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.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.