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Common Core

Photo courtesy of Fort Zumwalt School District

Photo courtesy of Fort Zumwalt School District

After five years of creating new resources, planning professional development and revising curriculums, Missouri is deep into Common Core. But, on July 14, Gov. Jay Nixon signed Missouri House Bill 1490, legislation that at its core aims to replace the would-be national standards with uniquely Missouri ones.

In summary, HB1490 requires the State Board of Education to “convene separate work groups on English language arts, mathematics, science, and history and governments whenever it develops, evaluates, modifies, or revises academic performance or learning standards.”

The bill also sets forth exactly how the members of those work groups will be chosen and what qualifications each must have. Among the work group members will be those appointed by state education associations and leaders, legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor, including parents of children currently enrolled in Missouri public schools.

Opponents of Common Core think HB1490 is the first step toward replacing it, but others, including many educators and education watch groups, are not so sure. As Education Week notes: “It’s unclear to what extent the Common Core will survive in Missouri. There’s nothing prohibiting both the work groups and the state board from largely re-adopting the common-core standards, or re-approving virtually all of the Common Core.”

In fact, Sharon Helwig, assistant commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), said Common Core standards and the previous Missouri Learning Standards are very similar.

“To be honest, many of the Common Core standards are not so different from what Missouri had (before),” Helwig said. “Missouri had thoroughly rigorous ones already, but there are some components there that we didn’t have, that we had never had the resources to put together. When you do something on a national basis, there are more resources and that’s been helpful to us, to have that additional set of goals for kids.”

Now, with the adoption of HB1490 and House Bill 2 into law, the question is: Will those resources remain?


House Bill 2

On May 8, Nixon signed House Bill 2, eliminating $4.2 million in funding for Smarter Balanced, the Common Core state assessment. That action has DESE going back to the drawing boards. According to Helwig, the department is currently reviewing the standards and developing a plan for a new test for the 2015-2016 school year. She said the new test will use a similar platform to Smarter Balanced and will focus on the same standards, although no official plans have been released. [Editor’s note: Please see additional clarification in the comments section below from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding Common Core and its related testing platform.]

And until the state comes up with something new, teachers will continue teaching toward the Common Core learning targets.

“Teachers are unsure about what they’ll be using in the future,” Helwig said. “One of the things we’ve tried to tell them is, by law, right now, we are to stick with the standards we have now for at least another year. So, I think having that stability and knowing they can depend on working with the same targets as they’ve had this past year will help them a lot.”

Still, concerns have been raised over the new bill and its potential to affect students’ learning and preparedness for the next state assessment.

Dr. Karen Hargadine, Rockwood’s assistant superintendent of learning and support services, said she feels HB2 will not negatively impact students.

“Regardless of what (DESE chooses), I think (Rockwood) kids are going to be well prepared for whatever tests they decide (to use),” Hargadine said.


The shift to Common Core

A cartoon drifting around social media shows a teacher sitting near a whiteboard on which the following is written: “This year we will be teaching No Child Left Behind, MCT2, Common Core, whatever the governor and lieutenant governor create on a napkin.”

While the cartoon may elicit laughter by presuming that little thought is put into defining, establishing and testing the state’s educational standards, the establishment of the HB1490-ordained work groups and the effort state educators put into preparing for Common Core tell a different story.

The Missouri Board of Education first introduced Common Core into the classroom in June 2010. The new standards were adopted to help give the state a way to compare its students with those across the country.

“Every state had a different set (of standards),” Helwig explained. “It was very hard to tell how students really compared from one state to another. Doing that became very important with the No Child Left Behind legislation in early 2000s, because there were stakes tied to those (assessments and standards) around the country.”

But not everyone embraced the concept of national standards.

“I think that the initial reaction to Common Core was that it was forced by the government on the schools and the local settings, and they did not like that,” Hargadine said. “I think they didn’t like the thought that it was much more of a radical-type curriculum than they were used to. I think they had some misperceptions about what it actually was.”

Helwig also heard concerns from parents regarding the new standards.

“Most of the negative (feedback) we have heard has been tied to issues other than those specific targets,” Helwig said. “Most of the time when I ask parents about how they feel about where fractions are taught, or how they are taught or the writing pieces, often times they tell me they haven’t read the Common Core (standards), that they have heard reports, that they have watched a TV show or something. A lot of the information hasn’t come from the document, itself. We always encourage parents to look at those targets and think about what they want for their children, because that’s what’s important.”

Both Helwig and Hargadine worked on educating patrons about Common Core.

Hargadine explained Rockwood’s level of control over its curriculum and discussed what learning materials are used, assisting parents in becoming more comfortable with the standards.

Under Common Core, many districts had to write and develop new curriculums to align more closely with the standards’ goals.

According to Dr. Bernard DuBray, superintendent of the Fort Zumwalt School District, the district re-evaluated its curriculum, creating something that would challenge its students to reach new levels.

“I think after we got into it, we found that it was a much higher-level thinking (and) the rigor was much higher than what it had been in the past,” DuBray said. “Then, we realized pretty quickly that things would have to be different in the district and we would have to do a lot of professional development (and) do a lot of aligning of the curriculum. As we got in to it, we realized we were into a new ball game and things would have to be elevated.”

DuBray said he also felt teachers had a hard time adapting to the new standards and a new style of teaching.

“Our teachers have had to really step it up to keep up with this more rigorous curriculum,” DuBray said. “It’s put more demands on our teachers, and there’s no doubt that they get frustrated and stressed out sometimes with all that they’ve been asked to do. I think it’s good in the sense that we’re challenging our students more than ever before. I think it’s a little frustrating to our staff because there’s a lot that is asked of them.”

But Helwig has heard positive feedback from several teachers, who believe it’s a more challenging curriculum that raises the bar and forces students to reach their fullest potential.

“I think our teachers have seen it as a move toward more rigor in most of the grade levels and that means work,” Helwig said. “I will tell you that I’m getting some really amazing stories from teachers about the difference in what they’re finding students can do if they’re requiring more.”

Other educational professionals feel Common Core’s real-life applications help students better learn and apply the material, making them more involved in the problem-solving process. Administrators said they have also seen more collaboration and higher-level thinking from students.

“Now (under Common Core) your success is based on your ability to explain how an answer is obtained more so than just obtaining the answer,” DuBray said. “It’s a lot more involved than ever before.”

When interviewed for this article in June, DuBray said he believes the higher standards will produce better, smarter students, regardless of the adjustment period districts are currently experiencing.

But that was then, and this is now.

With HP1490 signed into law, the fate of Common Core hangs in the balance. For now, Missouri educators and students will work toward teaching and achieving standards that are more common than not. Next year, who knows?

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