Area teachers worry about Common Core changes

This past school year, students at Lafayette-area public schools faced new ways of dissecting English readings and tackling math problems.

Teachers prodded them to be more analytical when reading assignments and began to emphasize nonfiction more than fiction. Math problems were broken down to ensure students understood how the answer could be derived, which meant, for example, elementary teachers introduced different methods of learning how to subtract and add.

These shifts were prompted by Common Core, a set of learning benchmarks adopted by more than 40 states as a way to chart student learning from state to state and provide continuity in what students should know at each grade — no matter where they live. Louisiana teachers were required to begin teaching under these standards last year — and many are spending part of this summer training to prepare students for a new standardized test that will evaluate what students are learning.

But even as that training continues, the future of Common Core in Louisiana is in question, as Gov. Bobby Jindal in recent weeks has grown more resolute in his opposition to the standards. He has threatened to pull the plug on the state’s participation in the test and, perhaps, use of the standards themselves. Jindal, once a supporter of Common Core, has reversed his position over recent months, saying the initiative represents a federal intrusion into what should be a fundamentally local job: educating children.

Jindal’s evolution on Common Core mirrors a growing national controversy surrounding the movement, with parents in some communities across south Louisiana packing school board meetings to express their apprehensions. Teachers have expressed their own concerns about the rollout, with some complaining about a lack of guidance from the state. In Lafayette Parish, an uptick in teacher retirement and resignations was partially blamed on dissatisfaction with several state-mandated changes, including Common Core.

But several teachers who are leading the implementation of Common Core across the Acadiana region applauded the changes, saying they have meant higher expectations for students and a lot of additional work for educators they would be disappointed to see washed down the drain. The possible shelving of either the standards or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — the test that will be used to measure students’ learning — is a frustration, particularly just months from the start of a new school year.

“It’s insane to think all that work would be put aside. We’re almost in July, and school starts in August,” said Penny Gennuso, math and science academic specialist for the Lafayette Parish School System. “Our focus has been so much on Common Core because we’ve had no alternative plan. As a district, we start planning in March for the new school year. We can’t go backwards.”

Exactly how much authority Jindal has to shelve either the PARCC test or the standards themselves is unclear, although the governor has suggested he has some executive authority over the issue.

While two other Republican governors recently signed legislation rejecting the standards, the Louisiana Legislature shot down numerous bills to kill Common Core during the recent session. Education Superintendent John White and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Chas Roemer remain staunchly in favor of the standards. It’s unclear if Jindal can act unilaterally.

Knowing whether the state will move forward with the PARCC test next year is key information for educators, said Dale Henderson, superintendent of the Iberia Parish School System.

If PARCC isn’t given to students, teachers will need to know what assessment the state plans to use to gauge students’ progress, Henderson said.

“We’ve certainly spent a lot of time and money addressing the new standards in preparation for the ultimate administration of PARCC,” he said. “We’ve geared up from the technology standpoint, from the materials and resources standpoint, and provided hundreds of hours of professional development. There’s been a big investment made in our district and others as well in preparing for Common Core and PARCC.”

Teachers, too, said they have invested time and energy into Common Core, training to change teaching styles and doing research to come up with new curricula.

Common Core most directly affects English language arts and math teachers, but science and social studies teachers also have incorporated more writing into lessons to prepare students for tougher writing standards.

The changes are significant. In math classes, students are now required to show they can use more than one method to solve a problem, said Kenneth Waters, a math teacher at Lafayette Middle School.

“Before, giving the answer to a simple math computation was enough,” he said. “Now, it’s about understanding the process and being able to explain the process. It’s not enough for students to say, ‘This is the answer.’ ”

Teachers describe the difference in how they taught in 2012 to 2013 simply: they now delve deeper into concepts.

For instance, in the 2012-13 school year, after Rhea-Claire Richard’s fourth-grade English language arts classes read a story, the typical questions that followed were pretty basic: Who were the characters? What was the setting?

“Now, we ask them: ‘How does the setting affect the character?’ It’s higher-level thinking,” said Richard, a Common Core teacher leader. “I think it prepares students to think in the real world. It’s not just about the story, because if they can think that deeply about a story, they can think that deeply about other issues in the world.”

The new standards offer higher expectations of students than the grade level expectations previously used by the state, said Richard, who teaches at S.J. Montgomery Elementary.

“There are some gaps to fill in the students’ knowledge because the GLEs were not as rigorous, so it is difficult for teachers to bridge that gap from what we were teaching to what we’re teaching now,” Richard said. “It’s definitely a difficult time to be a teacher.”

Alison Canter, a fifth-grade teacher at Live Oak Elementary in Carencro, said there have been growing pains associated with implementation of Common Core, but she’s found support when she’s needed it.

“This year was definitely a growing year,” Canter said.

And more time is needed to implement the standards before pulling the plug, she said. “Giving it one year is an unfair evaluation. It will take time for our kids to adjust,” Canter said.