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What Common Core Looks Like

When an education policy expert asked to see examples of Common Core curriculum, 8 schools turned her down. Here’s what Common Core is teaching your kids.

It took inquiries of nine schools and districts in three states to find one willing to show an outsider what Common Core looks like.

An English teacher at a classical charter school in Indianapolis, despite testifying before Indiana’s legislature in support of the national curriculum and testing standards, could not invite people into her classroom to see them in action: “My principal told me that I am not allowed to engage with you on this,” she wrote in an email, following previous correspondence welcoming a school visit. “It is frustrating that something that should not be political is. I apologize that I could not be more helpful.”

No one she recommended would even reply to repeated inquiries. Neither would several districts in nearby states, although Common Core is the biggest thing since No Child Left Behind. But staff from the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, in southeast Indianapolis, did.

Warren is one of sixteen to win a federal Race to the Top grant for school districts. Its 2012 application stressed Common Core, and in less than a year the resulting $28.5 million has already produced things like detailed curriculum maps and teacher training. The eagerly-sought visit suggested a well-organized local rollout of a national initiative, likely due to both the federal funds and the strength required to beat the other 96 percent of applicants who lost.

There’s another reason Warren is ahead of other districts on Common Core, besides its zest for it and the federal grant: Indiana is the farthest along of some 16 states formally reconsidering the initiative. A new state law requires districts to teach Common Core in K-2 and Indiana standards in 3-12 during the 2013-14 school year. In January 2014, a state senate committee passed a bill to drop Common Core completely after Gov. Mike Pence, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and legislative leaders under public pressure came out for Indiana-driven standards. This year already, at least 19 states have seen bills or executive action to delay, alter, or repeal Common Core. The grassroots furor causing this in Indiana and nationwide is why many teachers and administrators are afraid to discuss the standards.

Of the approximately 12,000 students in Warren schools, 58 percent are on federal free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for lower income. Fifty-nine percent are minorities. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Warren students rank in about the 50th percentile in math and reading compared to the nation.

The district spends about the state average per student, $11,600 each year. The RTT grant, over its four years, will equal about 5.6 percent of Warren’s annual $128 million budget. This is a slightly larger proportion than states received under RTT—typically, those funds comprised 1 to 3 percent of recipients’ education spending. To receive RTT funds, applicant states and districts, including Warren, committed to Common Core as one of the Obama administration’s grant priorities.

Computers and Curriculum

One rainy October afternoon, Ryan Russell, the district’s teacher effectiveness director, flicked through a series of documents and apps on his iPad in a few smooth motions, demonstrating some of the 20,000 man-hours some 40 teachers and administrators have put into redesigning staff evaluations. Approximately three-quarters of Indiana districts use the state template for teacher evaluations, but Warren chose to design its own. Russell then shifted to the curriculum maps that the federal grant paid district teachers to write over the summer.

The maps would make many a teacher drool. Teachers everywhere are scrambling to shift to Common Core, polls consistently say. An October poll of 20,000 teachers by Scholastic, Inc. finds 48 percent say integrating Common Core into their classrooms has just begun, although 45 states adopted the standards three years ago. Approximately three-quarters of teachers polled said they need more planning time and training.

Warren’s curriculum maps arrange Common Core’s learning goals into an instructional calendar, specifying date ranges for teaching specific math and English concepts. This means second grade teachers will spend, say, October 16 through 27 teaching concepts assigned to those dates, such as counting to 100 by twos and working with triangles. Each date range contains links to related sections within the district’s online textbooks from Pearson, the world’s largest education publisher, and to related resources such as explanatory videos and suggested class activities. These links live within the document, so teachers can access them immediately, like Russell, by touching the link on their iPad or Chromebook. The RTT grant funded a raft of iPads for kindergarteners and Chromebooks for students in grades 1-12. High school students fix broken computers in-house and, so doing, earn a computer certification they can take into the marketplace.

When asked if other districts are this organized, the subdued Russell emits a little puff of air: “No,” he says, emphatically. While Warren plans to make its curriculum maps public since they were created with federal funds, he says “I could give them to a district and they wouldn’t have the same success [as Warren] because it was the work on this and our teachers doing it that made us so prepared.”

First Grade Math

At Liberty Park Elementary, a spacious building erected in 2002 beside a tree-nestled middle school and aquatics center, Sarah Latdrik is working with six first graders who scored low on district tests given every three weeks. The children are sitting in front of a smartboard, taking turns jumping up to touch numbers such as 67 and 84 displayed on melons and strawberries bouncing about the screen. They win if they match the fruit number to the sum of “ten-sticks” and “one-cubes” displayed in a corner.

The ten-sticks and one-cubes remain for the math lesson Latdrik begins when her other 16 students, accompanied by an aide, wiggle into the room. They essentially look like a sort of Tetris set, where a set of ten stacked cubes represents a tens column, and individual cubes represent ones. Large squares represent hundreds.

Seeing her dad, Russell’s daughter gasps and trots over to hug him. Then, slightly embarrassed, she quickly returns to one of several, scattered trapezoidal tables the children use instead of desks. The children wear collared shirts, mostly colored polos, and no jeans—the district requires a loose uniform. Latdrik gathers the children in front of the smartboard.

“I’m ready to teach,” Latdrik announces. “I’m ready to learn,” the kids chorus. She walks them through several ways to write the day’s date on a smartboard-projected calendar, writing directly on the screen. Then they clap and slap their laps, chanting in unison as they move through addition problems by twos: “Three plus three is six—kicks!” Latdrik switches over to a large paper pad on an easel. She’s written more ten-stick and one-cube groupings, and calls on kids to tell her what number each represents.

“Raven, what strategy did you use to find out what number that is?” Latdrik asks. Raven responds, “First I counted by tens, then by ones.” Latdrik then discusses two good answers students gave on the previous day’s homework, and concludes with: “If you want to help me solve my math problem, give me a wink.”

Liberty Elementary has four first grade classes. The smartboard displays the names of each class’s teachers, and below each the number of students in their classes: 22, 22, 21, and 23. Latdrik wants to bring a treat to school for all the first graders next week, she says. So how many should she make? She tells the children to return to their desks, and take out their math manipulatives—foam versions of the ten-sticks and one-cubes on the screen. The children cluster in twos and threes, pulling out their “math journals” to help solve the problem. Latdrik moves among the tables, giving suggestions and answering questions.

Two little girls nearby sit at the same table, but work independently. One with pigtails gathered all over her head by colorful plastic bobbles draws on her paper a stick-and-cube diagram that matches the numbers on the board and her manipulatives:
Then she counts up the sticks and writes: 10+10+10+10+10+10+10= 70. Finally, she counts the cubes, and writes her final answer: 78.

Her partner, a girl with a yellow polo and thin braids pulling back the front part of her hair, writes in her math journal:


Then the girl counts up the tens from the left column, and takes out eight ten-sticks. She does the same for the ones column, and counts each up. She writes on her paper “86.” She has counted the one-cubes incorrectly. But she doesn’t know it yet, so she plays with the remaining blocks until Latdrik tells the children to put their cubes away to discuss their answers. It has taken the group approximately eight minutes to work this problem.

On the wall are two posters suggesting different ways to add and subtract. They include tally marks, drawing a picture, a number line, and a number sentence: 7 + 4 = 11. None display what is known as the standard algorithms for adding and subtraction, where students stack the numbers and compute them by columns, starting in the one’s place. Common Core doesn’t call for this until fourth grade; beforehand, it calls for exactly what Latdrik has done: real-world problems, thinking about numbers more conceptually rather than concretely (as stacks of tens and hundreds, for example), learning “a variety of solution strategies,” and using “models” such as “cubes connected to form lengths.”

Feature stories about Common Core’s “new way of school” in local newspapers across the country have depicted similar activities.

Most high-achieving countries call for student fluency in three-digit addition and subtraction in third grade, says Common Core critic Ze’ev Wurman, who helped write California’s well-regarded math standards. These countries also typically introduce standard algorithms immediately, which is how more parents learned math.

“The rubbish that fills CC in earlier grades about ‘strategies’ ‘relationships’ and ‘properties’…is not truly ‘rubbish’—and one can find some good explanation for a little bit of need of them—but it is repeated ad nauseam in [Common Core] and opens itself up for easy interpretation of fuzz and invented algorithms,” he comments, “which most implementations and textbooks gleefully (or ignorantly) proceed to make.”

Advanced Ninth Grade English

Twenty minutes later, Tessa Bohonos is giving an English lesson to her class of advanced freshmen inside Warren Central High School, which enrolls 5,000 students. It’s the last lesson of the day, and the kids are quiet. That’s partly because they spend about half of the class using their Chromebooks. The nine-year teacher has just earned her master’s in education technology from Ball State University, and she’s eager to try those skills with her students.

Bohonos’ long ponytail swings as she walks about the room. The desks are arranged traditionally, facing the front in rows. The walls are not aflutter with a kaleidoscope of posters covering nearly every inch, like the first-grade room. In the back, dramatic black and white posters of Greek gods from classical mythology brush the ceiling in a neat row, but besides a few other posters the room is more monochrome and focused.

The students hunch over their computers, squinting at the screens. They spend a few minutes entering new “academic vocabulary” into online Google spreadsheets, then perhaps eight more on a short lesson. Common Core says high schoolers should “use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products.”

Bohonos tells students to cluster around the whiteboard and write any story elements they can think of, because “I don’t like to spend time on things you already know. That’s boring.” They write words like “conflict,” “protagonist,” thesis,” in a deliberately random, multicolored fragments across the board (one young man writes sideways). Then Bohonos hands students a page filled with related vocabulary, many of them the same as students have written. They run through the list together. Anything a student doesn’t know well, she says, should go into his academic vocabulary spreadsheet.

“I’m not saying this will for sure happen,” she says, tilting her head and sounding secretive, “but these words just might show up on a future quiz.”

Students spend the rest of class continuing to write an essay due in four days, before they will read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Their “pre-reading” essay must be on one of three topics: race relations, banning books, or “the N-word in literature.”

Bohonos reminds students to turn in a bibliography with their essay. She has put several articles related to each topic on an online pinboard for students to use as sources. The articles discuss, for example, the Scottsboro Boys and Plessy vs. Ferguson. Because Common Core requires students to read more nonfiction, Bohonos says, she’s adding historical documents to her instruction. Warren’s RTT application says district teachers will assign, like Common Core directs, 45 percent of students’ reading to “literacy” and 55 percent to “informational” passages in eighth grade, which shifts to 30 percent literacy and 70 percent informational by twelfth grade.

Another change because of Common Core, she says: Her non-advanced students will, instead of reading the simpler To Kill a Mockingbird screenplay like they used to, actually read the book like her advanced students. It seems Bohonos is an early adapter, because an October 2013 Fordham Institute survey of 1,154 English teachers nationwide found that 64 percent of elementary, 38 percent of middle school, and 24 percent of high school teachers are still assigning students books at their reading level rather than at their grade level. Approximately half of high school teachers assign books at grade level. “This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language,” the survey concludes. Thirty-five percent of high school teachers in the survey assign “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was the most-assigned book, another repeated finding.

Bohonos walks around, conferring with students individually as they write. Once the essay is finished, students are to post it online and respond to at least three of their classmates’ essays “with at least 75 words in your response,” Bohonos says. There’s a glitch: The Chromebooks won’t allow cutting and pasting into the discussion board. So students have to upload their essays as attachments. But overall, Bohonos likes the online discussion board: “It’s what college students are using,” she tells students.

Bohonos is excited to help students meet the “collaboration” and “twenty-first century skills” of Common Core with another new assignment this year, also based on “To Kill a Mockingbird”: She’ll have students choose approximately two pages of “descriptive text” from the book to create a short YouTube video, accompanying narration with images. Common Core high school standards ask kids to “make strategic use of digital media” and ‘integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats.” Since it’s a new lesson for her, she’ll try it out on the advanced students before her other classes, so she can use their videos as examples.

‘Authentic,’ ‘Collaborative’ Teaching

The RTT grant paid teachers, including Bohonos and Latdrik, to attend several optional Common Core seminars in summer 2013. Teachers who volunteered for the Common Core planning committee, which the grant also sponsored, spent a week and a half that summer thinking through the standards and writing them “in kid-friendly language,” Bohonos said.

The district also embeds regular professional development in teacher schedules: Teachers meet every Wednesday morning, grouping both within and across grade levels. They also meet weekly with a Common Core coach, and hold book clubs. The Wednesday meetings cover one topic for several weeks. In 2013, topics included the collaborative aspects of Common Core, a literary analysis technique called close reading, and workshop approaches to math and writing.

“The Common Core can be vague if there isn’t an administrator saying ‘This is how we take this,’” Latdrik said. It has also helped that Warren began converting to Common Core even before Indiana adopted the standards in 2010.
“The first two years were a little more rough” than 2013, Latdrik said.

Bohonos and the rest of Warren’s high school English teachers held a close reading workshop for faculty in other departments. Bohonos worked with art teachers, explaining how close reading is “like analyzing art.”

The essence of Common Core, Latdrik says, is: “Rather than me standing up and teaching [students] a skill, it’s me coordinating experiences where they can authentically engage in that on their own…I’ve never felt more like what I’m teaching them in kindergarten and first grade is truly important.”

Warren’s professional development reinforces this take on Common Core, highlighting materials from self-described “constructivist” educators such as writing theorist Lucy Calkins or a Teaching Channel video in which a middle-school math teacher has his students find the formula for the area of a cylinder without assistance.

Central vs. Local Planning

Russell says his school district, from administrators to teachers and parents, greatly prefers Common Core, despite scattered complaints from parents. Critics often mention teachers who are scared to object to the new curriculum and testing objectives, but he has not heard any Warren teacher say Common Core is less challenging.

The district’s biggest worry if Indiana reverts to its own standards, he says, is that students will perform poorly on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams: “I don’t want kids to lose opportunities because of a political battle.” The current repeal bill moving through the legislature would require aligning Indiana’s new standards to the SAT and ACT, which themselves are being changed to fit Common Core, raising questions from opponents over whether the final result of three years of pestering lawmakers would simply repackage Common Core with a new label.

That is what some administrators have been telling teachers amid the legislative battle.

“[T]he [final] standards will completely reflect the CCSS standards. It is VERY much a political issue at this point—the issue is not with the standards or content of the standards, but rather WHO controls the content. So, if teachers ask….don‘t stop your work on CCSS—they are just getting a new name,” wrote Tami Hicks, a professional development coordinator for Indiana school districts north of Indianapolis, in a January email.

While reviewers such as the Fordham Institute have rated Indiana’s standards higher than Common Core, Russell points to low expectations on state tests as a reason he thinks Indiana’s are lower. Indiana’s tenth grade English test measures an eighth grade reading level, he notes. And Warren still offers advanced classes to students so they can get beyond the Algebra II Common Core prescribes as a final course and enter college with calculus under their belts, as a science or math major requires.

Perhaps the worst of the political discussion is that school staff and leaders like those in Warren cannot decide what standards they will use, no matter how strongly they stand for or against them. Neither can the families and teachers who think Common Core will destroy education, and whose activism has shifted the state. In this zero-sum political game, for one heavily invested side to win, the other heavily invested side must lose.

Joy Pullmann is an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute and a 2013 Robert Novak journalism fellow for in-depth reporting on Common Core.

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