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Dale Lee: Common core a state initiative to compete globally

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Dale Lee: Common core a state initiative to compete globally

Why is it that most legislators oppose the Common Core? If asked to name a standard they disagree with, they cannot tell you any specific standard. They talk about things they have read on the Internet and they talk about the intrusion of the federal government into our schools.

Most people have formed their view on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) based on something they have heard on television or read online. The average citizen knows little about education, curricula, standards or the Common Core. Unfortunately, neither do the people they are getting their information from in order to form an opinion on the CCSS.

It might be worth taking a look at why Common Core standards were developed. Critics of public education like to say that our students can’t compete with students from Finland, Singapore and a host of other nations. In 2002, William Schmidt, a Michigan State University scholar, and his colleagues studied what states expected kids to learn and found that one-third of states didn’t expect fifth-graders to learn the relationship between fractions and decimals. In comparison, every top-performing country in the world makes that a main topic of fifth grade math.

Instead, American students were expected to be studying number theory, three-dimensional geometry and geometric transformations — topics that most top-performing countries leave until 7th and 8th grade.

Schmidt’s study was in stark contrast with a general agreement regarding the standards taught throughout the top-performing countries in the world. It was that contrast, in part, that led the effort to develop a consistent set of standards that teachers can use to guide instruction from state to state. The Common Core lays out, for example, when fractions should be introduced — third grade — and when students should fully understand the equivalence between fractions and other proportions such as decimals — fifth grade.

In an effort to improve our students ranking, states began working together to develop the CCSS. The CCSS began as an initiative among states and West Virginia was one of the first states in the country to sign on. States themselves elected to participate in the CCSS. They were not forced to participate by the federal government
The CCSS uses workplace and college readiness standards already established. The standards aren’t new but are now uniform for specific grades from state to state.

Each state then set about writing a set of state standards for teachers that would align with the CCSS. West Virginia teachers were called together and developed the Next Generation standards that are in use in our classrooms. The Next Generation standards are unique to West Virginia and they are used to guide the instruction of our students. CCSS might say fractions should be introduced in the third grade but each teacher in West Virginia decides how to make that happen in their classrooms.

Local schools and districts still control what curricula and materials they use, but having a common set of expectations will allow local educators, school boards and parents to compare the quality of textbooks and materials in a systematic way. With such a large number of states electing to follow the CCSS, a vast array of resources are available to assist teachers as they develop their instructional materials and strategies.

In West Virginia our transition to the Next Generation standards has not been a smooth one. Our teachers did not have enough time or training to fully grasp and implement the Next Generation standards written for our classrooms. Money was not always available for additional resources needed to supplement the instruction of the new standards.

The change in testing from our old WESTEST to the Smarter Balanced test has been challenging due to the difference in the testing format. Returning the data to the schools to digest in a timely manner has also been an issue. And clearly, West Virginia didn’t do a good enough job of telling our parents and the public about the Next Generation standards and why they are important to our student’s success.

Our transition to the Next Generation standards is a work in progress and there are items we need to correct. However, scrapping our newly adopted standards and starting over again is not good for our students, our teachers or our ability to have a highly skilled workforce ready to participate in our state’s economy. Each time our state changes standards we have similar issues to overcome.

The Common Core State Standards are not something generated by the federal government in an attempt to turn our students into robots. The CCSS won’t automatically make your child like school more, make them smarter or have their progress tracked by the federal government.

All Common Core State Standards do is set up the conditions under which teachers will have more clarity about what students learn when. It is about having our students compete in a global economy and doing it successfully.

Dale Lee, a special education mathematics teacher from Mercer County, is on leave serving as the president of the West Virginia Education Association.