Common Core sparks delayed uproar

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Margaret Lee holds a sign showing her position on the topic as the state's top school board gets an update on Common Core. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Margaret Lee holds a sign showing her position on the topic as the state's top school board gets an update on Common Core.

Homework, grades creating worry

The fight over more rigor in public schools has triggered protests, angry town-hall meetings and heated public hearings — all over changes approved more than three years ago.

Why now?

First and foremost, critics say, is the fact the overhaul is starting to show up in both public and Catholic schools’ homework assignments and all-important letter grades.

“It is a big shift because parents are starting to see it,” said Mary Kass, who lives in Gretna and opposes the new standards, which are called Common Core.

Backers say much of the criticism is off-target, especially charges that the changes are mandated by the federal government.

“The Internet can get the false information out faster than we can get the proper information out,” said Jim Garvey, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and a backer of the overhaul.

The new rules were approved by BESE in July 2010.

The goal was to add greater rigor to the math, reading and writing taught from kindergarten through 12th grade.

BESE’s action three years ago caused barely a ripple, yet in recent weeks the issue has sparked concerns from Gov. Bobby Jindal, a five-hour BESE public hearing and a nearly four-hour legislative meeting.

Some lawmakers say Common Core will be one of the topics of the 2014 regular legislative session, which begins March 10.

Backers of the overhaul argue that much of the controversy is driven by a small, noisy faction.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, blamed the uproar on “Tea party people and some other right-wing Republicans,” whose views he said are often fueled by bad information.

Former BESE member Leslie Jacobs said the criticism is similar to parental resistance when Louisiana began requiring fourth- and eighth-graders to pass a test called LEAP for promotion, starting in the 1999-2000 school year.

Jacobs said one of the complaints then, as with Common Core, is the new rules were spurred by the federal government.

“And No. 2 is folks from the education establishment were saying, ‘You are not giving me enough time and preparation,’ ” she said. “We totally heard that when we went to LEAP.”

However, others say the strife stems in part from parental confusion over how to help their children with homework, especially with the new rules on how courses are taught, what students have to learn and how they are to solve problems.

The principal of John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Lake Charles, Dinah Robinson, saw so much confusion among parents that her school hosts Common Core training sessions for mothers and fathers about twice a month — turning the parents into learners.

Robinson said the calculation of division, for instance, is not taught as it used to be.

“A parent can really kind of mess it up in home practice if they don’t fully understand,” she said.

“They are learning how to do math. They are learning how to do the writing; how to help their kids at home,” Robinson said. “We aren’t exactly on the same page, but they understand the rigor,” she added.

Under existing rules, fourth-grade math students could be asked this question: If n + n + n= 60, what is the value of n?

The options are 6, 10, 15 and 20.

Under Common Core, students might be asked to solve the equation for “x:”

3(2x-5)+9=12.

Students also have to show at least four steps in the correct order to get full credit.

Common Core will take full effect in the 2014-15 school year, including national assessments in the spring of 2015.

However, students this year will take standardized tests with what state officials call Common Core-like rigor.

Critics say the timetable has been accelerated in a way that has raised more anxiety.

Also, while Common Core is generally seen as a public school issue, Catholic schools in Louisiana have adopted it as well, sparking concerns among some parents of those students too.

“When you go to the town hall meetings, a lot of the moms are Catholic moms,” Appel said.

The new standards are well aligned with Catholic school philosophies, said Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, but the changes have triggered concerns.

“People are anxious about it,” Loar said.

The issue has sparked arguments more than three years after approval, because it has finally arrived in homes, especially in math, said Holly Boffy, a BESE member who lives in Youngsville and backs the changes.

“The biggest thing I have heard from constituents is just a desire to help their kids,” said Boffy, a former state teacher of the year who represents nine school districts.

Jade Miller, the mother of a third-grade student in Mandeville, said the issue caught fire once the standards began appearing in classrooms when students returned to school in August.

“This was not on our radar three years ago,” Miller said in an email.

Since then, she said, research has shown that the new standards include “half-truths,” sparking lots of questions and frustration when the questions are not answered.

“That is why we are seeing this growing resistance across our state three years after the passing of Common Core,” she said.