Five second-grade boys climb into a semi-circle of chairs organized around a table nearly as tall as they are in a hallway at Gompers Elementary.
Hanging on the wall above them is a large color photo of two smiling boys standing on their hands — or hanging upside down. It’s not clear.
“Someone please share with me what you see and what thoughts you have,” teacher Barbara Simpson asks.
“There might be a monkey bar up there,” responds Caden Perez.
Simpson asks Caden to provide the “textual evidence” that supports his observation. Without pause, Caden says the boys in the photo are upside down and the background in the photo resembles a playground. Others chime in, and the group debates which boy in the photo is older and why.
It’s the first morning after winter break and the second-graders are getting back into the routine of reading and writing lessons that rely heavily on the young students’ grasp of “why” rather than just “what.”
The lessons are guided by the Common Core State Standards, which — among other things — require students to prove their work with evidence.
Common Core is fueling much of Madison School District superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s academic reforms to improve achievement across the district. The district is in its first year of a three-year plan to implement the standards at every school.
But the standards — which focus on math and reading — are controversial, drawing fire from critics on all political sides and raising questions about whether they will create a mandated curriculum or reduce teacher creativity.
“I’ve heard the criticism,” said Cheatham. “It’s interesting to me because the standards are really about the opposite. They are about teacher creativity; they are about challenging students to be creative and to be problem solvers. I think they create more flexibility; there are fewer standards and they are more focused (than previous standards).”
Huegel Elementary fourth-grade teacher Carissa Franz said she can see the shift in her students.
“I get comments (from students) like, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought like this before,’” Franz said. “I think they recognize the change in rigor.”
Last week, Franz’s students were learning about glaciers. During one lesson, Franz read the passage aloud and asked her students for the clues in the passage that support the main idea.
“We’re going to kind of be like detectives,” she says to her class on Friday morning. “Tell me how you know what the main idea is?
Nine-year-old Jairus Patterson correctly responds that he thinks it’s about how glaciers move because the passage talks a lot about how many feet glaciers can move per day.
Where students used to be asked to simply describe what they think about texts, now students are asked to explain why, said Huegel’s literacy instructional resource teacher, Amy Krauthamer-Maloney.
“It’s taking their previous knowledge and also using the text to explain why,” Franz said. “I tell them ‘that’ll make your argument stronger.’”
The new English-language arts and math standards were released in 2010 after a yearlong development process by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The goal was to create academic standards that were more rigorous and consistent than existing standards and that would produce globally competitive students. Along with the goals come tougher assessments. The District of Columbia and 45 states have adopted them.
Wisconsin did so in 2010 with little fanfare. Since then, school districts have poured millions into implementing the standards.
Supporters and the state Department of Public Instruction argue the standards will prepare students for college or careers better than previous state standards.
Cheatham is a strong supporter of the standards and has proposed an implementation plan after arriving to the district last spring to find no district-wide strategy for Common Core, she said. Each school now has a plan to improve student achievement that requires the schools to choose standards to focus on.
“Despite the fact that the district hadn’t yet established a strategy district-wide for implementing standards, we’re not trying to play catch-up,” Cheatham said. “Rather than rush to fully implement in one year, which I think would lead to failure, we want to be thoughtful and intentional.”
As the unveiling of new Common Core-linked assessments next school year draws near, opponents of the standards have grown more vocal.
Though the standards do not dictate a curriculum, conservative groups have said they will wipe out local control of schools.
In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers have held a series of hearings on the standards but ultimately rejected calls from tea party groups to gut them. Instead, the state Assembly will soon begin moving on a slate of less onerous bills that will shape how the standards are implemented.
The Assembly will vote on bills recommended by the committee to ban the collection of students’ biometric data such as retinal scans and fingerprints, to protect private student information and to require DPI to post on its website data it collects about students and prohibits DPI from releasing that information to federal agencies. The assembly also will vote on a bill that would review the standards regularly, with the first review to start in 2015.
Some teachers and liberals have also raised questions. Noted education historian Diane Ravitch has long advocated for national standards but announced on her blog last year that she opposed the Common Core effort.
“We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time,” she wrote. “Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether.”
Ravitch also said the standards were developed amid minimal public involvement. States understood they would not be eligible for $4.35 billion in federal grants unless the standards were adopted, she said. Wisconsin received $22.7 million in such grants in 2012.
‘I need to erase this’
At Gompers and Huegel, the schools are focused on literacy standards that ask students to cite specific textual evidence. Common Core’s focus on working with evidence extends to writing exercises, too. Last week, teacher Katie O’Duffy’s students revised letters they had written on their favorite book.
Jarrett Boehm, 8, naturally picked a book about owls, one of his top interests at the moment. But O’Duffy spots a needed revision: part of his letter uses information he can’t attribute.
“I need to erase this,” he explains to a State Journal reporter. “I need to use information directly from the book.”
O’Duffy said if she were to explain to a parent the standards’ role in her teaching, she would emphasize how much more focused the students’ learning is now.
“You take a focus point and you adapt it to what you’re doing in your daily lessons,” she said. “You have big targets for the year, and you take them in small chunks each day.”
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!