This year, education is changing in Johnson City and across the country. In short, TCAP testing is out and Common Core is in.
Common Core standards are a nationwide initiative, ensuring that students around the country are prepared for college and careers. Before Common Core, academic standards varied widely from one state to another and changed frequently.
Now, with 48 states voluntarily participating, most students will be taught the same basic material and skills. A student who moves from one state to another will be able to pick up where he left off rather than being ahead or behind standards in his new state. Of course, all students will not have the same educational experience, but it evens the playing field in terms of what skills kids should acquire.
Common Core standards focus on fewer topics than previous curricula — the point is to get more in-depth in fewer topics instead of brushing the surface of many, ideally giving students time to master skills before moving on to more complex subjects. Each year, skills will build on those learned the previous year. The focus is on quality of learning instead of quantity of topics.
Common Core is not a part of the much-criticized No Child Left Behind legislation. NCLB has spawned a highly test-centered atmosphere which, in most cases, has done precious little to actually improve learning.
Johnson City Schools are among the highest performing systems in Tennessee, but our state ranks 41st in the nation in academic achievement. For example, only 26 percent of fourth grade students statewide are proficient in reading; that number rises to only 27 percent in eighth graders. Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has said our goal is to be the fastest-improving state in the nation.
Experts stress that Common Core is not a curriculum, but a set of expectations and goals for what students need to learn. Local educational leaders are free to decide how to achieve those goals within their schools. Theoretically, Common Core will give teachers more flexibility and choices in how and what they teach. Changes also abound in how teachers’ job performance will be evaluated, with tougher assessments on the horizon.
Keywords frequently associated with Common Core are rigor and struggle — standards are more rigorous and will allow kids to struggle with tough concepts. Teachers will help students work through difficulties and are being encouraged to believe their students can meet the new benchmarks instead of anticipating failure.
Common Core assessments for students will require more reading and writing; they will have to explain some answers rather than just completing multiple choice questions.
I n math, elementary students will build strong skills in the basics and in middle and high school, they will learn to apply those concepts in practical, real-world ways. Students will be able to explain how to solve problems rather than just knowing formulas.
The English and language arts standards will include a greater focus on writing, such as reading new, progressively complex texts and then writing critically about them, improving the ability to apply critical thinking to real-life situations. Students will also read more non-fiction — only 25 percent of reading in high school will be fiction.
Common Core sounds almost dreamy on paper, but it comes with problems and question marks. It’s also a surprisingly political issue — many critics believe it toes the line of allowing education to be controlled by federal bureaucracy or that the government may not be able to keep itself appropriately removed from what should be state-centered.
One immediate issue is the new standards do not match the textbooks already in use, meaning teachers may be scrambling to find supplementary resources until it’s time for new books.
Teachers have to endure dreaded professional development workshops to learn the new standards and colleges with education programs have to retool their curriculum and retrain professors to prepare future teachers.
While many teachers will appreciate the increased flexibility, some may struggle to plan lessons because they are so accustomed to having a scripted curriculum. While teachers adapt, students are caught in the middle, losing learning time and progress.
When end-of-the-year tests are administered, they may show poor performance but it will be unclear whether it’s due to a lack of learning or if kids were not taught the correct content. The new standards and tests may be especially challenging for students in higher grades who did not build the basic skills in previous years; it is uncertain how or if older kids will be grandfathered into new assessments.
I talked with several teachers about Common Core and their reactions were mixed. Some believe the new standards are a step in the right direction and will ultimately result in kids who are better prepared for college and careers; others anticipate the problems will outnumber the benefits.
Some teachers are reluctant to accept any change, especially the kind as wide and far-reaching as Common Core. Many are apprehensive about the new ways their job performance will be measured — success will depend heavily on student test scores and evaluations from colleagues.
Some concerns are specific to subject areas. As one high school English teacher pointed out, the bigger focus on non-fiction comes at a great cost. Fiction is an unmatched resource — it sparks curiosity and offers life lessons in a way non-fiction cannot.
Special education teachers are concerned that writing-intensive methods of assessment will be too much for their students to handle.
Teachers in areas such as music and art fear the new standards are too stringent for the content they teach.
Others worry Common Core is too tough and will push kids into material they aren’t ready to handle, which may lead to bigger problems — overwhelmed kids may just give up and become lost in the shuffle.
This past school year, Johnson City Schools partially implemented Common Core standards in grades 3-8 and full standards in kindergarten through second grade. It’s worth noting, however, that students will take TCAP tests again next spring, even though the new standards will be taught all year.
Ultimately, the success of Common Core will depend on how it is implemented in schools. It may be many years before we can measure its outcome. If legislators change the course too soon, we’ll never know.
Education in our country is in dire need of improvement as we struggle to compete in a global economy. Common Core may or may not be the answer, but we owe it to our students to do anything possible to increase their chances of success in college and beyond.
Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist.