This fall, some classes may get harder for public school students — and teachers — across Washington. That's when many districts will roll out new, more rigorous language arts and math standards, known as the Common Core. Washington is one of 45 states that have adopted the same set of K-12 standards.
Some Washington teachers have already started using them. At Sylvester Middle School in Burien, teacher Christy Bowman-White read a poem about a nail-biter basketball shot to her honors language arts class on a recent school day.
"The ball slides up and out, lands, leans, wobbles, wavers, hesitates, plays it coy," Bowman-White read the poem slowly so her students could savor each word.
Bowman-White had a very specific goal for her class that day.
"Here it is," she told her students. "Analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sound on a specific verse or stanza of a poem."
That's one of the Common Core State Standards. The new learning objectives are meant to prepare kids for college, and to make sure students here in Burien are on the same page as students across the county and across the country. Until now, each state had its own, often very different, set of standards.
In language arts, for example, students are supposed to read more difficult books, more non-fiction, and use more textual evidence to support their arguments. Although most classrooms in Washington won't incorporate the Common Core standards until this fall at the earliest, these students in the Highline School District have been learning the new, tougher standards all year.
Reinventing Lesson Plans
There’s no set Common Core curriculum; it’s up to teachers to decide how to teach the rigorous standards.
In Bowman-White’s class, she asked the students to cite the sounds at play in the basketball poem she chose.
One student raised her hand tentatively. "Right here, with all these 's' sounds and all these calm words, it makes you feel calm," she says. Bowman-White nods.
In her first year of using the new standards, Bowman-White said she’s found they help students become better thinkers. She says the Common Core is better organized than Washington’s last set of standards, which seemed really random to her. Bowman-White said even though only some of the old standards appeared on a previous state standardized language arts test, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the list of standards she was supposed to teach filled a book.
"It was like a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and they put a 'W' next to the ones that would appear on the WASL. And so everybody paid attention to just those 12," she said. "It was kind of a muck. And who knows what students were really learning. It turns out maybe not so much."
New State Tests Coming
In 2015, students in Washington will start taking new statewide tests reflecting the Common Core objectives. Bowman-White said even though the state tests are two years away, the increased rigor of the new standards makes it important to get a head start. "It’s a big jump. It’s a big, big jump," she said.
Bowman-White said the students in her honors class take fairly easily to the increased focus on analysis, like the repeating sounds in the poem. But she said that level of analysis is trickier in her non-honors classes. Most students, she said, need more preparation. "In other classes they wouldn’t have been able to access [the lesson] because they wouldn’t have noticed the sounds repeating in the first place," Bowman-White said. "So a lot of lessons [have to be] built to get them to do the one standard that’s listed, and there’s not a lot of time in the year to do things like that."
Some Teachers Wary
Noam Gundle shares that concern. He’s a science teacher at Ballard High School in Seattle. Gundle said he doesn't have a problem with rigor or standards, but questions whether Washington schools are prepared for the Common Core.
"As educators, we have been forced to teach more curriculum at a higher level to less-ready students consistently over the years," Gundle said. "The accountability for teachers has gone up, but the resources for teachers and for students and for classrooms and for schools has consistently gone down. And at some point, that doesn’t work."
Gundle said the main beneficiary of the standards may not be students, but rather the testing companies whose products can soon be more standardized than ever. He also takes issue with the fact that the Gates Foundation is a major promoter and financial backer of the Common Core. The foundation lists the standards as a pillar of its strategy to get kids ready for college.
While the Common Core has a lot of support among teachers, many in education consider the Gates Foundation’s education initiatives to be based more in ideology than in research. "We have gotten burned so many times in the past with the flavor-of-the-month of the Gates Foundation, the new test that they think is going to solve all the problems in education," said Gundle. "But the reality is: Testing is not teaching. Teaching is teaching."
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn takes issue with that argument. "Let’s not get into propaganda. Let’s get into the facts," Dorn said. He argues that it wasn’t the Gates Foundation that came up with the new standards. "This was Republican and Democratic governors," he said. "It was nonpartisan educators getting together and saying 'what’s the best thing for our students of our own states?' And then we agreed to do it."
Dorn acknowledges that moving to the Common Core standards will be difficult and expensive. But he said change is always hard. And hopefully, he said, the legislature is about to come through with more money for schools.
Bowman-White said even after countless hours building all-new lesson plans around the standards, she still has a lot of work to do. In order to implement the new standards well, she plans to spend her summer working with fellow teachers on new and better ways to help every student meet the more rigorous demands of the Common Core.
Although it can be overwhelming, to her it's worth it. "We’re saying every group of students in every school needs to have access to the same type of thing, and they don’t. It’s an equity problem," she said. "So is it hard? Yes. But it’s necessary. We have to do it."