Higher learning requirements coming for K-12 classrooms

Common Core curriculum raises standards nationwide

Kathy Plonka photo

Borah Elementary kindergartner Breegan Justice has her height measured in feet, using the heel-to-toe method, during a math lesson at the school in Coeur d’Alene earlier this month. The school has started a new curriculum including Common Core math.

January 29, 2013 - Updated: 11:49 a.m.

Unless you’re an educator, state lawmaker or K-12 policy wonk, you might not have heard about the Common Core.

If you have children in school, however, you soon will.

These new national standards for math, reading, writing and spelling will touch every public school in 46 states, including Washington and Idaho, and the District of Columbia. They’ll raise academic standards, require new assessment tests – for Washington, the third set in less than a decade – and cost more money. They’ll also raise the dropout rate, at least for a few years.

The learning requirements, officially called the Common Core State Standards, are coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and supported by the U.S. Department of Education.

“The Common Core sets a national (academic) standard higher than any (current) state standard in the nation,” said Randy Dorn, Washington’s K-12 superintendent. “It’s a different way of teaching. It teaches higher-level thinking standards.”

It gives “our kids a chance in a global economy,” he added.

How are the standards different?

Common Core replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, which allowed each state to set its own learning standards. The result was that high school graduates across the nation left school with different levels of knowledge and abilities.

The new learning standard for K-12 students, first drafted in 2009, defines what students should know and be able to demonstrate at each grade level in math and language. So, the math and language skills taught in a Washington third-grade classroom will be the same as those taught in an Alabama third-grade classroom.

For students in Washington and Idaho, the new curriculum means math and language will be taught as much as a grade level higher than the current standards, according to district officials in both states.

“In mathematics, Washington was fairly close,” said Steven Gering, Spokane Public Schools’ chief academic officer. Common Core will spark a significant change in language instruction, however. Changes will come in types of vocabulary and the complexity of texts, and there will be much more nonfiction and more technical writing.

In Idaho, math instruction will be a grade level higher and in language, “I would say it’s more the complexity; digging into the text when you are writing about something or answering something and citing the evidence,” said Matt Handelman, Coeur d’Alene School District’s assistant superintendent. “This increases the percent of time students are spending in an informational text.”

For a long time, the thought among educators was that kids first are taught to learn to read, then they’re taught to read to learn, Gering said. “Now some educators are saying that was a mistake: Both need to happen at the same time.

“We don’t have time to teach the content that kids need to know and the Common Core State Standards if you treat them as two things” Gering said.

In addition to the shifts in curriculum, the teaching procedure has to change, Handelman said. Rather than teaching how to do a long-division problem, for example, “now the idea is you need to learn how to do that, but learn it in terms of a real-world problem. For example, a football stadium that holds 90,000 people and the seats come in sets of 125, how many sets of seats do you need to order?”

Additionally, the curriculum is intended to better prepare students for college. This will be done by determining what knowledge level is necessary to enroll in freshman college classes and developing curriculum to align to it, going backward through the grades.

Will the Common Core standards cause the dropout rate go up?

At first, meeting the higher standards might be difficult, so more students may not graduate on time, said Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger. Other states that have already implemented the new standards have seen that result.

Idaho educators expect the same outcome.

“The best way to implement this would be to grow it, start with kindergarten,” Handelman said. “I hope the public understands there will be a dip in students’ proficiency when the first test results come out.”

He added, “We are trying to rebuild the airplane while we are in flight.”

When will the Common Core be fully implemented?

Coeur d’Alene School District is already teaching some of the standards and expects to have the curriculum in place by next fall. Spokane Public Schools is working on adopting some of the curriculum, but expects the complete rollout to be slow.

Idaho and Washington students will be tested on the Common Core State Standards starting in 2014-’15.

Redinger said the district wants to be careful choosing books and other educational materials “so we are not buying new materials again in three years, so full implementation will take some time.”

How much are the Common Core State Standards going to cost?

The primary expenses are curriculum materials, training for teachers and administrators, and assessment tests.

Cost estimates vary: States could save as much as $927 million over the next one to three years or spend up to $8.3 billion, according to one nationwide study.

While Dorn, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, doesn’t have a figure for adopting the new standards, he said that’s beside the point.

“We aren’t preparing students to be career and college ready, so I can’t put a price on it,” he said. “I think we should fund basic education in a 21st century world, and I think this is a step in the right direction. If we fully fund basic education, that will free up local dollars.”

Coeur d’Alene and Spokane educators say moving forward will be tricky.

In Coeur d’Alene, the district is paying instructional coaches to work with kindergarten through second grade math teachers, spending about $4,000 on the effort, Handelman said. But “we don’t have the money or the resources to replicate the support we are giving to K-2 right now” in a wider rollout, he said.

Curriculum alone will cost millions, educators say.

Since the curriculum is new, textbook publishers are still working on materials that align with it, Redinger said. “We need to be real careful, and not go nuts and spend all this money trying to chase the standards.”

In her view, however, “The notion of saving money is a fallacy.”


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