What should children learn and how should they learn it?
Ask any three teachers and you’ll get a wide range of answers.
Ohio is one of the many states trying to address the question this fall with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a standard set of expectations for exactly what students need to know at each grade level.
It aims to ensure the same level of math and language education in California as in Maine.
For example, right now a boy in Seattle who earns an A could get a C in the same subject at a school elsewhere because academic expectations aren’t the same in all states.
More importantly, educators want to make sure the United States doesn’t continue to slip behind other countries — a trend that has dire economic consequences.
The United States no longer ranks in the top 20 nations on Earth in reading, math, and science averages, a study by the Program for International Student Assessment showed.
Every three years, PISA measures how 15-year-olds in 65 countries perform. The latest numbers (from 2012) put 29 nations ahead of the United States in math.
Students here leaped up nine spots in reading from 2009 to 2012 but still finished in 19th place.
Who performed best overall?
The top rankings went to Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao, Japan, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Estonia.
What is Common Core?
Lima, Wapakoneta and other schools across the state have been teaching the Common Core for a few years now, although this is the first year schools will be assessed on it. But what is it?
Those who drafted it — experts and teachers working for the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — said it “focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.”
Common core was created as a common system for multiple states, said Wapakoneta City School District Superintendent Keith Horner.
In math, that means slowing down and hitting a narrower range of ideas much harder.
For example, second-graders absolutely must know how to add and subtract by the end of the year. Eighth-graders cannot move up without understanding linear algebra and linear functions.
In between, teachers have to build on the basics step by step to show how addition “grows” into algebra.
When it comes to language, simply teaching literacy is not good enough, according to Common Core.
The new standards call for a “staircase of increasing complexity” that challenges children to take what they read and show a deep comprehension of vocabulary and nuance.
Students need to be able to analyze texts and form their own clear arguments and interpretations.
The standards are not any less rigorous, Horner said, but he said they are unclear.
When students graduate, Common Core’s goal is to have them be college- and career-ready, according to Horner.
What Common Core means to Jill Ackerman, Lima City Schools superintendent, and Horner is a new set of standards they have to implement, reinforcing the ever-changing educational standards with which they have become familiar.
Common core is not necessarily bad, Horner said, although some in his district feel differently. However, education has become very politicized and the educational standards are changing much more often than is necessary.
“I’m not really for or against Common Core,” Horner said, “I’m for stability.”
Teaching to the test?
Tests are inevitable. After all, teachers have to figure out how well their students have grasped classroom concepts.
There will be much, much more testing this year, which is Ackerman’s biggest frustration with the new standards.
“The testing is out of control,” Ackerman said.
On her calendar, there are only two weeks from February to May that will not have a student taking a test, which is frustrating also because it takes time away from teaching.
Replacing Ohio Achievement Assessments, the new exams are called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
The first PARCC battery will come about 75 percent of the way through the school year. The second will come in mid-spring.
There will be nine sessions for most grade levels rather than the current two.
That’s about 9.5 hours of testing — roughly double that of the OAAs.
They’ll be given over five days. Some will be shorter, mostly broken into 45-minute chunks.
Exams will be completed online, though there could be an optional paper-and-pencil test for students because most districts don’t have enough computers for every student to take the test in that window.
Both Ackerman and Horner said they do not teach to the test, they teach to the standards and students are then tested on those standards, something that Ackerman agrees with, although she is not in support of the amount of testing.
Districts have been cautioned that they will likely tank the PARCC in its first year because the Common Core is so new.