By Chris Kieffer
Every six years, Mississippi updates its guidelines for what public school students should learn in each grade level.
The process usually garners little fanfare.
Not this time.
Mississippi’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards has not been quiet – with some hailing the new language arts and math guidelines as the “game changer” that can give the state the boost it has long sought and others saying they will harm students and calling for their repeal.
Beginning next school year, Mississippi will join 44 other states in fully adopting the Common Core, a set of standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and voluntarily adopted by states.
Mississippi officially chose them in June 2010, and many schools already have begun using them, especially in the lower grades. Students will first be tested on them next school year.
“I honestly believe in my heart of hearts quite frankly that Common Core can be the absolute game changer for the children in the state,” Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said.
Proponents say the change – which emphasizes depth, problem-solving, justifying answers and real-world examples – as well as the new tests that move away from multiple-choice questions will make students better critical-thinkers. James Mason, the Mississippi Department of Education’s director of student assessment, called it a “once-in-a-generation-type opportunity” for education.
Opponents, meanwhile, question the quality of the new standards, the stress they will place on students and political motives they say amount to a federal intrusion into local education.
The federal government was not officially involved with the Core’s development or its adoption, but it did offer incentives to states that chose the standards.
The issue has become linked with politics and likely will be debated during Mississippi’s upcoming legislative session, which begins Tuesday. A coalition of 11 conservative state senators has vocally called for the repeal of the Core, and Gov. Phil Bryant recently issued an executive order that reiterates that Mississippi will remain in control of its education standards.
“The biggest concern is the federal government’s involvement in it because constitutionally they are way out of their boundaries,” said state Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, a member of the Conservative Coalition and an outspoken critic of the Core.
Driven by low performance
The Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum. That means it notes the skills students should master by the end of year, not how teachers should develop those skills or which resources they should use.
Standards would be akin to telling someone from Tupelo to travel to Jackson. Curriculum would be similar to choosing whether to take the Natchez Trace, Highway 45 or Interstate 55.
The concept behind the Common Core arose from concerns over the lagging performance of U.S. students on international standardized tests. The nation scored average in reading and science and below average in math on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, whose results were released in December. The U.S. did not score in the top 16 of the 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries on any of the three tests, consistent with its ranking since the tri-annual test of 15-year-olds started in 2000.
The idea was to develop a set of standards that was benchmarked based on research of what was being taught in higher-performing countries. Proponents also note that many of those higher-performing nations have national educational standards.
Not only has the nation’s performance trailed other countries, but Mississippi also has lagged behind its fellow states. Its performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – which measures fourth- and eighth-grade language and math – consistently ranks near the bottom.
Advocates say adopting higher-quality standards that also are being used by other states would make Mississippi’s students more competitive.
“Common Core State Standards are mapped against the highest-performing nations in the world, our children have to be competitive nationally and internationally and globally, and we are not going to get there if we don’t raise the level of rigor and we don’t hold everybody responsible for higher standards,” Wright said. “We are just not.
“Because right now, if we keep doing what we are doing, we know what the results are going to be.”
The 2001 passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law required states to test all students, beginning in third grade, so they could have better data about how well their pupils are performing. The result, Mason said, was 50 different sets of standards and 50 different sets of tests, all of varying quality.
“It has not been the pervasive change we need to see in student performance,” he said.
The change to Common Core can be more transformative, said Rachel Canter, the executive director of Mississippi First, an education advocacy organization, which also has called for other reforms, such as charter schools and an expansion of pre-K.
“No Child Left Behind was a measuring stick of what we’re already doing,” Canter said. “Common Core is actually changing teaching and learning.”
Canter said the new standards are “a lot better” than what Mississippi has traditionally had, saying that they are more rigorous and easier to understand.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education reform advocate that supports the Common Core, in 2010 compared existing state standards to the Common Core.
It found the Core was clearer and more rigorous than the English standards in 37 states and the math standards in 39 states. The Core ranked better than both standards in 33 states, including Mississippi.
The Magnolia State received a D for its English standards and a C for its math, compared to a B+ and A- respectively for the Core.
One of the fundamental shifts is that the Core will require students to learn fewer skills, but to learn them in more depth. It will be a change for teachers, especially those who have said that standardized tests have forced them to rush through concepts and to drill facts for students to memorize. The move from multiple-choice tests also will remove the pressure to teach the test-taking strategies that have become common.
Some say this will allow teachers to become more creative. Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell said a 20-year teaching veteran told him the strategies emphasized by the Core will more closely resemble the way she used to teach during the early 1990s.
“The strength of Common Core is it allows teachers to be teachers again,” said Amory Superintendent Tony Cook, who called it the best move he’s seen during his 25 years as an educator. “It requires students to learn and not memorize … In the past 15 years, I feel we have really failed our students because all we’ve done is taught them how to memorize and take a test.”
The standards are designed so that students get a simple introduction to more complex concepts in lower grades and build depth in subsequent years. They will be required to answer multiple-part questions, to explain how they solved math problems and to cite evidence in texts to justify responses in language courses. Common Core calls for greater collaboration between what students are learning in English, math, history and science, as well as in other subjects.
Mississippi educators say that the new math standards will push many skills down one and two grade levels. They also will more closely resemble how math is taught in other nations, Canter said.
“In the U.S., we had this theory in math we should go a mile wide and an inch deep,” she said. “Other high-performing countries in the world were a lot more focused teaching skills in math and building on that every year so kids had a deeper grasp of math skills, which made them better able to handle higher-level math the older they got.”
Mississippi’s English standards were more closely aligned with those in the Core, educators say. The shift is that the new guidelines will increase demands on analysis and justifying answers using texts.
“It is requiring them to read more critical texts and to write on a deeper, more analytic level as they move into high school,” said MDE Language Arts Specialist Vincent Segalini, noting it will better prepare students for what they will see in college.
Teachers are asked to find more real-world examples to demonstrate how students will use the skills they are learning. Saltillo High math teacher Jenny Simmons said searching for such examples may be time-consuming, but that she believes it will be a change for the better.
“It gets the students a chance to see the value in what I’m teaching them,” she said. “They get to see that somebody uses the mathematics.”
The new standards will be more challenging, said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks, but he believes students will be able meet the expectations.
“It is going to be a struggle for some,” Weeks said. “It is going to be a struggle for some teachers. It is going to be a struggle for some districts. But kids in America can compete on the same level as kids in Sweeden or kids in Japan, the countries that have passed us in the last 10 years as far as educational standards.
“It is going to be a little different, but we can do this and our kids can.”
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said he sees a lot of potential for higher levels of student engagement and understanding. However, he said, educators also must be careful not to “oversell” the Core.
“The Core is focusing on higher skills and higher depths of understanding,” Loden said. “You still will have to have your basic foundation skills. You are going to have to have your multiplication tables and you’re going to have to be able to count … I don’t believe the Core is the answer in itself, but it is a good piece to the puzzle.”
There are, however, many concerns about how well schools, students and teachers will be able to perform under the new guidelines. Educators already are anticipating a large drop in test scores, something that accompanies most standards updates, although this one may be sharper.
Meanwhile, middle and high school students likely will be particularly challenged. Many schools in the state introduced the concepts to kindergarten to second-grade students three years ago, meaning those who are now in lower elementary grades will be better prepared.
But schools have introduced less Common Core in older grades, where students were still being tested on the current standards. That means they will have to overcome gaps between what students had been learning and the new Common Core requirements. In several cases, the Core will expect them to have learned skills in lower grades they did not learn.
For younger students, there are questions of whether they are developmentally ready to handle some of the skills that will be introduced to them earlier.
Core opponent Chris Ashley became concerned when he saw what his fifth-grade son in the Gulfport school district was being asked to do. The Gulfport pastor now serves as site administrator for the “Stop Common Core in Mississippi” Facebook group.
“Rigor doesn’t always mean better,” he said.
Hill, the state senator, said children are often “being asked to think in abstract terms before being asked to think in concrete terms.
“Cognitive development comes in different stages for different children,” she said. “Generally speaking, little kids are not capable of thinking in abstract terms and there is some substantial thinking being thrown at the children and a lot of frustration.”
“These standards were benchmarked against the highest-performing states in the country and the highest-performing countries in the world and there is nothing wrong with their children,” she said. “If you look at the standards and you know about kids and you know about brain development, you know kids are capable … Our children are no less capable, we just haven’t set the bar there.”
Others have concerns about the politics behind the Core and what they say is a federal intrusion into an area the Constitution says should be left to states.
“If we let it grow and grow, sooner or later, it will become a cancer,” Ashley said.
Grant Sowell of the Tupelo Tea Party said that having similar standards in different states is not a good thing.
“People in Louisiana and Mississippi, they hold certain values for the most part you might not see in Massachusetts or San Francisco or New York,” Sowell said. “That is not to knock those places. I’m sure there are good people there. We think locally we can do things better.”
Hill and Ashley both said Mississippi should raise its standards. They question, however, the process used to develop the Common Core and whether Mississippi could have come up with something better.
Each said the state should have reviewed some of the best state standards prior to Common Core – California and Indiana’s math standards and Massachusetts’ English standards – and used those to create guidelines that fit Mississippi. Each of those scored higher than the Core in the Fordham Institute’s report.
“We could develop a review process through a body created by legislators of content experts and teachers from public schools to do our standards and review them periodically and keep it in the hands of people in Mississippi qualified to look at standards,” Hill said. “It is evident folks in our universities should know what needs to be taught prior to coming into institutions of higher learning.”
As the debate over the new standards continues, English, the Booneville superintendent, said the conversation is a productive one.
“I am extremely proud that one thing did come out of this, that people are now concerned about the curriculum in Mississippi and not just scores but also what has been taught and the level of what is being taught,” he said. “If we had had this concern 50 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the bottom five in the nation in education attainment. This is all positive and it is part of the evolution of the next generation of curriculum in Mississippi.
“This is a healthy argument.”