It’s August, and ninth and tenth graders across Arkansas are being introduced to high school. Meanwhile, their teachers are undergoing their own sometimes difficult transition to the new Common Core State Standards.
Initiated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core has been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Arkansas schools first implemented it in grades K-2 in 2011-12 and added it to grades 3-8 this past school year. Now it’s moved into high school. Across-the-board testing is being developed by a group of states, including Arkansas, known as PARCC. Those tests will be administered not this year, but the next.
The standards define the skills students at each grade level should have in math and in English language arts. For example, first graders should be able to add and subtract within 20, tell time, print upper- and lowercase letters, and describe what’s happening in a story. How those standards are taught – the curricula, in other words – is up to school districts and teachers.
It has been an imperfect transition. It turns out that most Arkansas schools lack the Internet broadband capacity to administer the tests, let alone deliver instruction needed to really do Common Core right. Fixing that won’t be cheap. Less significantly, the state didn’t want to pay for a transitional test until the new one is developed, so many students have been studying under Common Core while being tested under Arkansas’ old frameworks. Test scores, naturally, went down a little this past year.
Supporters say the new standards are more rigorous and more focused than Arkansas’ old frameworks, which tended to cover too many subjects with too little depth. Educational and business groups – which aren’t always on the same page – agree that a mobile society needs a common set of standards so students can be compared with their national and international peers. Supportive educators say the standards give teachers more flexibility in designing their lessons than the old frameworks did.
At Bryant High School, Lisa Stine, 26, and her five fellow ninth grade English teachers designed their curriculum around "Romeo and Juliet," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and other famous works. She’s pleased with the curriculum, but it did take some serious planning and negotiation.
"We debated over ‘Fahrenheit 451’ with the eighth grade, and we just have to look at the reading level, the thematic content, what we have time for," she said. "So eventually, they won out, but that’s OK, because we have lots of content that I’m really happy with, so you’ve got to give and take a little bit."
Giving and taking is what some people would like to do with Common Core – give it away and take it back to where it came from. After being adopted by 45 states rather quickly several years ago, a backlash is developing over fears that national standards will soon devolve into federal government control.
In Arkansas, the citizens group Arkansas Against Common Core remains vocal but relatively small, but then, so was the tea party at one time. Doubters have gained more traction in other states. In July, Georgia pulled out of PARCC, citing the $29.50 per student testing cost, though not out of Common Core itself.
It seems unlikely this ship could reverse course in Arkansas at this point. Educators have been preparing for this change since before 2010. It will be 2015 before the Legislature meets again in regular session, though legislators could agree to bring up the subject during next year’s fiscal session. Legislators did spend a day listening to opponents make their case in July, and the 2014 elections could produce a Legislature more willing to reconsider the Common Core.
Stine says that the majority – but not all – of the teachers at Bryant HIgh seem to favor the standards. Generally, the longer a teacher has been teaching under the old frameworks, the more skeptical they are of yet another "next big thing" in education.
"There are some people here resistant to it, but I’ve heard a lot more positive things about it than negative for sure, especially here in Bryant. … The teachers that I work with and the teachers that I know generally think it’s a positive thing," she said.
Hopefully they’re right. As of this August, every public school student in Arkansas is now studying under Common Core.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.