Districts try to keep up with new standards

It’s taken a year for Hollidaysburg Area School District administrators to evaluate their curriculum and come up with recommendations to align the district to the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards for math and language arts.

“Whether we think it’s good or bad,” Assistant Superintendent Gary Robinson said, “national standards are driving academic standards at this point in time.”

The standards are mandates for what students in kindergarten through high school should know and be able to do in mathematics and language arts. They are modeled after national standards, which have been embroiled in controversy.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has sought to cut off future funding that would allow the Obama administration to “cajole states” into participating in the Common Core State Standards. Adopting standards has been a pre-requisite for a state to receive certain federal grant money.

Pennsylvania adopted the standards in 2010, but decided to mix them with existing standards.

“Since 2011, the Corbett administration decided to move away from the national Common Core standards that were adopted in July 2010,” Department of Education Spokesman Tim Eller said in an email.

But Pennsylvania’s standards borrow from the national standards, and issues of testing, funding and curriculum changes have drawn opposition.

While Eller said Gov. Tom Corbett has halted the July 1 deadline for the State Board of Education to consider “minor modifications” to address the concerns raised by the public and the General Assembly, legislature and anti-standards groups say there are “severe problems” with the education overhaul.

“Everybody is so confused about this,” said Cheryl Boise, director of the nonprofit Commonwealth Education Organization, which was established by parents seeking to understand school issues in Pennsylvania.

“School boards are not in control of this,” she said. “They are a rubber stamp writing out a check.”

Some Democratic state senators oppose the state’s standards-aligned assessments – called Keystone Exams – because schools could be stuck with a $500 million bill for remediation for students who don’t pass them the first time.

Rigor is another concern, although international benchmarking played a significant role in the standards, according to the Common Core State Standards website. Boise believes the standards may “dumb down” college entrance requirements.

“Where do you go if this isn’t working?” Boise asked.

Altoona Area school board President Ryan Beers took his concerns to state Sen. Mike Folmer, the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee chairman.

“I want empirical evidence to support the use of new standards,” Beers said.

Legislators have held hearings where that have spurred Corbett to halt the standards deadline.

“The new Common Core Standards will exacerbate the problem of teaching to the test,” state Sen. Michael Stack, D-Philadelphia, has said.

But for each complaint there is a rebuttal.

“We are being freed from teaching skill, skill, skill for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments [the state’s current standardized test based on current state standards]. Students will be instructed for deep, solid thought,” said Tina Swineford, an Altoona Area elementary teacher who is working to roll out the standards in the district in the fall.

“I haven’t come across a standard that seems not a viable educational goal,” said Altoona Area teacher union president Doug Rosenberry. “From an educator’s standpoint, it seems one thing they are trying to come up with is a common language across the board. So when students matriculate to higher education and run into other students from other states and countries, they know they’ve had the same educational background. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.”

Lois Kaneshiki, a Blair County representative of Pennsylvanians against Common Core, anticipates teachers’ creativity will suffer.

“There is no reason why state and federal government has to mandate curriculum for every school,” she said. “The standards can be a model, but education should be locally driven.”

Hollidaysburg Area School District teachers infuse the borough’s history with social studies curriculum, and that won’t change because of Common Core history standards, Assistant Superintendent Gary Robinson said.

“Local history will be in the curriculum. You can’t study the Civil War without talking about Gettysburg and Hollidaysburg,” he said.

The standards are goals to be worked into teachers’ curriculum maps, Swineford said.

“[Those curriculum maps] aren’t how teachers are going to instruct students,” said Swineford. “That is up to the creativity of the teacher.”

Teachers may request new texts as a result of the standards. Hollidaysburg Area School District could switch from traditional text books to eBooks in the next five years, Robinson said.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed more than $100 million in grants to universities, teachers’ trade unions and state departments of education to facilitate Common Core implementation. That has been used as ammunition by Common Core opponents, who said the standards are not a state-led effort, but spurred by those who can profit from education.

“They can throw suspicion out there, but it’s not based in reality,” said Chad Colby, spokesman of the nonprofit organization Achieve Inc., which wrote the standards.

The Common Core State Standards were started with a memorandum of agreement among the Council of Chief State School Officers, The National Governors Association Center For Best Practices and states.

The agreement was signed in 2010 by governors and chief state school officials of 47 states, including then-Gov. Ed Rendell and then-Chief State School Officer Gerald Zahorchak.

“We are not saying we don’t need change,” Boise said. “We are saying, ‘Who should be responsible for the change?'”

But Colby said the the process has been transparent.

“There were two public comment periods and multiple drafts throughout the development process, and it was the governors and chiefs of state, who developed the standards,” he said.

The standards are a program to build knowledge across grades, Colby said. “Ask them [the opponents] what standard they don’t like and why.”

Beers can name a few standards he doesn’t like.

He said the standards in literature apparently replace classical literature with factual reading, such as law cases and ordinances.

“If you think law cases are going to get children who aren’t interested in reading now interested, I think you’re wrong,” he said.

“I would hope the [Altoona Area school] board agrees to a resolution stating the district has concerns about Common Core curriculum and that it would urge the governor and education committee to continue to re-examine if PA Common Core is what’s best for schools.”