a second look

Ahead of state’s Common Core review, Commissioner Elia looks outside New York

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

New York is one of dozens of states that adopted the Common Core standards in recent years. Soon, it will be a part of another trend: states conducting a formal review of them.

At least 18 states have taken steps to revise, rebrand, or review the standards since adopting them in 2010, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers. New York is set to begin its own review effort this year, prompted by state lawmakers who ordered Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to examine the state’s reading and math standards.

The move comes after a record number of students were estimated to have opted out of this year’s state tests, reflecting a growing backlash to standardized testing and concerns about the school and teacher evaluations that emerge from those scores. For Elia, who took over the state education department last month, the formal review offers a test for how she will respond to those concerns — and a chance to say the state is taking action.

“It allows everyone to have a voice, particularly the practitioners who are implementing standards in our schools,” Elia said last month.

Both critics and supporters of the standards say they welcome the scrutiny. Supporters say a careful look at the math and English language arts standards will affirm that New York should not abandon the guidelines, which outline the skills students should learn in English and math for each grade in order to eventually succeed in college or in a profession.

“The biggest win in a [Common Core] review is that the reviewers actually read the standards, some I’m sure for the first time,” said Ken Slentz, the superintendent of the Skaneateles Central Schools district in upstate New York who helped implement the standards as a deputy commissioner.

Critics say it will shine a light on problems with the standards, particularly the guidelines for learning in early grades. Kathleen Cashin, a member of the state’s education policymaking board who has long called for such a review, said reviewers need to examine how far the standards push New York’s youngest students.

“I’m not saying you don’t want rigor, but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s appropriate,” Cashin said. “You don’t ask a five-year-old to jump 10 feet high.”

Concerns that states and schools were not pushing students far enough were at the heart of the movement to get states to adopt common standards. In 2009, 86 percent of New York students in grades three through eight were said to be proficient in math and 77 percent proficient in English, but a much smaller share was deemed to have critical “college-ready.”

New York adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, along with 44 states and the District of Columbia. The federal government encouraged the move, which helped the state secure a $700 million grant for education.

The rollout of more challenging state tests and the introduction of new classroom materials over the next few years were both rocky. Proficiency rates on state tests dropped precipitously, and complaints about the state’s new teacher evaluation system, tied to the tests, have persisted.

Some states, like Florida and Indiana, have used a review process to revise or get rid of the standards altogether, although replacements have resembled the Common Core. But city and state officials in New York have so far stood by the standards themselves.

How Elia will conduct the review is not yet clear. State law requires her to “seek input from education stakeholders” and to complete the review by next summer, but the commissioner is otherwise free to direct the process.

Elia has offered some clues. In her public remarks about New York’s review, she has mentioned similar processes in Tennessee and Kentucky, where reviews have included a months-long public comment period, online surveys, and an analysis of the feedback by a smaller group of officials.

Kentucky dubbed its review the “academic standards challenge,” asking people to vote with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on each standard and to explain how it should be changed. Nearly 90 percent of respondents gave an overall “thumbs up” to the standards.

The public is more divided in Tennessee, where people were asked to “keep it,” “remove it,” or “replace it” for the standards. Of over 130,000 reviews, 55 percent opted to “keep it.” But officials charged with appointed members to a review committee are now disagreeing over whether its purpose is to repeal the standards or just to evaluate them, in a reflection of how polarizing the standards have become. (Neither state has offered formal recommendations yet.)

[Read more coverage of Tennessee’s standards review from Chalkbeat Tennessee here.]

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. that is supportive of the standards, has been tracking the review processes. The revised standards that have come out of many of them are similar to the Common Core, he noted.

“Most states are merely making tweaks because they are discovering that the Common Core are, in fact, well aligned with the research on college and career readiness,” Petrilli said. “It’s impossible to come up with college and career ready standards that look nothing like the Common Core.”

The standards for learning in earlier grades appear more ripe for substantive changes, however. In Kentucky, more than 70 percent of the “thumbs down” were for standards in kindergarten through third grades, according to feedback posted online.

The New York state teachers union, which is also reviewing the standards, has also raised concerns about the standards encouraging younger students to sit “for long periods of time for academic work — and missing out on play time, arts, music and other areas.”

Susan Neuman, an education professor at New York University and a specialist in early literacy development, said that the Common Core standards in early grades don’t appear to account for the order in which children build language comprehension skills.

Before ever trying to understand printed words, Neuman said, children have to develop their vocabulary through activities centered on speaking and listening. But kindergarten standards for those skills are “buried” within dozens standards centered on reading and writing, she said, which could lead teachers to teach literacy out of order.

“What good teaching should be doing is moving from the oral comprehension to the reading comprehension,” said Neuman. “But the way [the standards are] structured, you don’t see that right away.”

Lisa Siegman, principal of P.S. 3 in the West Village, said she thought the standards overemphasized reading and writing in early grades while leaving out a focus on what she calls “social learning”— the process by which students might observe science experiments or comment on one another’s art work.

But she also said that she encouraged her teachers to interpret the Common Core with flexibility.

“Just because something’s not in the standards doesn’t mean you can’t teach it,” Siegman said. “You create a situation where you teach the standards and you use your judgment.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.