Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Torrey Palmer: Basically, my jaw dropped and said, “Oh, this is big, this is different.”
The Common Core state standards are changing the way some teachers teach, and they like it.
Aaron Grossman: The teachers are saying, “This is what we came into the profession to do.”
The standards are meant to put American kids on par with the best students around the world.
Kathy Baxley: They’re attacking math in a different way, and they’re getting it.
But the standards come with new, harder tests. Students and teachers are stressed out, and some parents are fed up.
Watson: My daughter practically comes home with nothing she ever creates. It’s just worksheets. Constant test prep.
I’m Stephen Smith. Coming up: “Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core.”
First, this news.
Stephen Smith: Public schools in the United States are in the midst of a huge reform, and a lot of people are unhappy about it.
Protesters: Hey-hey, ho-ho, Cuomo’s got to go!
This is a group of protestors at a Democratic fundraiser on Long Island. They’re calling for the ouster of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo because of his support for the Common Core state standards. If you’ve heard of Common Core, this is probably what you’ve heard: people mad and yelling about it. What you may not have heard is that most teachers actually like the Common Core.
So what is the Common Core? It’s a set of expectations for what kids should learn each year in school. The goals include getting students to think more critically; to understand math rather than merely memorize formulas; to write more; and to cite evidence for their ideas instead of just stating their opinions. Lots of students haven’t been getting this in school. Some haven’t even been getting the basics.
Teacher: All right, does anybody have questions before we take the quiz?
Student: When’s the quiz over?
The students in this math class have lots of questions before their quiz. One student asks the teacher to go over a problem using the Pythagorean Theorem.
Teacher: Chuck Barry has a 26-foot ladder leaning against his house. If the bottom of ladder is 10 feet from the base of the house, how high does the ladder reach? All right, so we have a house. Let’s draw ourselves a picture, there’s our house…
You might think this is a middle school or maybe a high school math class. But it’s not. It’s a remedial math class at the University of Louisville. Cody Graudick ended up here after failing a placement exam.
Cody Graudick: I could not pass. I was actually surprised I even passed high school algebra. They really just pushed me into college, regardless of if I knew the material or not.
This isn’t just a problem in Louisville or in Kentucky. Across the nation, many students are graduating from high school unprepared for college-level work and unable to compete in the global economy. Internationally, the U.S. ranks 17th in reading, 20th in science, and 27th in math. Thomas Riedel chair of the math department at the University of Louisville, says when he first came to the United States from Germany, he was shocked at what his college students did not know.
Thomas Riedel: They had trouble doing fractions. They had trouble understanding what a variable was. Solving a basic equation.
At least one in five college students in the United States has to take remedial classes. At some colleges, it’s as high as 80 percent. That puts those students in danger of never finishing college. Plus, it’s expensive. Student Cody Graudick says he’s already spent $3,000 on math classes at the University of Louisville.
Graudick: I’m supposed to spend at least $2,000 more for the class I’ll take after this and the class I need to satisfy my major. And that upsets me.
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: “Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core.” I’m Stephen Smith.
The Common Core is meant to prevent students from ending up in a situation where they graduate from high school but aren’t ready for college or a career. The idea is to set standards for every grade and test students to make sure they’re meeting those standards. This might sound a lot like what schools have been doing for the past decade under the No Child Left Behind law, but Common Core is different, says Mike Petrilli. Petrilli is an education analyst who worked in the George W. Bush administration. He was a big supporter of No Child Left Behind, but he says the problem with the law is that it relied on states to set their own standards and make their own tests. And states had an incentive to make things easy, because schools could be shut down for bad test scores.
Mike Petrilli: So states would report for example that 80 or 90 percent of their kids were proficient in reading and math, doing great. And we would know from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a more independent assessment, that no, actually the numbers were more like 20 or 30 percent. So somebody wasn’t telling the truth.
The Common Core is an attempt to fix this problem by having students across the country meet the same set of rigorous standards and take the same tough tests.
Critics say the federal government shouldn’t tell local schools what to do, but the Common Core is not a federal program. States developed the standards and adopted them voluntarily. Still, controversy over local control has recently led some states that originally signed on to the standards to drop them.
This program is not about that controversy. It’s about what the Common Core actually looks like in the classroom. Many teachers say the standards help kids learn better and think better, even kids who used to get left behind. But while most teachers say they like the new standards, they have a lot of concerns about the new, harder tests. In many states, if students don’t do well, teachers can lose out on raises or even be fired.
We’ll get to the tests in the second part of the program. First, we learn about the standards themselves and how they’re changing education in one school district in Nevada. Our correspondent Emily Hanford takes us to Reno.
Teacher Brien Karlin: Alright, so um, yesterday, what were we talking about yesterday?
Emily Hanford: This is an American government class at Reno High School.
Student: Give us a hint!
Karlin: We were talking about Congress, but we ended up talking about a little part of Congress.
Karlin: We were talking about districts in Congress. Very good!
This is a pretty typical high school class. Not honors or advanced placement, just standard level American government.
Karlin: And we talked about how districts are formed. And what are some of the qualifications for forming congressional districts?
Yesterday’s class was a traditional lecture. But today, after this brief review, the students are going to do what’s called a “close reading” of a text. The text is an article by a political scientist. Students begin by reading the article out loud in small groups.
Student 2: OK, um, should voters choose their politicians, or should politicians choose their voters? Tennessee representative John Tanner believes voters should choose.
The article they’re reading is about gerrymandering. That’s the process of drawing voting districts to favor one political party or the other. Students read the article. Then they discuss a series of questions.
Student 3: On line six, the author uses the phrase “artificially intensified partisanship.” What does he mean by this?
This is a hard one. Students go back to the article, re-read line six, try to figure out what the author was saying. On the other side of the room, the teacher is helping another group of students figure out what the phrase means.
Karlin: If something has been intensified, it’s become made what?
Student 3: Better.
Karlin: Not necessarily better. Intense doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Student 3: I can’t think of a word.
Karlin: If the feeling becomes more intense, it has become …
Student 3: Stronger?
Karlin: Stronger. Good. So “intensified”means “making stronger.”
Students in this class are not accustomed to reading closely like this. Typically, they’d read something and be asked to summarize it. Or they might be asked their opinion, says the teacher Brien Karlin.
Karlin: They go crazy on a “what do you think of” question. I mean, they just, “Oh let me tell you everything I know about this,” and that’s kind of like, that’s their bread and butter as far as skating by. But when you actually say, identify three specific arguments that Abraham Lincoln was making in the Gettysburg Address, they go, “Um, well I can’t really ‘I think’ my way out of this.” And they struggle there.
Karlin: Awesome, well done. Next question: what are the two motivating factors for political experts to draw congressional district lines as they do?
No one is raising their hand to answer Mr. Karlin’s question.
Karlin: Anybody? Any volunteers?
Student 4: Um, for political gain.
Karlin: OK, where’d you get that from?
Student 4: Well, that’s just, like, what we talked about.
[Cell phone noise]
Karlin: Who is blowing up on Twitter? Turn your phone off please. Is there any indications in the text to give you that answer?
Student 4: Yes, there is….
Karlin: Well you have to, of course…
This is a Common Core lesson. It doesn’t come from a textbook or a curriculum guide; it was written by Mr. Karlin. Before Common Core, some students might have had a lesson like this in an advanced class, but in standard level courses, it was mostly lectures and taking notes. Here’s how a student named Ania describes that way of learning.
Ania: It’s like you’re just getting the basics of everything. You’re getting like a term, and a definition, and one example, maybe.
But Ania says doing a close reading is different.
Ania: Feels like the point is to actually learn something and to actually gain something from it, because you have to use your brain, and you have to struggle a little bit in order to figure it out, but once you do, you’ve actually gained something from it.
Ania says she likes Common Core. Other students in this class say they like it too, though some miss the days of just discussing their opinions.
Karlin: Your homework is to identify the superclaims, subclaims, and evidence and reasoning for each. OK? Basketball game tonight at 7:30 versus Damonte Ranch. Important game…
Common Core is a big change from the way education used to be, here in Reno and lots of other places too. Previous state standards tended to be long lists of skills and strategies kids were supposed to learn. In Nevada, the standards included things like “identify the protagonist” and “find the main idea.” It was impossible to teach everything on the list, so teachers like Aaron Grossman narrowed things down to what they called the “power” standards or, this being Reno, the “jackpot” standards.
Aaron Grossman: And all of this was code for, “This is the stuff that’s on the test.”
He’s talking about the big state tests at the end of the year. Those tests focused on math and reading, so kids spent a lot of time on math and reading, and less on things like science and history. Teachers were supposed to begin every lesson by telling students the skill or strategy they’d be learning that day, says Cathy Schmidt, who taught elementary school.
Cathy Schmidt: Like, today we’re going to read to make inferences, or today we’re going to predict, or today we’re going to draw conclusions.
After going over the skill of the day, teachers would typically give kids a quick summary of the story they were about to read. Then they’d ask students about their personal experience with the topic. So if the story was about a family taking a train trip, the teacher might ask the class—
Schmidt: —Have you ever been on a train? Tell me about the time you’ve been on a train?
The idea was to get students engaged and interested. But with a question like this, there would be some kids who would raise their hands, eager to talk about train trips and family vacations. And there’d be others who had nothing to say. Maybe they’d never been on a train. Maybe they’d never left their neighborhood. This part of the lesson could go on for a long time. And when kids finally did get down to reading, they wouldn’t necessarily all be reading the same thing. Teachers used a technique called “leveled instruction,” says Torrey Palmer. She’s a literacy coordinator for the school district in Reno.
Torrey Palmer: Leveled instruction is just an approach to literacy in which students spend the majority, vast majority of their time, in a text that is at their reading level. So if a student is in fifth grade and they’re reading at a third grade level, they spend most of their day reading texts at a third grade level.
Even in the upper grades, students might get different things to read, depending on their ability, says Angela Orr, who was a high school history teacher.
Angela Orr: I was told if I wanted students to understand a primary source, I should excerpt it for the highest kids and then give all of the definitions of hard words for what were called the “medium kids.” And then actually change the words to something really comprehensible for the kids that were struggling readers.
The idea behind all of this leveling was to—
Grossman: —keep kids out of frustration.
This was the message from the school district, from publishers, from all kinds of experts, says Aaron Grossman.
Grossman: What you don’t want is you don’t want to create a classroom environment where kids just feel defeated. And so we were all enormously cautious about making sure that whatever challenge we put in front of our kids, that they weren’t defeated by the experience all together.
This didn’t just play out in what kids read, but in their assignments too. Because the goal was for everyone to be successful, and because so many kids struggled with reading, assignments often ignored the reading all together. So for example, in that story about the family taking a train trip, let’s say the main character gets a new toy. Here’s what an assignment might be.
Grossman: Sometimes we get toys we like; sometimes we get toys we don’t like. Describe a toy that you got that you liked.
This assignment doesn’t depend on the text at all. In fact, you don’t even have to read the text. This approach to education was meant to help the students who were behind. But plenty of teachers had a pit in their stomach about it. It didn’t seem to be working. And for Linnea Wolters, who taught fifth grade at a poor school in Reno, it was just bad education.
Wolters: If you can’t do these skills well than all you get is remediation. You never get to do the parts of learning that are amazing. You never get to do the good stuff, because you can’t do the right thing on a test at the right time. And it was another, just, way of making sure that kids who are in poverty stay trapped in poverty.
Wolters was fed up with school reform. When Common Core came along in 2010, she assumed it was more of the same. But when her colleague Aaron Grossman read the new standards, they looked different to him. First, they were surprisingly short. In English Language Arts for example, there are just 10 standards in reading, 10 in writing, plus a set of standards in speaking and listening, and a set of standards in the use of language. And rather than being a list of skills, the Common Core read more like a description of what it means to be an educated person– things like “analyze ideas” and “assess the credibility of information.” Grossman was working as a teacher trainer at this point. It was his job to teach teachers the new standards, so he was motivated to learn more. He went to his computer, started googling Common Core, and came across a video of a guy named David Coleman.
Grossman: I don’t know who he is, and I start playing it.
David Coleman: [Video] Good morning.
Audience: [Video] Good morning…
David Coleman is one of the authors of the Common Core English Language Arts standards. He’d been invited to speak at a conference of principals in New York City.
Grossman: And here he is presenting before a group of educators, describing what it means to do Common Core.
In his speech, Coleman talks about some of the big ideas behind the new standards. One of them is to stop focusing so much on skills like finding the main idea and to get away from leveled instruction. Instead of giving kids different things to read based on their ability, Coleman says all students need to be reading more challenging text.
David Coleman: [Video] What really changes as kids grow as readers is not that they suddenly learn how to find the main idea. It is that they can do so with a much more complex text. That is, what college and career readiness is most predicted by, the single greatest predictor of college and career readiness is that you can read a sufficiently complex text with confidence.
In other words, a high school graduate can be good at finding the main idea, but if she’s only been asked to find the main idea in an eighth- or ninth-grade level text, she’s likely to struggle in college, and in life. Aaron Grossman was intrigued. He kept googling Common Core and discovered that a lot of what’s in the standards runs counter to what he and other teachers had been doing. For example, the Common Core calls for students to read lots of non-fiction, but teachers had been focusing mostly on literature. Research shows the background knowledge and vocabulary kids learn through non-fiction is key to helping them become better readers. Poor kids need this especially, because they tend to come to school way behind. And the idea is if teachers just give them easy stories to read, they never catch up.
David Liben: Leveled texts produce leveled societies.
This is David Liben, one of the people Aaron Grossman came across in his research. Liben works for Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit set up by the authors of the Common Core to help teachers put the standards into practice. Liben says a lot of what teachers were doing to try to help struggling learners was actually having the opposite effect. Like getting kids to talk about their personal experiences before reading. That was meant to get kids engaged, but Liben says it actually put kids from poor families at a disadvantage in the classroom.
Liben: Previously, so much was what’s outside the text and your experience outside the text and how you relate to it. And that privileges those children who have that experience outside the text. Whereas when the focus is much more on what’s in the four corners of the text, it helps to level the playing field.
Remember that story about the family taking a train trip? And how some kids had lots to say but others had nothing? That’s what David Liben is talking about. He says when students have to cite evidence from a text, they can all find something to say.
Now, these ideas are not uncontroversial. Some experts say getting students to connect their learning with personal experience is essential. Others worry giving complex text to struggling readers will turn them off to learning. But for Aaron Grossman in Reno, the ideas behind Common Core seemed to make a lot of sense. He wanted a second opinion though. So he showed the David Coleman video to his colleague Torrey Palmer.
Torrey Palmer: Basically my jaw dropped and said, oh, this is big, this is different, and if we can build off of this, then we could be doing something probably pretty significant for our classrooms and for our students.
So they asked their boss if they could bring a group of teachers together, watch the Coleman video, and see what the teachers thought of it. Linnea Wolters, the fifth grade teacher who was fed up with school reform, she’s one of the teachers they invited.
Wolters: I was like, oh, I’ll go. Because I believe you should know your enemy.
Eighteen teachers came to the meeting. They watched the video, talked about the big ideas behind the standards, and agreed to try a Common Core sample lesson with their students. Teacher Linnea Wolters was skeptical.
Wolters: Like, I wanted to be brave and I wanted to be open-minded, because I felt like I had opened my mind a little bit to something. And then I saw the poem, and I read the poem, and my mind, my affective filter went straight up, my mind slammed closed, and I was like, you’ve gotta be freaking kidding me, because it’s hard.
The lesson focused on the sonnet by Emma Lazarus that’s on the base of the Statue of Liberty. It’s called “The New Colossus.”
Wolters: And it’s “not like the brazen giant of Greek fame”… what?
Actor: “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame/With conquering limbs astride from land to land.”
Wolters: And so I read the poem, and I put it down and I was like, this just sucks, like, stop doing this to me.
For all the ways Linnea Wolters had been frustrated about how education had been dumbed down for students like hers, she thought for sure this poem would be way too hard for her fifth graders.
Wolters: But then I went, and I read the lesson plan, and I started to do it. I said if I am going to ask my students to do this, then I want to do it. I’m going to go through the same steps I’m going to ask them to go through. And then I looked at question one and it was about analyzing the rhyme scheme of the poem, and I first thought that was a ludicrous thing to do…
Actor: “Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand/A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name/Mother of Exiles.”
Wolters: And as I went through, I noticed that for all of the archaic language and all of the complex syntax in that poem, the last words of those 16 lines are “free,” “me,” “fame,” “name.” They’re all these really easy one-syllable words that fifth-graders know.
When she realized this she thought – OK, I’ll give the lesson a shot with my students.
Wolters: We had 50 color highlighters. We were highlighting things and writing As and Bs and Cs and Ds, and the kids, even my historically low-achieving students, in fact it was one of my SPED kids—
A SPED kid is a student in special education.
Wolters: —who said to the class, “It’s a pattern.” And they all went, “Oh!”
Actor: “From her beacon hand/Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command/The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.”
Wolters: We wrote that on the board. What do you notice about the pattern? Well, there’s no As after this point, so, OK, these either lines go together and these six lines go together. Cool…
She hadn’t told her students this was a poem about the Statue of Liberty. The idea was for them to figure it out.
Wolters: And so I gave them a good long while to think and finally it was the two students in my class who actually received pull-out ELL services raised their hands.
Pull-out ELL services are for kids who don’t speak much English. These kids never raised their hands.
Wolters: I said, “Yes?”And they said, “It’s about the Statue of Liberty.”And the rest of the kids kind of went, “What?”Why do you think that? What evidence do you have to support that point of view? “It says it’s a woman with a torch.”
Actor: “‘Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, /The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Wolters: And the other kids go, “Grumble, grumble, grumble.” What do you think of Ezekiel and Salvador’s ideas? “I don’t know.”
I said, “Why don’t you see if you can find more evidence?” So they start digging in. And all of a sudden I’ve got kids popping off with, “She’s in a harbor!” “And there’s two cities.” And they’re just giving me all this information, and we’re highlighting and circling on the hovercam, and everybody’s updating their notes.
Actor: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, /I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
Wolters: And I was high, just high as a kite. On what the kids had done and how engaged they were and how successful they were.
She couldn’t wait to tell the other teachers what had happened. Like her, most of them thought the Common Core lessons would be too hard. And most were amazed, says Torrey Palmer.
Palmer: Kind of the biggest a-has and surprises were, “I never thought that my students would be able to read this and be successful with a text like this,” to, “I can’t believe that these students did well with it but that these students, who I typically would have thought would have had no problem, really struggled and that they got kind of frustrated.”
For the most part, the low-achieving kids worked really hard during the lesson and did well. But the high-achievers were kind of resistant. They weren’t used to working so hard.
Palmer: High-achieving readers were frustrated with having to slow down, to defend their thinking, to really go deep with text and really get to the intent. They were used to reading very quickly through a text, answering a series of comprehension questions, done.
Grossman: And I think the big takeaway from it was the teachers were saying, “This is different. This is what we came into the profession to do.”
Palmer: So, Aaron and I looked at each other and basically said, “Then what? Now what?” So we said, “Well, let’s try it again, because this could just be a fluke.”
So the teachers tried another Common Core lesson, then another, and another. After each one, they came together to talk about what happened. This is how teachers in Reno learned Common Core. And they’ve concluded that something different is going on. Here’s the pointed insight Angela Orr has come to about what was happening before Common Core.
Orr: Well, I think that we created a class-based education system.
She doesn’t think it was done on purpose.
Orr: I think that everyone’s intentions have been absolutely pure, that we should help the lowest performing students. And those intentions seem to have gone awry, in that by helping students in a fashion bent towards remediation at all costs, we’ve forgotten to allow them to participate in an education that’s meaningful and worthwhile and in conversations that are worth having.
For more than a decade, the approach to fixing the achievement gap at many schools has been to make things easier for the students who were behind. The Common Core asserts a different idea about the achievement gap; it says the gap is, at least in part, a result of the fact that lots of struggling students haven’t been getting a rigorous, well-rounded education, the kind that students from more affluent families tend to get in their schools. Is Common Core working so far in Reno? It’s hard to know. The way we measure results in this country is with test scores, and there are no test scores in Reno yet. Students here don’t take their first Common Core tests until at least the spring of 2015. But teacher Linnea Wolters says she doesn’t need test scores to tell her Common Core is working.
Wolters: And this is something, a veteran teacher move, I’m just going to lay this one out there, and all the veteran teachers who listen will know what I’m saying. You can feel in a classroom when kids care about what they’re doing. And you can’t learn when you don’t care. And if you can create environments where students care deeply about what they’re doing, learning will follow. And that’s, I don’t have a number to support that.
She’s hoping the test scores will provide proof of what she’s seeing. But she’s worried about what will happen if the test scores are bad. So is Torrey Palmer.
Palmer: Once those assessments come out and the scores come out, then systems do crazy things to respond and react to them. Like if we go back to just focusing on specific skills or like how to take a test, that’s not teaching and learning.
She’s never believed tests are a good measure of what kids have learned, but test scores are what count. And with Common Core, the test scores will matter more than ever before, in Nevada and around the country. The federal government has been pressing states to use test scores as part of teacher evaluation, and most states now do. That means how students do on the new, harder tests will have a direct impact on how their teachers are judged. Bad scores could lead to teachers being fired.
Stephen Smith: I’m Stephen Smith. You’re listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: “Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core.”
One of the things teachers in Reno like about Common Core is that it has allowed them to think more about what students are learning and less about the tests used to measure that learning. That’s in part because Nevada has moved relatively slowly with Common Core, giving teachers and students time to get used to the new standards before the high-stakes testing kicks in. New York State has done things differently, putting new standards, new tests and new evaluations in place all at once.
Carol Burris: Teachers are finding that they have to do more of what they hated before, and it’s not the dream and the vision that I saw when I first read those standards.
Coming up, we visit New York, where many teachers say the Common Core feels scary and punitive, rather than being an exciting way to help students learn. We also learn more about Common Core math.
There’s lots of information about the Common Core on our website, American RadioWorks.org. You can read the standards in their entirety; you can take a look at some Common Core sample lessons; and even try a Common Core test. That’s American RadioWorks.org. Support for this program comes from the Spencer Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. More in a moment from APM, American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core.”
Teacher Cindy Marasco: Start by 5’s, ready, go!
Kids: 5, 10, 15, 20…
Marasco: Good for you.
This is a class of third graders on Long Island. They’re touching their elbows to their knees to get their blood going before a Common Core math lesson.
Marasco: All right, a hundred is enough. Have a seat.
[Shuffling of chairs]
Can I ask you a question? Did we just do a strategy?
Marasco: Did we just physically act out a strategy? Raise your hand if you know.
The kids in this class have lots of strategies for figuring out math problems. What they were just doing – counting by 5’s – is a strategy they call “skip counting.” Other strategies listed on the board include making a picture or using a number line. Today the kids try these strategies to solve word problems they wrote themselves. A student named Samantha reads hers.
Samantha: There are five classes in third grade. Each class has nine students. How many students are in third grade?
You can figure this out by multiplying nine times five, which is easy if you know your times tables. But not all of these third graders know their times tables yet. But they have other ways to solve this problem. Samantha uses skip counting.
Samantha: 9, 18, 27, 36, 45.
Marasco: All right, thank you. How else could we solve that? Sam used skip counting. What’s another way? Any other strategy?
Four little hands go up.
Marasco: Connie, let’s hear what your strategy might be besides skip counting.
Connie: You could use a number line. You could count nine five times on the number line.
Marasco: OK. You can.
This is a teaching method that’s popular in Japan. Give students a problem and get them to think of lots of different ways to solve it. The Common Core borrows heavily from top-performing countries like Japan and Singapore. One of the goals is to get kids thinking more deeply about math. It’s not that they shouldn’t memorize their times tables; Common Core requires that they do. But kids also need to understand how numbers work. Teacher Cindy Marasco says this conceptual understanding was often lacking when American students learned math.
Cindy Marasco: It was more algorithm-based, mental math, computational skills. There still is a place for that. You really do have to know your number facts, but the focus on a concept-based approach I think is a good change.
Not everyone likes the change. Some parents are baffled by the math their kids bring home and frustrated they can’t help. But the presidents of every major math society in America support the standards, including the association of math teachers. And there are plenty of parents who support the standards too. Kathy Baxley is the mother of a sixth grader and an eighth grader in Long Island public schools.
Kathy Baxley: They’re attacking math in a different way than we did, and I feel like they are understanding it. They’re getting it. They’re comprehending it.
Baxley really likes the Common Core standards. But the big tests that come with them, she is not happy about those.
Baxley: It’s six days of instruction that are gone because they’re sitting for six days of tests, on top of the fact that little kids, third graders, who are eight years old, have to sit for so long.
But standardized tests are a given in American education. States are required to test public school students every year in order to get federal school funding. John King, education commissioner for the state of New York, said in a speech that without tests there’s no way to be sure students are learning.
John King: That’s the bargain at the heart of public education. Parents trust us with their children. And the people of the state trust us with billions and billions of their tax dollars. And what they ask in return is that we deliver results, and prove it.
King has put his own state on the line as one of the first to try to prove what kids are learning under the Common Core. New York designed its own, harder tests ahead of other states and is already judging schools and teachers by the results. The effect has been stressed-out teachers, anxious students, and a lot of teaching to the test, even in schools that didn’t used to worry much about test scores. American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford takes us to New York to learn more about why the tests are causing so much controversy and what it might say about what’s coming as students across the country start taking Common Core tests.
Principal Carol Burris: Good morning, how are you?
Student: Good, how are you?
Burris: Good morning everybody…
Principal Carol Burris is making her way through the crowded halls of South Side High School. The school is in Rockville Centre, New York, a village on Long Island where the average household income is more than $150,000 a year. South Side is routinely ranked among the best high schools in America.
Burris: Morning boys, how are you?
Burris has been the principal at South Side for 14 years. Ninety-five percent of her students go on to college and most finish their degree within four years. Until recently, Burris didn’t have to worry much about whether her students would pass state tests.
Burris: That was sort of a good floor for us. You know, we could get just about every kid there, and we could then move on to other things.
This wasn’t the case at all schools, especially ones with large numbers of low-income students. Those schools typically spent a lot of time teaching the kinds of skills needed to pass state tests. But not South Side. South Side was able to focus on the kind of rich, rigorous curriculum the Common Core is calling for.
[School bell rings]
IB English Teacher: Once you have your homework down, I want you to get into the next IOC passage that we’re going to work with from Araby. Same focus for annotation that we’ve been doing, annotate for literary significance and development…
This is an 11th grade IB English class. IB stands for International Baccalaureate. It’s an advanced curriculum originally designed for diplomats’ kids.
IB English Teacher: What are we up to?
Students: Almost done with three.
IB English Teacher: So we got a thesis? Let’s take a look…
Student: Yeah, we got a thesis.
IB English Teacher: “Conflict: a boy’s life to show the difficulties of the lives of the children of Dublin.” Nice.
Students in this class have just read a 40-line passage from “Araby,” a story from Dubliners by James Joyce. Now they’re writing an outline for an oral presentation.
IB English Teacher: Make sure your thesis is specific, ladies and gentleman. If we’re talking about a literary device, who is it attached to? What is it attached to? If it’s imagery, what is the imagery? If it’s a motif, what is it?
Virtually every student at South Side takes this IB class. It’s the only English class offered in 11th grade. This wasn’t always the case. There used to be a lot of what’s called “tracking” here, where students from wealthier families tended to be put in the advanced classes and poor and minority students ended up stuck in the basic ones. To solve this problem, South Side did away with all the low-level classes. It’s exactly the philosophy behind Common Core: offer only the best, most rigorous education and expect all students to participate. When principal Carol Burris first read the Common Core standards, they looked a lot like what she was already doing at South Side.
Burris: I read those standards, and I saw standards in speaking, just like the IB. I saw standards in listening, just like the IB, and in reading and writing and analysis. And I saw it, and I said, “Wow!”
Burris was hopeful the new standards could help bring the kind of education students get at wealthy, suburban schools like South Side to students at all schools.
Burris: And then I started seeing the tests, and I started seeing what the driver of the reform was going to be: evaluating teachers by test scores, making them anxious. And I said, “Oh my gosh, you know, I guess I was looking through rose-colored glasses.”
[Chorus class singing “True Colors”]
Across the country, states are making teachers’ job evaluations depend, in part, on how much students improve on standardized tests. The test scores can determine whether to give teachers and principals promotions and raises, or even fire them. It’s not part of Common Core per se, but the Obama administration required it for some states to get federal education funding. At South Side High, even the teacher of this chorus class, Doreen Fryling, will be evaluated based on how her students do on standardized tests. Fryling says that’s changed her feelings about Common Core.
Doreen Fryling: Suddenly, it has some added weight to it that goes from being, oh this is a cool new way for kids to learn, to becoming really high stakes.
You might be wondering how a chorus teacher like Fryling will be judged by test scores, since there are no standardized tests for subjects like music and art. In cases like that, teachers are actually being judged by how students in their school do on tests in other subjects. So Fryling’s evaluation will be based in part on how much her students improve each year on their math and English tests. The thinking is that all teachers, even chorus teachers, have a role to play in promoting the development of students’ math and literacy skills.
[Chorus class finishes “True Colors”]
Fryling: That was really beautiful. Thank you so much…
But Fryling says the new evaluation system sets up a hierarchy where everything is about math and English and subjects like music are seen as unimportant. And she’s concerned that harder tests paired with higher stakes for teachers mean even schools like hers will fall victim to the worst effects of test prep. She’s already seeing it at her son’s school.
Aidan: I’m Aidan. I’m in sixth grade, and I’m 11 years old.
Aidan says school was different before Common Core.
Aidan: I just remember doing a lot more projects before Common Core. Like, a lot more hand-on projects. And now with the Common Core it’s a lot more sheets, packets.
He says he and his classmates take a lot of practice tests, and they do a lot of math.
Aidan: Yeah, I have usually two to three hours of math during my school day. It’s mostly all math. We barely ever do any science.
Which is a bummer for him, because science is his favorite subject. Supporters of Common Core say it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The new standards were supposed to be an antidote to the narrow teaching-to-the-test mentality that had taken over in so many schools. But there was never any question that testing would be part of Common Core. The idea, though, was better tests. Here’s President Obama in 2009, before the standards were even written, talking to a group of business leaders about the importance of good testing. The president said he wants to see tests—
Obama: —That don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.
The federal government ended up giving more than $350 million dollars to two groups to develop Common Core tests for the nation. Those tests aren’t ready yet, but the groups writing them are promising a new kind of test, one that will measure the kinds of things the president was talking about. One that doesn’t require lots of test prep.
Laura Slover: We are building tests that you don’t need to prepare for.
Laura Slover is CEO of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known as PARCC. It’s one of the two groups creating Common Core tests for the nation. Slover says students should do well on the PARCC test if teachers teach the Common Core standards well.
Slover: You don’t need to stop instruction and do something different in order to prepare for a test. The best preparation for assessments is good teaching.
Slover is a former high school English teacher and says the problem with the old state tests is the questions weren’t anything like what she would assign her students. For example, this question:
Slover: “Write a letter to a cafeteria supervisor suggesting at least three new additions to the menu, and in the letter to explain the benefits of including those options.”
Slover says this is just asking students to offer an opinion, based on nothing but their own experience. Students don’t have to analyze anything, cite evidence, or think critically. Slover says the PARCC tests will be different.
Slover: So here is an example of a PARCC item. It’s an 11th grade item.
The question asks students to read the Declaration of Independence and a passage from Patrick Henry’s speech to the Second Virginia Convention. Students also watch a short video about how early drafts of the Declaration of Independence differed from later drafts.
Slover: And then they’re asked to write about it. They’re asked to bring evidence from those multiple sources and write an essay in which they explore the perceptions of the government’s purpose presented in those sources. And all the while they have to keep going back to the text. They’re not making things up. They are really basing that on what they read. I wouldn’t have to stop instruction to prepare my kids for something like this. This is exactly what I did in my classroom.
The idea is that if the tests are high-quality, there won’t be any difference between test prep and what a good teacher would be doing in her classroom anyway. But the given here is that when there are tests, and when there are high-stakes attached to those tests, teachers and schools will focus on what’s tested. And that’s exactly why New York decided it couldn’t wait for the PARCC tests to be ready. Here’s New York education commissioner John King, back in 2012, explaining why the state decided to develop its own Common Core tests and start using them right away.
John King: The reality is people do what’s measured. And measuring the common core has to be a part of how we insure successful implementation. We will see lower absolute achievement at the end of this year than we have in past years. But what the assessments will do as well is drive instruction towards the Common Core.
As King sees it, tests are the way to make sure teachers actually teach the standards. But teachers say they felt like they were flying blind, scrambling to figure out Common Core themselves, never mind teach it. Some teachers didn’t get Common Core curriculum materials until just a few months before students sat down to take the tests in the spring of 2013. Kevin Glynn, a third grade teacher at a public school on Long Island, says watching his students take the tests was painful.
Glynn: They didn’t get it. They just kept on putting something down on the page, but because the text was so difficult and because the line of questioning was so poorly worded or just not familiar to them, they just continually erased and erased and erased and you’d see kids teary-eyed, and you’d see kids shaking.
When the results came back, they were terrible.
That’s the sound of photographers as New York education officials step to the podium for a press conference to announce the state’s first Common Core test results. Fewer than a third of New York public school students scored proficient. Even in some of the state’s best school districts, students did not do well. Here’s New York education commissioner John King at the press conference.
King: These results represent a new baseline, a new starting point for improvement going forward, so that we can insure all of our students are college and career ready, and ready to compete in the 21st century.
The New York scores made news across the country. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed to them as proof that states had been lying about how their students were doing. “Finally,” he said, “We are holding ourselves accountable.”
But New York teacher Kevin Glynn doesn’t think so. Glynn says not only were teachers and students not ready for the tests, he doesn’t think New York’s tests are a good measure of the Common Core. Glynn was actually involved in helping to create the new tests early on, but dropped out because he didn’t like what he was seeing. He says the Language Arts test his third graders took covered only a small portion of the standards.
Kevin Glynn: And you can see, it’s just the same standards and they repeat over and over and over again.
Glynn is showing me a document from the New York State Education Department that lists which standard was being assessed by each test question. What you see is that almost every question relates to one of the reading standards. There are no questions that test the writing standards or the speaking and listening standards.
Glynn: I’m just baffled the fact that anyone finds value in this. A chunk of the Common Core is missing. It’s not a test of the Common Core. It’s a test of reading.
Glynn says New York is just testing the stuff that’s easy to test, and he fears the rest of the standards will get short shrift in classrooms. We asked New York State Education officials to answer questions about the tests, but they refused to do a recorded interview. Some Common Core supporters dismiss complaints like Glynn’s. They say teachers just don’t want to be held accountable. But Glynn says tests are being used to punish teachers, not motivate them. He thinks it’s time to rethink the role of testing altogether.
Glynn: This culture has become, it’s about a test. And we can’t break ourselves away from it, as hard as we try. That’s not the fault of the Common Core, that’s the fault of us as a culture. We have put too much faith in one test.
Carol Burris, the principal of South Side High School on Long Island, agrees. And she doesn’t think all the testing is necessary.
Burris: No other nation that has really achieved good growth has done reform this way. It’s not driven by tests, and they’ve achieved results.
In many of the world’s top-performing countries, students take few if any standardized tests before high school. And test scores are not typically used to evaluate teachers. Burris says no matter how good the tests are, as long as high-stakes are attached to the results, people will find ways to game the system.
Burris: And people will use the wrong-headed strategies. They will use tracking because they think it’s easier if you groups kids at a certain level to just push, push, push. And you know what? They probably will get some bump in scores. But kids will be losers. You know, scores are not necessarily the best evidence of learning.
Burris once believed Common Core could help improve schools across the country. But she doesn’t think so anymore. And there are lots of people in New York who agree with her.
Mark Ferreris at rally: All right, you guys ready to get this going? Hands up!
[Cheering, clapping to the beat of “We Will Rock You”]
In March of 2014, just days before the second round of Common Core testing in New York, parents gathered at a high school on Long Island for what they called an “I Refuse” rally. They’re refusing to let their kids take the Common Core tests.
Ferreris: We’re here today to stand for justice, to stand for our children, and to say we’ve had enough. We refuse the high-stakes testing, and we refuse the one-size-all, abusive, Common Core curriculum.
For many people in this crowd, there’s little distinction between the Common Core standards and the Common Core tests. They want it all to go away, and that’s unfortunate says teacher Kevin Glynn. He’s come to this rally today but is a bit uncomfortable with what he’s hearing. He doesn’t like the tests, but he wants to keep teaching the standards. He applauds what his own school district has done. In the spring of 2014, his superintendent ordered an end to all test prep.
Glynn: My school district has decided to take their six weeks of test prep and remove it, altogether. In place of it, just last Friday, we had a wax museum.
Student in video: Greetings, salutations, and welcome to the third grade wax museum.
This is a video of the wax museum taken by a parent.
Student in video: Prepare to be amazed as famous figures of both past and present are brought to life.
The video shows a girl, dressed up as William Shakespeare, holding a feather pen and reading from a scroll. The other kids stand still as statues until someone asks them a question.
Student in video: Use the following questions to bring your famous figures to life. One, who are you? Two, when were you born?
Glynn: The wax museum was a culmination of an essay- -met the needs of the Common Core. It was speaking and listening–again, from the Common Core. And we had 155 students. They were dressed in character, and you would go talk to them and they would respond.
Video: Parting is such sweet sorrow, but I must return to 17th century England. See you soon.
[Laughter and applause]
Teacher Kevin Glynn says the wax museum project was a much better use of time than spending six weeks preparing his students for a test.
Glynn: I fully believe that my kids will, in the end, have a much greater experience, an appreciation of learning, a love of literacy. I mean, we had kids who didn’t want to go to recess because they wanted to continue on their biographies. That’s what I want to see in teaching.
It appears to be what voters in New York want too. Just a few weeks after Glynn’s district did away with test prep, the New York legislature passed a law limiting test prep to no more than two percent of instructional time a year. It also OK’d a deal that prevents teachers with low ratings on the new evaluation from being fired, at least for now.
One question going forward is whether what’s happening in New York is a sign of what’s to come in the rest of the country. Polls show most Americans still don’t know much about Common Core. When test results for their state are released, will they suddenly take notice? What will they think? Teacher Brien Karlin in Reno has been teaching Common Core for two years and says so far he has never had a single parent raise a concern about the standards, but that could change. There’s an anti-Common Core group in Nevada that’s been staging protests. They want the state to drop the standards. If it happens, Karlin says he and his colleagues will adjust.
Karlin: Yeah, it may go away, and if it goes away that’s fine. We’ll take a lot of the skills that we learned from Common Core and the close-reads, and we’ll continue to use them in the classroom despite whatever comes next. I mean, I just, for us, I think the bottom line is that Common Core teaches us to teach students better.
Other teachers who support Common Core aren’t as optimistic about what would happen if the standards went away. They say lots of teachers still haven’t had a chance to work with the standards and understand how they can help students learn better. And of course, they’re worried about what might replace Common Core, and whether what comes next would be better.
Smith: Forty-six states originally adopted Common Core, and almost all of them are sticking with the standards so far. It’s a different story with the tests. More than a dozen states that initially agreed to the Common tests have since backed out, including Florida, Michigan and Georgia. For many supporters of the standards, this is a potential disaster. If states end up making their own tests, there’ll be no way to compare how students in different states are doing. It may be hard to know for sure whether students are really learning the standards. But other Common Core supporters see resistance to the tests as a good thing. They hope it will push a national conversation about the role that tests play in education and whether high-stakes testing is the best way to improve America’s schools.
You’ve been listening to “Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core.”
It was produced by Emily Hanford, edited by Catherine Winter, and mixed by Craig Thorson. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Laurie Stern, Samara Freemark, Dylan Peers McCoy, Minna Zhou, Peter Clowney, Ellen Guettler and me, Stephen Smith. Special thanks to Clark Young, Ben Shapiro, Kohnstamm Communications, and the Hatcher Group.
We have more about Common Core on our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can see photos of the third grade wax museum, read more about Common Core math, and get links to research on the standards. That’s AmericanRadioWorks.org. While you’re there, let us know what you think of this program, and sign up for our podcast where we feature weekly interviews about ideas in education. You can also find us on Facebook at American.RadioWorks and follow us on Twitter @AMRadioWorks.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. A note of disclosure: The Spencer and Lumina Foundations have funded research on aspects of the Common Core, while the Hewlett Foundation has supported research and development of the Common Core. The foundations did not influence our coverage of the issue. This is APM, American Public Media.