Common Core State Standards is a term that elicits strong support or strong opposition among Arkansans without discernible middle ground in the discussion.
The standards were adopted in Arkansas in 2010 by the Arkansas State Board of Education. Four years after implementation, concerns linger that the standards were adopted without input from parents or the Legislature, invade privacy of students and families and insert federal intervention in the lives of everyday Arkansans.
In the simplest form, the standards represent proficiencies — skills and knowledge — a student should master at each grade level. How a student reaches the masteries of a grade level is up to the student’s teacher and the district, said Megan Witonski, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Springdale School District.
In Grade 3 math, for example, instruction should focus on four areas: developing an understanding of multiplication and division and strategies for multiplication and division within 100; developing an understanding of fractions, especially unit fractions with numerator; developing an understanding of the structure of rectangular arrays and of area; and describing and analyzing two-dimensional shapes.
The complete set of standards in English-language arts and math for grades kindergarten through 12 can be found at this link. Also, the Arkansas Department of Education has a “frequently asked questions” page on common core at this link.
OPPOSITION, PARCC TEST ISSUE
Still, concerns remain among some Arkansans about common core. Arkansans Against Common Core has been the most vocal opponent of the new system. Group leaders say it limits local control of schools and is an unnecessary expense.
“A majority oppose it because it stifles curriculum development and teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students. Still other fiscally concerned citizens reject it for its massive spending requirements. Ending common core and the related tests are our goal. We seek this goal to retain local control and oppose a top-down centralization of education,” the group notes on its website.
The biggest complaint has centered on the development and use of a new assessment aligned to the new standards, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career or PARCC. Arkansas is a member of the PARCC consortium. Other states joined a second assessment consortium called Smarter Balance. Some of the opposition seems to intertwine Common Core with PARCC.
“Don’t confuse Common Core with PARCC,” said Barry Owen, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Fort Smith School District. “Common Core is like a Cadillac being driven down a dirt road, called PARCC, which is now being paved.”
The concerns in Arkansas reached the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson shortly after his inauguration when he appointed a 17-member task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, to review Common Core and the PARCC assessment. The PARCC assessment was administered for the first time statewide this past spring. It replaces the Benchmarks exams which have been around for two decades or longer.
The task force is holding public hearings in Little Rock and at nine locations around the state to gather public input on Common Core and make recommendations to the governor about the ongoing use of the standards and assessment. Three public hearings remain: June 9 in Batesville; June 16 in Pine Bluff; and June 18 in Fort Smith.
‘GREATER FREEDOM TO EXPLORE’
While all of education’s eyes are focused on that task force, schools continue to develop the Common Core standards as the best way to prepare students for the future, including jobs that may not exist today.
“It’s hard and rigorous,” Owen said of the Common Core standards. “It’s critical. We’re changing because we have to. Business and the world demand it. We have to have students do what the world expects.”
In Fort Smith classrooms, as well as classrooms across the state, students are adapting to the changes in standards by asking more questions and learning to think creatively and work collaboratively, Owen said.
“The sky is the limit on how kids can think creatively, reaching new heights. There is greater freedom to explore,” he added. “Teachers are becoming facilitative, encouraging students to think, to discover, to question.”
Owen said Fort Smith schools started early in the implementation process reaching out to stakeholders — parents, patrons, civic clubs, for example — to talk about Common Core, its relevance, importance and why the change was needed.
“From an international standpoint, we were losing our foothold, we were no longer competing,” Owen said. “Instead of competition nationally, we now compete with Beijing and New Delhi.”
Springdale’s Witonski said the controversy stems from misunderstanding and misinformation.
“Our goal has been to build a pathway to college and career for all students,” Witonski said of the goal of Common Core in Springdale, the second largest school district in the state. “Teachers have invested time and effort and continue to implement the standards. It takes several years to know the success.”
MEASURING THE PROGRAM
That success can be measured by an increased high school graduation rate and a decrease in the remediation rate for students entering college. The first data from the administration of the PARCC assessment in Springdale will come in November. Springdale also uses the Measures of Academic Progress or MAP testing at several intervals in the school year to measure individual student progress. MAP is one of several progress assessments all school districts use.
“This creates a personal assessment of learning level progress as charted over time,” Witonski said. Springdale implemented MAP testing four years ago. “We don’t want to send students with deficiencies to the next grade level.”
Witonski said rather than losing control, districts gain control with the Common Core standards.
“Each school district is independent. How the teacher reaches the goal is up to the district and the teacher,” she added.
The importance lies in getting a student to the proficiency level for the grade, although there may be 50 or more ways to get there, she said.
“The learning process is like a fingerprint, no two students learn alike.”
Standards are not new in Arkansas, Witonski said. Standards have been part of the education landscape. Standards have been around for at least two decades first brought forth by former Gov. Bill Clinton. Over the years, standards have been revised or updated.
“That is nothing new,” Witonski said. “This is not the first time for standards in Arkansas. These won’t be forever.”
PUSH TO KEEP COMMON CORE
Recommendations to the governor haven’t been formulated but Springdale, for one, wants the opportunity to invest time and effort to continue the implementation until success can be determined. The same is true in Bentonville.
“This isn’t something that just happened. It’s been four-year implementation process.” Bentonville has created parent understanding and buy-in during that time through collaboration,” said Bentonville Superintendent Mike Poore.
Bentonville is participating in the discussion by sending representatives to Little Rock and hearing sites around the state to make sure task force members understand Common Core and what it means to Bentonville students.
“There is value in keeping the standards at the national level. The standards are moving education in the right direction,” Poore said. “We want to produce a graduate who is better prepared for postsecondary college or career. We don’t want the student to feel he wasted four years of effort.”
The Common Core standards were originally adopted by 46 states as well as the District of Columbia. Texas, Nebraska and Minnesota were among the states that didn’t adopt the standards. Since 2010 when Arkansas adopted the standards, several states, including Oklahoma, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky have repealed the standards or the use of the accompanying assessment, PARCC or Smarter Balance.