Common Core: ‘We’re building the plane while we’re flying it’
By Khalil Abdullah, From New America Media
Five-year-old Ryan had been up to the task of his kindergarten homework – copy each word five times and use each in a sentence – but his universe was upended when his teacher assigned him a new task: look up the words in a dictionary and write their definitions.
“I was so frustrated,” says his mother, Cristi Wijngaarde, a community organizer with the Vietnamese American Young Leadership Association (VAYLA) in New Orleans. “The words had been simple – like clock, red, blue – and even the two ‘challenge words’ were drawn from a story that had been read in class, but he had never used a dictionary before.”
She called his teacher and asked if the students had been taught how to use a dictionary; they had not. Being able to look up words in a dictionary isn’t a part of the Common Core’s standards for kindergarteners, but students are expected to explore word meanings with guidance from adults.
The teacher told her that the school had wanted to make students’ work more challenging, but Wijngaarde says, “This isn’t really work for kindergarteners – this is homework for parents. It was weird, because my fourth grade child, though she’s in a different school, hadn’t started with dictionary work either.”
Her son’s trouble with the assignment has come to represent a dilemma with the implementation of the Common Core in Louisiana: how will schools bring about changes in teachers’ current teaching methods to reflect a more rigorous set of standards?
“Of course I want my child to be challenged,” Wijngaarde says, but she thinks there has to be a plan for how teachers will deal with the Common Core’s higher expectations of students.
In her work at VAYLA, she interacts regularly with school-age children and has observed frustration rippling through all grade levels, and particularly among those with limited-English proficiency.
“When I talk to students about the stresses and conditions of their schools, Common Core definitely comes up,” Wijngaarde says, adding that the standards are leading some students to become unsure of their abilities.
Before joining VAYLA, Wijngaarde worked for the Recovery School District, the state-run agency set up to take over failing Louisiana schools; she later worked at a charter school run by the Orleans Parish School Board. It was through her training as a parent liaison that she learned about Common Core standards, but she says that the state’s outreach to communities and parents did not occur in a sustained fashion.
“We never really, as parents, talked about Common Core,” she says.
The Common Core, developed by the National Governors Association in partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers, has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Louisiana opted for Common Core in 2010, but as the transition date drew closer, the concept began generating arguments among parents, teachers, and school administrators.
Louisiana’s state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) recently voted to approve a two-year phase-in of the Common Core. Teacher evaluations will not be directly linked to student grades; students, in general, will not be held back from graduating because of the new standards; and the evaluation of schools will be adjusted to accommodate the process of full implementation.
Deirdre Johnson Burel, the executive director of OPEN-NOLA (Orleans Public Education Network), a civic organization that promotes improving education for New Orleans students, commends the BESE’s decision as a pragmatic way to transform public education in the state.
“It’s smart for us to reconsider [the way we implement the Common Core],” she says. “States are going to have to be flexible in not holding children punitively accountable for new standards, and teachers, frankly, are going to have to make that adjustment too.”
She acknowledges that “test scores are largely going to dive across the states” where Common Core is introduced; this is one issue that has been at the heart of parents’ concerns. For now, de-linking teacher evaluations from grades during the two-year interim period has provided teachers with a measure of relief about their job security. After the phase-in, student performance will be part of teacher evaluations.
Johnson Burel remains concerned about the skill sets of younger or less experienced teachers, as well as schools that “don’t feel like they have the professional development to support Common Core.”
She says that in her conversations with experienced teachers, she has found them to be among the Common Core’s most ardent supporters.
“What Common Core really affords is the opportunity to be master of your content. To a well-grounded teacher, it’s liberating. But we’re building the plane while we’re flying it and that makes me nervous for the younger professionals,” she says.
“Kids have access to improved possibilities to gain more information, but it’s not just about what you know, it’s about what you can do with what you know,” she adds. “When you talk to educators, they understand that Common Core demands a higher order of thinking skills.”
While supporting a transitional period, Johnson Burel is insistent that Louisiana follows through on its commitment to full Common Core implementation. She says that historically, many Southern states have not invested heavily in education for political and economic reasons.
“When states [have been] left to their own devices and accountability, states have not set the highest standards,” Johnson Burel says. “I’d lean more [toward] Common Core than the expectations of states to set high standards. It’s a powerful tool for leveling the playing field.”