Legislators ease education standards

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Jun 09, 2014
Photo by: File photo Cecilia Ruth Marcus teaches a social studies class earlier this year at Tuscola High School.

Both chambers of the North Carolina legislature have passed bills that may soon end the state’s involvement in Common Core educational standards.

The tougher new education standards for math and language arts at all grade levels were approved in North Carolina in 2010, and were implemented in the 2012-13 academic year, which allowed time for teacher training.

The standards resulted from a cooperative effort of 46 states and were aimed at better preparing students for jobs in today's workforce. Learning expectations are higher under the Common Core standards than the previous ones used in the state and are aimed at developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The standards have generated complaints from parents, some teachers and others who find the new teaching/learning methods too difficult.

Now, legislators are ready to develop a new set of learning guidelines.

“I’m saddened that so much misinformation and issues dealing with education have been piled on the common core standards,” State Superintendent June Atkinson said Tuesday after HB1061 bill was sent to the House floor. “While I believe that we never have perfect standards, we have not let the cycle of using these standards to complete its course.”

HB1061, which passed Wednesday at a 78-39 vote, will create new standards for math and language arts with help of an Academic Standards Review Commission that will be formed.

Senate Bill 812, a companion bill to change the state's education standards, passed on Thursday. There will be a conference committee to iron out the final language before it will be sent to Gov. Pat McCrory for a signature. The governor has voiced support of the Common Core standards in the past. While there is a veto-proof Republican majority in the General Assembly, there were a number of House Republicans who voted against changes to the standards.

Sen. Jim Davis voted in favor of the bill, and said he was not surprised that it passed in a 33-15 vote.

"It’s still maintains strong standards for North Carolina education, but it doesn’t tie us to every part of the common core standards," Davis said. "Some of those issues are problematic. We believe those standards would be tailor made to North Carolina."

When asked whether he thought Gov. McCrory would sign or veto the bill, Davis said he was unsure.

"I wouldn't want to speak for him," he said. "Whenever he signs a bill it’s a different. It’s hard to judge because he may just not like one of the amendments. The bill has changed so he may agree with it."

Under both bills, common core standards will remain in place for the next academic year while new guidelines are written.

“There are 95,000 teachers in this state,” Atkinson said. “Whenever new standards are developed, it takes money, time and resources for all the teachers to be able to implement the new standards.”

Implementing new standards will require schools to offer professional development training to its teachers and personnel. Atkinson said her big question was where the money would come from to fund professional development.

“The General Assembly has not given school districts money for professional development for the past three years,” she said. “It is only because we received a grant from the federal government that has allowed us to do professional development.”

Common core conflict

The common core standards have been in place in North Carolina for math and English/language arts since 2010, and the state began implementing the new standard course of study in the classroom during the 2012-13 school year.

The debate surrounding the common core is causing frustrations for many Haywood County Schools officials and parents.

“We’re disappointed that they just keep changing the curriculum on us and changing the test to match the curriculum,” said Bill Nolte, associate superintendent. “By the time we get something implemented, they move the target again. If they just establish something that’s good and sound and let us teach it, we’d be pleased.”

On one side, some parents are against common core, claiming that it complicates simple learning methods; on the other hand school officials believe more challenging standards are a good thing.

“If the state legislature wants to change the common core to make it even more rigorous, then I think that’s a good idea. If it’s being changed because people don’t understand it, then I would challenge them to look up the standards and tell me which standard is a problem,” Nolte said.

Common core standards are meant to be more rigorous than the old state standards. Students are supposed to develop a deeper understanding and learn to problem solve. The goal is to better prepare them for college or a career.

Opponents of the common core say the rules have created confusion among teachers and students, and the bill could possibly lead to lower academic standards and performance. However, supporters say the common core just needs to be given time to work.

Lara Earnest, third-grade teacher at Jonathan Valley Elementary School, said she didn't see a need to drop the common core.

“I am in my third year of teaching the common core,” Earnest recently posted on the Mountaineer’s Facebook page. “I am a little baffled by the amount of opposition to it. There are some problems with it, as there have been with every state curriculum I have ever seen. But all in all, the changes that are needed are fairly small. It's hard to know how well any curriculum works when you constantly change it. It would be nice to stick with something long enough to actually see it have an impact. My students are understanding math better now.”

What is common core?

Nolte said the common core were developed by 46 governors of various political parties as well as 46 state superintendents who had been appointed by various political parties or publicly elected.

“It’s really not controlled by one party or one person,” Nolte said. “It’s certainly not controlled by the department of education.”

The common core standards are intended to be more stringent, but they focus on simple concepts.

The common core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students are asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills that promote success in college, careers and life.

The common core also concentrates on a clear set of math skills and concepts. Students learn concepts in a more organized way both during the school year and across grades.The standards encourage students to solve real-world problems.

Nolte said he didn’t see anything wrong with promoting a deeper, more rigorous understanding of math and reading.

“The standards are about understanding math algorithms,” Nolte said. “They’re about being able to read literature and comprehend what the literature has in it and then being able to go back to the text and point out reasons why the literature means a particular thing. ... It has nothing to do with history or religion or a lot of the stuff that’s floating around on social media.”

Too rigorous for children?

One criticism has been that the common core asks too much of younger children.

Earnest agrees that some aspects of the common core are challenging for her students, but she still doesn’t advocate them being eliminated.

“There are a few things in the language arts curriculum that I feel are inappropriate for certain ages,” Earnest noted, adding that myths being taught in third grade was tough because students are too young for such formal vocabulary. “But all in all, I think it would be a mistake to switch so soon after implementation. I will say this: the curriculum that I think needs to be changed first is the elementary levels of science, and those aren't common core at all.”

Teachers evaluate whether students have met the standards in the same way they have always done  — using end-of-course tests, school projects and other assessments during the year.

But local parent Nicole Kott Schreiber of Waynesville says the common core makes learning subjects like math more difficult for children. As a home school parent of two, she is an advocate of the simpler methods so that parents can be a part of their child’s learning process.

“Common Core elongates the process. I think teaching all methods is important. But the main method should be the simplest. Plus, many parents are unable to help with the math problems. That is devastating. It's important we keep these methods we’ve had for years.” Schreiber said.

Schreiber chose to teach her children at home because she didn’t approve of the school’s new standards, including the common core.

Rather than have one teacher assigned to teach 20 students at one time, Schreiber said she accomplishes much more in a day while working one-on-one with her children. Her daughter, Savannah, is 6 years old and her son, Robert, is 3.

“As of now I will never put (Savannah) in public school,” Schreiber said. “All of her friends are in public school and I hear the parents constantly complaining about the common core — they don’t know how to help with homework so they have to sit down with their teachers to be able to help them.”