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Common Core: Curriculum Controversy

Area parents worried that the Common Core State Standards are the wrong lesson plan for their kids are demanding to be heard.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS; Corestandards.com) is a nationwide initiative that promotes a unified set of K-12 educational standards for the teaching of English language arts and math. Created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, CCSS is meant to decrease educational disparities between the states and lay out “clear” expectations about what students in a given grade should know in these two crucial subjects. Since 2010, 45 states — including Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have adopted the standards, but not without controversy. As CCSS-aligned curricula have been implemented, a small but growing number of area parents (and educational experts) uneasy with the tenor of the new lesson plans are voicing their alarm.

Content concerns

“I was a big fan of these standards at first, because why should math be different between Mississippi and New Jersey? People move from state to state,” says Andrew Porter, PhD, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “I also thought one test for student achievement would be cheaper and better. But these standards did not move as far forward as I’d hoped.”

After conducting an analysis of CCSS in 2011, Porter found that it doesn’t surpass all previous state standards, nor does it emphasize the same things (such as “perform procedures” in math) as mandated standards in countries that outscore the United States on international assessments.

Some parents dislike the new language arts emphasis on nonfiction “informational texts” in lieu of fiction. “Informational pieces don’t teach critical thinking and analysis the way classical literature does,” says Wilmington, DE father Brandon Bushong.

A Southern New Jersey mother who requests anonymity feels the standards are good in theory but worries that they play up “teaching to a test.” “It puts undue stress on educators by tying teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests,” she says. “Should teachers be punished because a student is a bad test-taker? How might a teacher treat that child?”

Richard Selznick, PhD, director of the Cooper Learning Center in Voorhees, NJ similarly wonders how CCSS will help struggling students: “My question is, What happens to Joey when he can’t do these things in third grade? What is their answer to the kids who ‘can’t?’

Control and cost

Though CCSS is not mandatory, many parents and educators feel that states were strong-armed into adopting the standards by the federal government.

To receive federal Race to the Top grants, states must adopt and implement college- and career-ready standards. Utilizing CCSS is the simplest way to do so, though some states have crafted alternatives. Pennsylvania, for one, has the Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards, which mirror CCSS content but are organized and designed differently.

Philadelphia mom Jennifer Stefano worries that alignment with national standards makes it harder for parents to impact curriculum. When the state and school districts are in control, parents can provide input and voice concerns at local school board meetings. But effecting change at the federal level is much more difficult.

Says Lisa Esler, a school board director in the Penn-Delco school district in Delaware County, PA, “The Common Core takes control out of the classroom, and with all states working toward the same things it eliminates best practices and a laboratory environment where states can learn from what’s working in other states.” Esler is also concerned about the high cost of putting the new standards into practice, including teacher training, testing, record-keeping and technology.

Taking action

Such concerns have led parents to unite on Facebook pages, organize meetings in different school districts and contact state legislators. Pennsylvania has experienced enough backlash to result in Governor Corbett’s having delayed the July 1, 2013 implementation date of the Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards in order to review the rules and make necessary modifications.

Following his gut feeling, Bushong has chosen to send his son to private school to “shield him a little better” from CCSS. Time will tell whether other parents take the same course and whether the blowback against the standards will grow or abate.    

Susan Stopper is a frequent contributor to MetroKids.

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