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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Montana educators to implement Common Core standards in math, reading

HELENA – From Ekalaka to Kalispell, Montana schools are doing what they think is a good thing: Updating curricula, testing and instruction to meet new, tougher Common Core standards for reading and math.
Yet these new standards are facing a sometimes-vocal opposition, which is saying the standards are an untested experiment of “top-down, one-size-fits-all” instruction that smacks of federal government control.
“Just because they’re going forward doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for Montana,” says Debra Lamm, an education consultant from Livingston who’s been traveling the state, speaking out against the Common Core standards. “This is a wholesale change in the way education is being delivered.”
Opponents helped kill a funding proposal this spring at the 2013 Montana Legislature to help schools pay for implementing the new standards.
Nonetheless, public schools across the state are charging ahead on the effort, preparing to test for and teach to meet the standards by next year at the latest.
Denise Juneau, the state’s top school official, says the standards have broad support among educators, business leaders and parents familiar with the standards, because their goal is to have kids better prepared for the workforce and higher education.
“I think they understand that what we’re trying to do is set the bar higher for learning, and that it’s a good thing,” she said last week. “The more students and parents learn about these standards, the more supportive they’re going to be.”
Supporters also say claims that the standards are a requirement by the federal government or some sort of national education curriculum are simply false.
The National Governors Association, state school superintendents and business leaders helped develop the standards, but each state has decided whether to adopt them, and some tailor the standards to specific circumstances of their respective state, supporters say.
“(Opponents) say this is a loss of local control, when, really, it’s the exact opposite,” says Tammy Elser, a former teacher and Missoula consultant who’s been training teachers on the standards. “Under these new standards, teachers are being encouraged to bring more material into the classroom.”
The standards, while new, didn’t drop out of the sky yesterday. The NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers began working on them several years ago, and Montana’s Board of Public Education adopted them in November 2011, after two years of meetings and discussion.
Montana is the 46th and final state to adopt them; four states chose not to adopt the standards.
The standards set grade-by-grade benchmarks for what kids should learn in math and reading.
In math, students must learn a “progression” of mathematic principles and skills before moving onto the next level, and apply those skills toward solving problems.
Sharon Carroll, a Board of Public Education member and math teacher in Ekalaka, says it’s similar to what she’s always taught, but that the standards emphasize and place more focus on good practices.
In English, the standards will require more reading and writing by students, more emphasis on comprehension of what they read, and practical application of reading skills.
Elser says the standards will introduce more nonfiction material into the curriculum, in addition to classic literature, helping students learn how to comprehend and analyze things like the U.S. Constitution, acts of government, or even credit card contracts.
“These texts are more complex than people have had before,” she says. “That’s important, because we’ve really been dumbing down over the past 12 years. …
“Kids can’t graduate from high school if they can’t read, and they can’t do well in college if they can’t write.“
Some of America’s largest corporations support the Common Core standards, such as oil giant ExxonMobil, which has a TV ad campaign called “Let’s Solve This,” pointing out that U.S. students lag behind kids in many other nations in math and science (although the Common Core standards don’t yet address science).
Opponents include a lineup of conservative think tanks and groups like the Heritage Foundation, which says Common Core is an attempt by the Obama administration to centralize and nationalize education standards.
In Montana, Lamm has been the leading opponent. She says she’s doing it on her own time and money, and isn’t getting financial support from any specific group.
There’s also a website, www.montanansagainst, which posts or links to information borrowed from various opposition groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Principles Project, the Pioneer Institute and Truth in American Education.
The groups tend to be conservative, free-market organizations, some of which support reforms such as school choice, which usually means using public money to finance charter or private schools.
Lamm says the website was created by a Montana parent concerned about Common Core. Similar websites opposing Common Core standards exist in many states across the country.
Lamm says she made her first public presentation on common core in April and has been traveling the state at the invitation of local parents and others, to talk about the flaws in Common Core. She also appeared before a legislative interim committee in June, urging the Legislature to “put the brakes” on Common Core standards.
“Parents and taxpayers were left entirely out of the process,” Lamm says in explaining her opposition. “And the Legislature was left out of the process and they were misled about the cost of doing it.”
While the goals of Common Core standards are laudable, some experts believe they may actually harm or worsen student comprehension, Lamm says.
“If the state felt this was a good thing, they should have evaluated it and implemented it in one or two areas,” she says. “What they’re finding across the country is that it’s just not working.”
Most education officials in Montana disagree, and note that the standards only set goals, allowing schools and teachers leeway to create curriculum to meet those goals.
“These (standards) are more rigorous and more intent on what students learn, so they can be career- and college-level,” says Kirk Miller, a former school superintendent who is now executive director of School Administrators of Montana. “It’s driving a very meaningful conversation in school districts, focused on learning and achieving high standards for all students.”
David Erickson, an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Montana, says he’s helped train hundreds of teachers on the new math standards for the past two years.
It won’t be easy for kids in higher grades to adjust to the math standards right away, but the standards are sound and “help steer us toward the destination where we want to go,” he says.
“It’s a good direction that we’re headed in,” Erickson says. “We’re hoping that everyone can work together and pull it off.”
Peter Donovan, executive director of the state Board of Public Education, which adopted the standards in 2011, says the board held a dozen public meetings on the standards and that lawmakers from an interim committee were assigned to attend those meetings.
The board is supposed to create a uniform education system for the state and doesn’t do pilot programs for standards, he added. However, if problems with Common Core occur, the board is open to reviewing them, he said.
“The public is absolutely welcome to come to the board and voice their concerns,” Donovan said.
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the union representing Montana schoolteachers and some other public employees, says any furor over Common Core standards is being driven by groups whose agenda is to discredit public schools.
The standards are not dramatically different from earlier ones and aren’t that big of a deal, he says.
“Common Core is much ado about nothing,” Feaver says. “It’s just part of the ever-changing landscape of public education, and I’m sorry some folks have made it the ‘end of days.’ ”

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