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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.