This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Missouri’s top education officials are doing their best to dispel what they say are common misconceptions about common core school standards.
In emails, conference calls, online videos and meetings in each of the state’s eight congressional districts, personnel from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education fanned out to explain what the standards are, what they aren’t and how they are designed to help Missouri students score higher on standardized tests.
Chris Nicastro, head of the department, has made a strong effort to persuade Missourians that the new standards don't usurp the rights of the state or of local school districts to teach what they want, how they want. But her efforts have often met with resistance, some of it fueled by outside opposition to the standards.
Even though the state board of education adopted the standards in 2010, to be implemented in the 2014-15 school year, controversy over them began to bubble up in recent months. A bill to bar the state from putting them into place without legislative approval was filed, then changed to require education officials to hold hearings to let people know what the are, how they would change what Missouri students learn and how much they might cost to put into effect.
Those sessions were held Thursday night across the state, including ones in the Lindbergh and Hazelwood school districts. Leaders were given a script to follow to explain what the standards will do; then, small groups discussed what they liked about the standards and what questions they had.
Their feedback will be sent to the education department, which has been maintaining a web page on the standards and will include questions and answers from the sessions in the coming days.
At the Hazelwood session – which was pretty tame compared with a more boisterous crowd reported at the Lindbergh meeting -- Tim Ricker, an area supervisor for the department, presented the basics on the standards to a crowd of about 75 people.
His main points:
- The standards were developed starting in 2007 by educators from Missouri and other states. So far, they have been adopted by 45 states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories and the Department of Defense.
- At this point, they cover only English and mathematics.
- They are aligned with Missouri’s Show-Me Standards, which were drawn up in the 1990s.
- The effort is led by states. The federal government played no role.
- The standards are designed to provide a concise list of what students should know at various grade levels. In English, they will feature more non-fiction works, to help students learn to derive information from texts; in math, they will focus on concepts.
- The standards will help fulfill the state’s goals of having all high school graduates ready for college or a career and moving Missouri to be in the top 10 states for educational achievement by 2020.
- Before they were finalized, 10,000 public comments, including 300 from Missouri, were submitted and considered in making changes.
- Most importantly, in terms of emphasis by Ricker and questions from those who attended the session, the standards only define what students should know. They do not mandate how teachers should teach or what courses school districts must offer. Those decisions remain with local districts, as they always have.
Ricker stressed that Missouri may choose to make changes at any time. “Since these are state standards,” he said, “it is a state’s choice on how to use them.”
Despite his assurances, though, not everyone was convinced that the common core standards are solely a state initiative, that local districts have the flexibility to teach what they want to teach and the federal government won’t be peeking into states’ gradebooks and collecting data on individual students.
In the words of one person during small group discussions:
“They’re acting like it’s not a federal thing, but it is.”
Other questions included how much money the standards will cost the state, since assessments determining how well students are doing will be computerized and not all districts have enough technology or bandwidth.
Ricker said the state is still working through that issue, though he noted that money is now available to give the MAP tests, so not all costs for the new assessments will be additional.
Still, one person wondered, if there is more money needed, “will there be money and resources for art class and music and sports and things outside the common core?”
Others asked when the common core would be extended to disciplines like science and social studies, how students with special needs and advanced students will be affected by the new standards, and if Missouri wants to rank in the top 10 by 2020, where is it now? (Ricker’s answer: it ranks 26th.)
On the question of information on individual students and how it might be available to the federal government, Ricker stated flatly:
“We’re not sharing data points on individual students, and we can’t unless the statute changes, which I’m not sure would be publicly acceptable.
“Education is a state’s right. Every state has a state law that governs its education. The feds only govern federal programs, and they have federal guidelines. But education is a state’s right, a state’s responsibility under a state constitution.”
Despite DESE’s effort to educate the public on the common core standards and push for greater understanding and acceptance, the battle won’t be easy.
At the end of the Hazelwood session, a woman in the crowd distributed a flyer urging people to contact Gov. Jay Nixon asking for information about the standards and asking them to contact their local school board members with questions about how the standards would be implemented in their district and how much do educators there know about what is going on.
It listed points like “If it’s so great, why are we just now hearing about it?” and “It’s a school, not a jobs program for 3-17 year olds” and pointed people to websites like MOAgainstCommonCore.com, which features a petition against the standards signed by more than 1,000 people, and MissouriEducationWatchdog.com, which complained that DESE’s session in Lindbergh Thursday night did not answer questions from people who are “Mad as Hell and They Were Not Going to Take This Anymore.”
Ricker said information being compiled from the eight sessions will be posted on the DESE website, with a list of frequently asked questions and answers, some time soon. “We’re government, right, so give us a week,” he said. “It takes a while to gather this all together.”
The evening was summed up by one member of the Hazelwood audience this way:
“I like that they’re having meetings like this. They should do it more and they should have a little more information.”