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5-27-14 Education in the News
The Record - Debate widens over Common Core … ““There’s no doubt this is a major change,” said James Sheerin, interim superintendent of the Westwood school district. “But I think it’s a change that will help kids in college and in the workplace...”

NJ Spotlight - NJ's Next Generation Science Standards: The Quiet Revolution...New standards emphasize experiment and explanation rather than rote memorization

New York Times - Unlikely Allies Uniting to Fight School Changes

The Record - Debate widens over Common Core … ““There’s no doubt this is a major change,” said James Sheerin, interim superintendent of the Westwood school district. “But I think it’s a change that will help kids in college and in the workplace...”

 

May 26, 2014, 8:58 PM    Last updated: Monday, May 26, 2014, 9:40 PM

By HANNAN ADELY STAFF WRITER The Record

New school standards in New Jersey and 44 other states were designed to raise academic performance and better prepare students for success after high school graduation.

But in the past year, opposition has grown among political conservatives, who believe the federal government is defining what is taught in the classroom, and parents in high-performing districts who fear their schools will change for the worse. The debate over the Common Core State Standards has been held at state legislatures, town halls and freeholder boards across the United States.

Supporters say the facts are getting overshadowed in the controversy. “I’m sure parents are confused by this,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a national non-profit that helped develop the standards. “What they’re hearing is a heated political debate without a lot of clarity on what it is about.”

In North Jersey, educators have held forums and distributed information to parents to explain the changes — which they say represent a significant shift in the classroom in the way students read, write and solve problems, with a heavy focus on critical thinking.

“There’s no doubt this is a major change,” said James Sheerin, interim superintendent of the Westwood school district. “But I think it’s a change that will help kids in college and in the workplace.”

The standards have been criticized by political conservatives who believe uniform standards will discourage competition and innovation among states. Jeff Bell, a candidate in the New Jersey Republican primary for U.S. Senate, said standards will water down academics to the “lowest common denominator.”

“It’s all geared toward corporations and their hiring practices,” said Bell, a former policy director at the American Principles Project, one of the leading national organizations opposed to the Common Core. “It has diluted literature and the methods of teaching math haven’t been tested.”

Some people also believe the standards are a federal initiative that will take control away from states and school communities. But supporters counter that the program is voluntary and was driven by governors and school chiefs.

The debate has taken center stage in the primary; Bell and his opponents have slammed the new standards on their websites and spoken against them at a forum this month held by the Bergen County Republican Organization. A similar debate is taking place in campaigns and in state legislatures across the United States, where lawmakers are considering bills to investigate or withhold money from Common Core.

In April 2013, the Republican National Committee voted to oppose the standards, saying the committee “doesn’t support a one-size-fits-all approach to education.”

In New Jersey, the Assembly Education Committee released a bill this month that would investigate the standards and delay the tests associated with them. But the bill is unlikely to succeed due to lack of support. Also, Governor Christie has been a strong backer of the new standards.

Some parents in high-performing districts have voiced concerns. They fear that new standards won’t be as good as what schools already have in place and want to decide what standards are best for their districts.

Cohen, of Achieve, said the new standards are more rigorous than what New Jersey previously had in place. Many U.S. students aren’t well prepared when they graduate and have to take remedial courses in college, he said. Those students are half as likely to complete their degrees.

“These standards are designed to reduce the number of students who end up in that situation,” he said.

Educators say that they’ve seen big changes in the classroom under the new standards. Students are learning fewer topics, but getting a deeper foundation in math and literacy. They learn concepts that “spiral” year after year, increasing in complexity.

On a recent afternoon, a 10th-grade English class at Westwood Regional Middle School/High School reviewed a news article, song lyrics and a letter to find examples of conflict they could compare to Arthur Miller’s classic play “The Crucible.” They broke into groups and split up the texts to identify words and phrases to support their arguments before sharing answers.

The assignment was illustrative of new standards, English supervisor Joel Barbarito said. Students work more often in groups, use more non-fiction texts, and are asked to cite evidence in their readings. Students are reading for purpose now, he said; they’re looking for information instead of just looking to summarize.

Sheerin, the district’s interim superintendent, said that in their lessons students are now asked to tackle such real-world problems as comparing gas consumption using spreadsheets or designing a bridge over a school walking path.

Maria Nuccetelli, interim superintendent in Haworth, said students have to support and explain their answers and can get partial credit for answers. “It’s a higher order of thinking skills and critical thinking, and getting them to be able to apply those skills to all situations,” she said.

In Wallington, Superintendent James Albro, noted a change in the order of topics that students learn. Geometry, for example, has been intertwined in lessons throughout Grades K to 12, instead of being taught separately.

He said reaction has been mixed because of how “quickly and mysteriously” the standards — and the tests to measure knowledge of those standards — have been put in place. “You see a lot of things for and against,” Albro said. “My jury is still out.”

Much of the criticism in New Jersey has been focused on the test that measures knowledge gained from the standards and not the standards themselves. The New Jersey teachers union has supported the standards, but has criticized the rush to test, fearing it will hurt teachers’ evaluations. Parents have complained about too much testing and stress for students.

Wendell Steinhauer, New Jersey Education Association president, said lawmakers should act before opposition grows here. He pointed to New York, where thousands of parents opted out of tests this spring and where political bickering has ensued.

“If we don’t all work together to fix this,” Steinhauer said, “parents very well may take matters into their own hands.”

Email: adely@northjersey.com

New York Times - Unlikely Allies Uniting to Fight School Changes

By MOTOKO RICHMAY 26, 2014

SMYRNA, Tenn. — She is a fan of MSNBC, supports abortion rights and increased government spending in schools, and believes unions should have the right to strike. He watches Fox News, opposes abortion and is a fiscal conservative who voted three years ago to strip teachers unions of collective bargaining rights.

Yet Emily Mitchell, a wiry, 4-foot-9-inch Democrat and first-grade teacher at David Youree Elementary School here, sees State Representative Rick Womick, a 6-foot-2-inch conservative Republican, as an important ally. Their common cause: battling new high-stakes standardized tests and some other hot-button policies in public education.

“I always viewed him as the enemy, the guy that would never see our side,” said Ms. Mitchell, who is president of the Rutherford County chapter of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. But after she met Mr. Womick at a church function in February of last year, she said, “I realized that even though he’s polar opposite politically from what I believe in, we both agreed on a lot of things on education.”

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With tensions running high over issues surrounding academic benchmarks, standardized testing and performance evaluations for educators, unlikely coalitions of teachers, lawmakers and parents from the left and right are increasingly banding together to push back against what they see as onerous changes in education policy. Some have Tea Party Republicans and teachers unions on the same side.

In Oklahoma, teachers unions gave strong support to a bill, sponsored by Republicans, that would overturn a law requiring third graders to be held back simply on the basis of the results of one standardized test. (Last week, that coalition helped the Legislature overturn Gov. Mary Fallin’s veto.)

In New Jersey, a bill that would slow down the introduction of the Common Core education standards and the use of test scores in teacher evaluations passed the Assembly Education Committee with rare unanimous support. And in New York, grass-roots opposition on the left and the right to testing and the Common Core, a set of national reading and math standards for elementary, middle and high school students that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, led legislators to delay the consequences of standardized tests for students last month.

 “The major narrative right now for people working in American politics and public policy is hyper partisanship,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University. With education, he said, “the coalitions are much more complicated.”

During the most recent legislative session in Tennessee, conservative Republicans, including Mr. Womick, joined the teachers union in supporting a bill to delay the administration of a standardized test aligned to the Common Core. Conservative lawmakers also sponsored a bill, co-written by the teachers union, that overturned a State Board of Education policy tying decisions about teacher licenses to student test scores.

“We don’t look at the abortion issues or Fox News,” Mr. Womick said on a recent visit to David Youree Elementary, where he greeted Ms. Mitchell with a hug. “All we’re looking at is education in Tennessee.”

Of course, not everyone is opposed to the recent changes. Despite the populist furor, support for the Common Core, for example, has largely held up among educators and legislators.

These unlikely partnerships in opposition mirror alliances that formed to introduce the contentious policies in the first place. Centrist Democrats — including those in the Obama administration — lined up with moderate Republicans and business leaders to promote the new standards, teacher evaluations and updated standardized tests.

As in any marriage of opposites, fissures could emerge after the initial passion fades.

“I think it’s an uneasy coalition,” Mary Holden, a high school English teacher in Nashville, said of the new allies from the right. “I think their endgame is different. I mean great, they don’t want Common Core, but what else do they want?”

While conservatives support teachers unions in their efforts to slow down the linkage of testing and performance reviews, policy makers and advocates on the right tend to push for the expansion of charter schools and taxpayer vouchers for private schools, measures that teacher groups regard more warily.

Even in areas of overlap, motives differ. Critics on the left are most concerned about the high stakes attached to the Common Core and the affiliated standardized tests, while opponents on the right do not want national standards at all. They argue that the Obama administration’s support of the Common Core or similar standards has led to a de facto federal edict.

And where lawmakers on the right in several states have sought to repeal adoption of the Common Core altogether — as the Indiana legislature did in April — teachers unions generally have stopped short of supporting such measures.

Nevertheless, odd alliances have been fueled by what experts describe as an unprecedented amount of policy change jammed into a short time period.

As governor in Tennessee in 2010, Philip Bredesen, a Democrat, shepherded the state’s adoption of the Common Core and new teacher evaluations to qualify for a $500 million federal grant from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. His successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, who supports the programs, said the current resistance was an inevitable response to rapid change.

“I think that all of us would say that this isn’t something that you decide to take at a very moderate pace,” Mr. Haslam said.

When Tennessee applied for the Race to the Top grant, the teachers union signed on in support of the Common Core and committed teachers to the new evaluations and tests.

Some teachers said they had reservations from the start. “We’re not going to look at what’s inside the Trojan horse,” said Lucianna Sanson, an English teacher at Franklin County High School in Winchester, Tenn. “We’re just going to look at the horse and say how pretty it is. My first instinct was that this was going to be bad, and the more I learned about it, the worse it got.”

The unexpected alliances appeal to teachers and parents, at least in part, because many felt shut out of the process and were looking for partners.

Over the past three years, Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s commissioner of education, pursued other policies that worried teachers, including tightening tenure eligibility and reducing the number of potential raises in the salary schedule, which had traditionally awarded raises for advanced degrees and years of service.

“There was this piling on with this series of punitive policies that were effectively designed to punish teachers,” said Will Pinkston, who was an aide to Mr. Bredesen when he was governor and is now a member of the Nashville school board.

In an interview in Nashville, Mr. Huffman said the changes had brought results, pointing to a rise in Tennessee student scores on federal tests. Of the opposition to new policies, he said, “To me that’s more part of the national union leadership effort to avoid accountability at all costs.”

Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, called Mr. Huffman’s comments insulting.

Ms. Summerford said the union supported accountability, but questioned some of the methods being used to rate teachers.

Similarly, some parents say they feel that their concerns are dismissed out of hand. “What is striking to me is the response from the Department of Education officials to any push back or criticism is ‘Shut up, you don’t know what you are talking about,’ ” said Anne-Marie Farmer, a mother of two elementary school students in Nashville and a member of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, a parent advocacy group.

Some educators worry that the delay in implementing a new test and uncertainty about the Common Core leave them in limbo.

Others are pressing on. One recent morning at Gower Elementary School in Nashville, Cynthia Kirkpatrick led her first graders in a series of word problems. More than a third of her students are learning English as a second language, and several receive services for learning disabilities.

During the lesson, which built on the Common Core standards, the children highlighted important numbers and phrases, drew pictures to illustrate their thinking and wrote math equations.

Ms. Kirkpatrick said the politics surrounding education policy could “make you take your eye off the ball,” but, she added, gesturing around the classroom, “what’s important is who is in here with me.”

 

NJ Spotlight - NJ's Next Generation Science Standards: The Quiet Revolution

John Mooney | May 27, 2014

New standards emphasize experiment and explanation rather than rote memorization

 

As New Jersey schools continue to move to the Common Core State Standards for language arts and math, the state’s expected adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards is getting less attention but may be equally transformative.

The New Jersey Board of Education is poised to approve the new science standards as part of its five-year review of the standards for all the main subject areas.

Related Links

Next Generation Science Standards

Next Generation Science Standards -- New Jersey

Agenda: State Board Reviews Science Standards

Advocates and science educators say it could portend a big shift for science education in the state. But questions remain to the roll-out of the new standards -- and possibly a new way of teaching -- just as educators statewide are dealing with a host of reforms, including how they are evaluated.

The Next Generation standards were developed and written by a consortium of 26 states, including New Jersey, and are meant to introduce more hands-on experience and exploration to science instruction, supplanting the traditional focus on memorizing content.

The state itself had already moved to similar standards in 2009, but the Next Generation Standards are meant to be more explicit and directly connected to Common Core.

They also place more emphasis on engineering skills, and restructure New Jersey's current standards to combine core content with the skills to apply them, and also incorporate interdisciplinary concepts.

“The Next Generation Science Standards are the next logical step in science education in New Jersey,” said Michael Heinz, science coordinator for the state Department of Education who presented the standards to the board last week.

The final approval is not expected until early July, with public hearings on all the standards slated for June. But last week, the state board members were especially effusive about the science changes, saying they speak to the growing needs of schools to adjust to the changing technology and science that are driving so many careers and fields.

“It’s exciting to see this in our standards,” said Ronald Butcher, a board member and former Rowan University administrator. “This is in fact the kind of education that our students need, so they can succeed in this new world that is coming so quickly at us.”

For many educators in New Jersey’s schools and classrooms, the shift has been coming for a few years, and the formal adoption of the standards brings that process full circle.

Challenges and Questions

But there remain plenty of challenges, as well as questions, as more schools are held accountable to meeting the standards.

“With all the changes going on, it will take major shifts in how teachers teach,” said Kristen Trabona, science supervisor in Mahwah schools who has worked with the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association in preparing districts for the changes. “It’s not just changing the curriculum, it’s a major overhaul.”

She fully supported those changes, saying a more inquiry-based approach to testing theories and explaining answers is needed, but it will require more training and time for teachers. And this would be added on top of the new evaluation system for teachers that has already added pressure on districts.

‘That’s where the stressing and frustrations come in,” Trabona said.

Still, the state has been presenting the standards to districts for the better part of a year, and she said some districts like her own are readier than most. “For others, there may be some catching up,” Trabona said.

Others said the questions around assessments will be key, a process still at least a few years away. The state is required under federal law to administer a science test in elementary, middle, and high school, and the new standards would be the basis of those tests.

The state has put out a request for proposals for a new science test, but will continue to administer its current test for at least another year.

“The whole purpose of the new standards is how you apply what you have learned,” said Vikki Smith, a chemistry teacher at New Milford High School. “But how do you assess that children have met that expectation? We don’t really know that.”

Still, she agreed the shift is critical and hopefully will spur more students into science majors and careers.

“We need to spark the passion for them in a world driven by science,” she said. “It will not be an overnight fix, but if the goal is to get kids to think and not just accept things, that’s a good thing.”

Missy Holzer, an earth and space science teacher at Chatham High School, was one of the science educators on the taskforce that worked with the state Department of Education, and she agreed there will be a transition for some districts that have not started to make the changes to the 2009 standards.

And there will be fears, too, especially about the assessments. “At the hearings on this, it was interesting to hear the fears,” she said, “and with the supervisors, their minds immediately went to the assessments, even if we aren’t even there yet.”

But she said it would be worth it.

“Where we grew up memorizing things, here it is much more exploration and explanation,” Holzer said. “It is time for children to do their own learning.”

 


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