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Core Concerns

Jul 21, 2014 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
by Kat Spitzer

Parents and educators want the best for today’s students. In order to prepare young people for a competitive college and employment market, schools across the state have implemented Maryland’s College and Career-Ready Standards, which incorporate the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These are state led standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Maryland adopted the standards by unanimous vote in June 2010, and the implementation completed its rollout this 2013-2014 school year. The opinions of the standards have been mixed, with some parents voicing their thoughts passionately to teachers and administrators about implementation and communication.

Maryland ranks at the top of national education statistics, so why was any change in standards necessary? “Maryland’s ultimate goal is to prepare students for what lies ahead, be it higher education or the job market,” says Bill Reinhard, from The Maryland State Department of Education. “We’ve heard from employers who tell us that some of our graduates have deficiencies in language or in mathematics—and we cannot allow this to happen. Too many of our graduates end up taking remedial classes in subjects they should have mastered in high school. Again, we can’t allow this. Our State education system has ranked at the head of the class for a number of years, and we are justifiably proud of our schools and our graduates. But we cannot rest on those laurels.”

The Common Core Standards have a number of important features. They provide consistent learning goals for all students, regardless of where they live. “We have so many military families around here,” says Kristan Waggoner, a Severn River Middle School parent. “It’s nice to think that when those families move, the kids will be on equal footing no matter where they go across the U.S.” The standards set a clear expectation for high levels of learning in English, Language Arts, Literacy, and Math.

Specifically, students are exposed to more content-filled nonfiction and informational texts, in addition to regular literature, since nonfiction is used more in jobs. Students will read more complex pieces and use evidence from those texts to answer questions. Educators assess students not just on answers, but also make sure that students use correct grammar and spelling. By fourth and fifth grade, kids will be required to compare multiple texts at a time. There will be more Prose Constructive Responses (PCR), so that students explain their thinking more completely, rather than giving a short answer.

In math, the standards call for less memorizing and more illustrating and explaining. Instruction focuses on fewer topics in each grade level, giving teachers a chance to educate the students at a deeper level. The theory is that students will then truly understand the information, rather than simply memorizing for a test, then possibly forgetting the knowledge. The standards are internationally benchmarked against standards from higher-performing countries such as Japan and Singapore, in hopes to put U.S. students in a competitive and advantageous position globally.

The frustration has come from the daunting task of implementation. “The way of teaching the material and the thought process has changed,” says Rebecca Saros, a Windsor Farm Elementary parent. “So much homework comes home and it’s hard to help our kids because they are not learning math the same way we did. We often don’t even understand the terminology they are using. There needs to be a more accessible source for parents to use, to translate how we learned into this new way kids are learning. Instead, the kids are frustrated and we are frustrated. Plus the teachers don’t seem to have any materials that helps. Kids learn differently and these standards don’t allow for that or recognize varying thought processes.” This is a sentiment shared by many parents.

Teachers are working diligently to help their students meet the new standards with the resources at their disposal. “Teachers received training on the standards at our Educator Effectiveness Academies during the summers of 2011, 2012, and 2013,” Reinhard says. “Teachers and principals from every school in the State were involved in the academies and took that information back to their schools.” But that doesn’t necessarily equate to enough materials at present for all teachers. 

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“Change is always scary, particularly so when that change involves major modifications to the framework of your child’s education,” says Lisa Lauer, a Cape St. Claire Elementary parent. “However, I do think our children will be well served by the Common Core, as it will allow them to hone the critical thinking skills that are so vital for future success. My main concern is that it appears our educators are not receiving adequate resources to successfully implement the program.” Much of the basic training for teachers has come during the two-hour early dismissal days that have been occurring once a month during the school year.

“It would have been much more logical to wait until the entire curriculum was written to begin implementing the CCSS,” says Stacy Berry, an Anne Arundel County high school math teacher. “This would have eliminated the gaps that many middle and high school math students are facing. For example, last year they implemented the new Geometry curriculum. This year they are implementing the new Algebra 2 curriculum. Next year they are implementing the new Pre-Calculus curriculum. Therefore the same students will be experiencing these drastic changes three years in a row. On the positive side, though, I think that the math content sequence is much better than in the past. The curriculum is more rigorous and better prepares students for upper level mathematics.” 

In order to determine the results of the new standards, the state is putting in place a new assessment system. “We’ve had great feedback on the standards from our teachers,” Reinhard says. “Change can be difficult for any of us, but our educators have told us that students are engaged and their lessons have been successful. We’ll know more once new assessments tied to the standards are ready. As you know, Maryland has for the last decade assessed students through the Maryland School Assessments, an assessment not tied to the College and Career Ready Standards. With these new standards, we’re part of a consortium of States building new tests. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) tests won’t be fully functional until 2015, and that will give us more information. One class in every Maryland school will be field-testing those new assessments this year.” Some parents have concerns about the new tests.

Former teacher, Heather Pickens says, “My time required to spend on test prep increased and my students love for learning decreased. We made gains, but my concern was at what expense and for what purpose? So I could report they were advanced, proficient, or basic? My concern with the new PARCC testing is [increased] focus on an unproven standardized test. My child is way more than a test score. The test will be given on a computer, which requires a lot of funding for the technology, and time for test taking seems to be greater. The bottom line is I just don’t see how more unproven, high stakes testing will make our students ‘college and career’ ready.”

This summer, Maryland will hold more Educator Effectiveness Academies in order to provide teachers with additional development on the new curriculum, assessments, and evaluations. “Of course, there have been challenges along with our successes,” says Andrea M. Kane, Associate Superintendent for School Performance, Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “Some of the challenges regarding implementation of the new standards include continuing to build educator capacity in deconstructing and teaching the densely written standards, and ensuring that all students make the transition to learning the new standards by thinking deeply and critically about the high-level concepts and skills embedded in the standards. Working through the challenges will continue to be a difficult task. However, the dedicated and talented teachers are rising to the challenge every single day. Our students are putting forth tremendous effort, and with the support of parents and the community, will be better prepared for success in college, careers, and service to their community.”

“I’m waiting for the dust to settle,” Waggoner says. “There seem to be a lot of good points, but they need to get everyone up to speed.”

“It was an abrupt change of speed,” says Matt Saros, another Windsor Farm Elementary parent. “I’m hoping the learning process will start to go more smoothly.”