduced through a staggered implementation. Some schools have been using the curriculum for a few years, but when the 2013-14 school year began, all schools in the state applied the standards—and Hales expected the roll-out to be rough.

Fifth graders are introduced to pre-algebra, a concept usually taught during seventh grade. Third-grade students are expected to understand the basics of fractions, division and word analysis. All students will encounter harder vocabulary words and are tested more on comprehension, point of view and navigating figurative language skills.

“This is the first year new tests are being utilized that fit the core standards,” Hales says. “It’s going to be more difficult for kids. My prediction is you’ll see the test scores go down, which makes sense because if you’re learning material you’ve never had before, with much higher expectations, it’s going to be more difficult.”

Hales would have preferred to implement testing at a slower pace, worried that the students might be overwhelmed. But with the federal regulations, that wasn’t an option. She knows the transition will be dramatic, and she empathizes with teachers like Cusumano who face an uphill battle. She also says the Utah State Board of Education is looking for additional funding to help the students who will fall behind.


Low Marks

Not everyone happily embraces the Common Core standards. Mandating that students know more does not necessarily mean students will learn more. Derek Monson, director of policy at the Sutherland Institute, says it doesn’t work to teach the same thing, at the same pace, at the same time, and expect students to come out ahead. And he doesn’t think educators outside Utah should have input in Utah’s standards.

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