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Why Common Core? Expectations for students, teachers

Ellen Abbott/WRVO file photo

In classrooms across New York, students are being taught under the Common Core learning standards, requirements that specify what students should know in English Language Arts and math based on grade level.

Students are expected to read and more thoroughly analyze nonfiction text as part of the English requirement. In math, students must have a deeper understanding of concepts and memorize certain formulas.

The creators of Common Core expect that if students have those understandings they will be better prepared for college and career, but many believe the learning standards are developmentally inappropriate and the worst way to prepare students for the future.

“One of the concerns we have is Common Core kind of narrows the curriculum and isn’t expansive enough,” said West Seneca Schools Superintendent Mark Crawford. “Because it’s tied to high stakes testing teachers don’t feel free to illicit creativity from kids and provide opportunities for kids to express their creativity.”

Crawford said the district believe the standards have taken the joy out of learning and don’t allow students to learn at their own pace.

“The curriculum is not set in place yet,” Crawford said. “Children are being tested on material that they’ve not seen before. The teachers haven’t had adequate time and professional development to communicate it to the children and 40 percent of their evaluation is tied to those tests, which are flawed.”

The standards have even been called a “one size fits all approach” for students.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO
Nate, Sharon and Aiden Styles

Shannon Styles, a parent and teacher at Gowanda High School in western New York, said that, under the Common Core model, math students might have the right answer to a division problem, but the whole problem could be incorrect without proper proof. She explains with an example from her son’s homework.

“So, 54 divided by 6. He looked at it and said okay that’s 9, which is what any 3rd grade kid should know, but what they have him do is break it into two different parts,” Styles said. “They have this main problem, which you’re trying to solve, they break it into step one, step two, step three, and step four. So where you need to know 54 divided by 6 is 9, you now have four different ways to create error. And if he made an error in step three he gets the whole thing wrong.”

Styles said in English, students are taking too much time reading the same text.

“You give them a three page short story and it takes two weeks to get through, because you have to go back and do what’s called close reads, this is all in the module work, where you go back and have to read a paragraph and work on it for 40 minutes,” Styles said. “And the next day you’re going to look at paragraph two and you’re going to work on that for 40 minutes. So, it’s very redundant, it’s very repetitive, and I see it killing reading.”

Shannon Styles' sixth grade son, Nate, agrees.

“We do the same thing every single day instead of doing something different,” Nate Styles said. “And for homework for a whole week we would have to read the same chapter every night. It gets me mad, because it’s really boring.”

Another elementary school teacher, Sharon Pikul, said many of her students are starting to develop avoidance behaviors, because they feel the tasks they’re being asked to do are too hard.

“My difficulty comes when you’re asking them to do something that we didn’t give them the beginning steps to do,” Pikul said. “So, now we have to go backwards and start at square one, but they’re going to expect them to be at step six. Well, we’ve got five steps of catch up to play.”

Districts across New York state were given the option to adapt the Common Core standards to suit their individual needs or to adopt the standards as they are, using materials that the state Education Department provides.

Amherst Central Schools Superintendent Laura Chabe said her district outside Buffalo chose to adapt.

“I think a piece of it is we’ve always had very rigorous curriculum and we’ve always tried to make sure that our teachers are provided with the professional development that they need,” Chabe said. “I wouldn’t say it has come without some pain. It has been an incredible amount of work. We’ve had to increase the amount of money that we’re spending on our professional development. And we’ve had teachers who are pretty seasoned veteran teachers say to us in some ways it feels like my first year of teaching again, because I’m leaning new curriculum and I have to adjust how I’m teaching.”

But, Chabe said on the flip side she has also seen interesting student engagement activities.

“In some ways there are ways to be more creative, because we’re encouraging kids to think more critically and more deeply,” she said.

Chabe said prior to Common Core the district was teaching more to the test, because they didn’t have a lot of guidance from the state and were using the exams as instructional tools.

“Now it’s really about concepts,” Chabe said. “It’s really about learning, it’s about pedagogy being transferred to what they’re going to be asked on those exams.”

But it’s not just in the Amherst School District where Common Core is working well.

Sweet Home Schools Superintendent Anthony Day said his district is also succeeding with the learning standards.

“They represent a higher level of learning and achievement for kids, but they’re more focused,” Day said. “There’s less breadth and more depth, which I think is very much necessary and needed and actually helpful. Our staff is working really hard and I know our kids are working really hard, and I’m really pleased with some of the progress we’re seeing. Where some people would say there’s no joy and there’s kids crying when they take the test, honestly we’ve not seen that yet.”

The districts that didn’t adapt Common Core chose to adopt by utilizing curricular modules and unit materials provided by the state Education Department. Some adopting districts chose that route because it was cheaper than creating a new curriculum based on Common Core.

Styles says adopting also assures that districts are teaching information that will eventually show up on the state assessments.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO
Parents attend a Jamestown education forum

“I think the ones that adopted really wanted those test scores to go up and they’re scared if they didn’t that maybe some of the things from the modules will be on the test and now our kids won’t do as well,” Styles said. “But again, they’re only looking at test scores. They aren’t looking at 180 days of what students are actually doing if you only have modules.”

But, not all districts that adopted the new learning standards are struggling. At an educational forum in Jamestown, Randolph Central Schools Superintendent Kimberly Moritz told New York State Education Commissioner John King that achievement has increased there since Common Core was introduced.

“I can say that from my little piece of New York state your agenda has helped us to accomplish more. I have not had the resources that big districts may have… There are problems, but it’s working for us,” said Moritz.

This story is part of an occasional series about the controversial Common Core learning standards.

Ashley is a Buffalo native, and is in her second stint as reporter at WBFO. During her first tenure at the station, Ashley covered a variety of issues in the western New York region and earned an Associated Press award for team coverage on “Same Sex Marriage in New York.” Ashley has also worked as an anchor/reporter at WBEN in Buffalo and WBTA in Batavia.