Common Core controversy surprising to local educators

New standards don’t dictate any curriculum, Simpson and Knost say

By Gloria Lloyd

First of two parts

As long as Lindbergh Schools superintendent Jim Simpson can remember, schools have operated by some set of standards.

What those standards are, however, has changed over the years.

The prospect of a de facto set of nationwide standards, Common Core, has upset many people who see the standards as a federal government takeover of education.

The new Common Core State Standards, however, are really not as different from current and past educational standards as one might think from the controversy, Simpson told the Call.

“When we say ‘new standards,’ it sounds like there’s something changing,” Simpson said. “But think about everything that you learned when you were in school, and just about every one of those skills is right there (in Common Core).”

For three years in a row, Lindbergh Schools has been ranked as the No. 1 academic school district in Missouri, measured by scores on the current standardized test for students, the Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP. That test measures student performance under the current state standards, the Show-Me Standards adopted in 1996.

The Show-Me Standards were adopted when schools still used overhead projectors, while the new Common Core State Standards outline how to use digital tools in classroom learning. In a decade, Simpson added, new standards will probably replace Common Core, and the cycle will start again.

Lindbergh, he noted, will still be a top-performing school under any system of standards.

“The districts do most of the heavy lifting,” he said. “The Common Core just really gives you umbrella terms, and the district designs its own curriculum. There’s so much that is left to the district. The state will not come in and check the curriculum.”

No Lindbergh Schools teacher has raised concerns about the quality of the standards, after working with them for the last two years, Simpson said.

James Milgram, an emeritus professor at Stanford and the only math educator that sat on the Common Core validation committee, declined to validate the standards because he believed they did not compare favorably to other countries’ standards.

His criticisms, however, also pertain to Missouri’s current standards: the mathematics standards call for algebra in high school, while many countries require it by middle school, and also call for calculus in high school.

The standards under Common Core are much better than the Show-Me Standards, Mehlville School District Superintendent Eric Knost told the Call.

“We already have standards, and when you look at these sets of standards side-by-side, you really can’t argue that the bar hasn’t been raised,” he said.

Both sets of standards say that students should be able to master certain skills at each grade level, but they do not specify how teachers will get them there.

“These standards are focused on what outcome is required,” Knost said. “They don’t dictate a curriculum or how a teacher teaches … There is a lot of room for autonomy and local control. The standards just say, ‘By fourth grade, you have to be able to do “x,”‘ and we already have standards that say that.”

A Dayton, Ohio-based education policy think tank, the Fordham Institute, graded the Common Core State Standards a B+ for English Language Arts, or ELA, and an A- in math and compared them to all the states’ existing standards in 2010.

The think tank rated both Missouri’s ELA and math standards as “among the worst in the country” and gave D’s to each set of standards.

For mathematics in high school, the Fordham Institute found that the “content is extremely weak. The standards are so broadly stated that it is unclear what students are expected to know or be able to do.”

The report concludes that the ELA standards of the Common Core State Standards are “significantly superior” and the math standards are “vastly superior to what the Show Me State has in place today.”

The Fordham Institute receives funding from the Gates Foundation, however, which puts it in the same category as many of the nonprofits and groups that are in favor of the CCSS.

The Gates Foundation has been one of the most prominent backers of Common Core.

The Common Core asks that kindergarteners “compare and contrast the adventures of characters in familiar stories.”

The Show-Me Standards expected this skill from third-grade students. As another example, first-graders will collaborate with each other on shared projects, something expected in the Show-Me Standards by fifth grade.

In math, kindergarteners will analyze and compare shapes, a skill now required of third-graders under the Show-Me Standards.

Fourth-graders will measure the degrees of angles and classify them as acute, obtuse, right, straight or reflex angles — a skill not required until seventh grade by the Show-Me Standards.