Pennsylvania’s stops and starts over new classroom standards

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Sara Neufeld, The Hechinger Report

In the beginning, Pennsylvania was going to be like most other states, following a new set of national education standards and administering new national standardized tests.

But a lot has happened since 2010, when the state signed on to participate in what’s known as Common Core, an initiative designed to make the United States more globally competitive by ensuring students’ ability to meet basic benchmarks.

A Democratic administration turned Republican, and Gov. Tom Corbett took seriously conservatives concerned about the federal government infringing on states’ rights. In March 2012, Pennsylvania officials released their own document, known as the Pennsylvania Core Standards, which they call a hybrid between the national Common Core and the state’s own guidelines.

They also halted plans for the commonwealth to participate in one of two national assessments, instead keeping Pennsylvania’s existing elementary tests and creating new ones for high school. The Pennsylvania standards were due to go into effect July 1 of this year, but last spring, Corbett asked the state board of education to wait on a final vote. The vote finally occurred on Sept. 12, when the board approved the state standards as well as “Keystone exams” in algebra, literature and biology that will be a high school graduation requirement.

“We have to stop being so schizophrenic about what we do with our kids,” state board of education member Mollie O’Connell Phillips said moments before the vote that day, as she urged her colleagues to take decisive action.

But the policy still isn’t set in stone until it makes its way through Pennsylvania’s regulatory review process. And opponents of the standards on the right are still fighting to halt them in the House and Senate education committees. So are Keystone exam opponents on the left, worried about imposing high stakes on students without adequate resources to prepare them. The business community, meanwhile, is advocating strongly on behalf of the standards and new exams.

Where have all the twists and turns left Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts? In limbo.

“Instructionally it’s very difficult for us as administrators when we don’t have all the answers and when there are so many pieces missing,” said Wagner Marseille, assistant superintendent of the Lower Merion School District, northwest of Philadelphia. “You’re caught with, what do you share with teachers? ‘We really don’t have the final map or layout of what you’re going to do, but let me explain what we’re going to do so far.’ Then you have anxiety and confusion from teachers who feel they’re not getting all the information they’d like and in a timely way.”

With 7,990 students, Lower Merion is one of the wealthiest and highest-performing districts in the state. But even there, Marseille said, educators need time to prepare for a major instructional change. “A new administration comes in and we’re asked to stop, pivot, turn and look at something different,” he said. “It causes a tremendous amount of anxiety for teachers, rightfully so, and puts us in a very difficult position at the district because we don’t have the complete answers.”

Marseille said that implementing the standards requires extensive professional development. He estimated it would be a three- to four-year process for all teachers to become proficient in the new standards. The district also must review its textbooks and instructional materials to see what needs changing. “There’s so much information out there. You have to vet through what’s really quality,” said Marseille, a former Olympic hurdler who represented his native Haiti in the 1996 games. “Every textbook, every resource paper has ‘Common Core’ written somewhere on it… What we didn’t want to do prematurely was begin to go out and purchase textbooks just because they had a sticker on them that said ‘Common Core-Ready.’”

Now that training and curriculum changes are underway, he said, “we hope they don’t do a 180 and go back.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers in 483 of the state’s 501 districts, reports that different schools are at different stages of implementation. Some districts immediately began to phase in the national Common Core after Pennsylvania’s 2010 adoption; others took a wait-and-see approach. “There is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty,” said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the union.

Even before the vote to adopt the state’s standards in September, the Pennsylvania State Department of Education had instructed districts to proceed as though they were in effect. School was starting, and they had nothing else to go on.

In math, there are substantive differences between the national and Pennsylvania versions of Common Core. But in English, there are fewer significant differences, prompting some critics to call the state document a political ploy.

Those critics were in abundance last month on a clear evening at the Living Faith Church in West Chester for a presentation organized by the West Chester Tea Party. About 50 people, mostly concerned grandparents along with a local school board member, gathered to hear Peg Luksik, a former Republican candidate for governor and U.S. Senate who had a long career in education. Luksik now spends her time traveling the state and the county campaigning against Common Core.

While a common fear among teachers is their ability to get students meeting minimum standards, Luksik believes the benchmarks are too low. Algebra 1, for example, is the highest math a student must complete to pass Pennsylvania’s new state graduation exams linked to the standards. “How can that be college and career ready?” she asked in an interview. Although her opponents counter that minimum standards are meant to be exceeded, Luksik said, “if that’s all the school district is accountable for and they all have money crunches — and you know they all do — they’re only going to do what they’re accountable for.… It is a lowering of standards despite the constant use of the word ‘rigorous.’”

Luksik is also worried about a potential violation of privacy with a major federal initiative to track students from elementary school until after graduation using, in part, data from Common Core-related tests, which could be sold to educational researchers.

Like many in Pennsylvania, she is concerned about the cost of implementing the Core Standards and does not believe state claims that it won’t cost anything more than school districts already spend to train teachers and periodically adopt new instructional materials. Unlike many others, she’s poured through state documents online trying to pinpoint the cost.

Standing before a large screen in West Chester with one of her trademark PowerPoint presentations, the white-haired mother of six was part teacher and part politician. She walked the audience through the state’s 2010 application for money from the federal Race to the Top competition. The application, signed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell, asked the federal government for $400 million over three years for initiatives including Common Core. It said the state would supplement the money with $140 million and $2.6 billion from separate pots of its own funding.

That brought Luksik to the conclusion that the three-year implementation cost would be $3.14 billion. (The Race to the Top application encompassed reforms beyond Common Core, including some that could only happen with the grant money. The group Pennsylvanians Against Common Core estimates an implementation cost of $645 million based on a 2012 report by the Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project.)

Luksik asked everyone to stand. Only sit down, she said, if you can meet the standard named.

“Sing like Pavarotti,” Luksik began. When no one sat, she lessened the challenge: Sing for the New York Metropolitan Opera. Next: Sing for a church choir. When Luksik got to “sings in the shower and enjoys it,” most of the attendees sat. Her point: The state sets standards that everyone can meet, and there’s no reward for going beyond them. “What about the student for whom the standard should have been Pavarotti?” she asked. (Defenders of the standards say nothing should stop a student from excelling far beyond basic benchmarks, which are necessary to bring up the legions of students falling short of them.)

Making the case that Common Core will try to make all children the same, Luksik posted a photo of her baby granddaughter on the screen. “I’m going to fight for her, and I beg you to join me,” she said.

The state board of education’s vote on the standards was to occur the next day. Luksik knew it wouldn’t go their way, but she urged the audience to continue fighting with her in the General Assembly, where she has found more sympathy for her cause.

“Let me tell you a little thing about politics,” she said. “It’s never over, unless you give up.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Find out more about Common Core.