Common Core lessons teaching kids to think




Special to The Telegram

Although the Kansas State Board of Education adopted Common Core teaching standards three years ago and is among 45 states to phase in the new standards, results of a national poll show most people don't know much about those standards.

Nearly two-thirds, or 62 percent, of those who participated in the 45th annual poll by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International said they have never heard of the Common Core teaching standards, and of the 38 percent who said they had, many thought — incorrectly — that the federal government was forcing states to adopt them and that Common Core covers every academic subject, PDK International reported.

The educational standards, which are used for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics, are designed to ensure that high school graduates are equipped with the skills they need to enter college or the workforce in a global economy.

Only 41 percent of the 1,001 American adults who took the PDK/Gallup poll in May said they thought Common Core teaching standards would make America schools more competitive globally, while 95 percent of respondents want schools to teach critical thinking skills — a key goal of Common Core.

William Bushaw, PDK International executive director and co-director of the poll, stated in a news release that the 2013 poll "shows deep confusion around the nation's most significant education policies and poses serious communication challenges for education leaders.

"Americans support certain key ideals or goals but don't understand the programs or initiatives being pursued to improve student achievement," Bushaw said. "Our local and national leaders must do a better job of explaining what they're doing and why."

The Hutchinson News talked to local and state school officials about Common Core teaching standards, which are now being referred to here as the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards. The News also took a look at how those standards are being used in the classroom.

Both school officials and teachers expressed relief from moving away from the Annual Yearly Progress that boxed them in under No Child Left Behind. But they also described new challenges under the Common Core teaching standards, which puts a focus on critical thinking and requires students to explain how they reached a particular answer.

"They've never had to write like this, and they've never had to explain (answers) like this," said Donna Davis, Hutchinson USD 308 assistant superintendent. "It's amazing what kids can do if we set the bar higher."

In other words, the future under Common Core means no more skating by on tests by simply choosing an A, B, C or D answer, or taking a shot in the dark and picking answers at random.

Students need to be able to explain how they got to that answer, which gives teachers a better understanding of their thought processes, and lets them know how to help the student reach the right answer, Davis said.

Core of Common Core

Common Core teaching standards outline what skills students need to know in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level, so from year to year or grade to grade, both teachers and students can track the progression of learning.

The teaching standards were spearheaded by the nation's governors and education commissioners through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with input from teachers, administrators, parents and experts from across the country.

"It's a state-led effort," said Denise Kahler, Kansas State Department of Education communications director. "One of the benefits of this program is those who may be transitioning from state to state will be taught at the same level, and they won't be losing ground by moving to a new state."

Common Core, the product of a 20-year effort that dates back to 1989, included no federal participation but solicited input from more than 10,000 educators and members of the public, according to a report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization, featured on the Kansas State Department of Education's website.

Sally Cauble, vice chair of the Kansas BOE, said the military even offered input on Common Core because its members' children were encountering problems in school as they moved from base to base. They might be unprepared in one state but considered advanced in another. Common Core promotes equity but also calls for students to demonstrate their skills as opposed to simply memorizing answers to a multiple choice test, she said.

"Yes, they are national (teaching) standards, but they are not federal standards," said Cauble, who will speak tonight during the Garden City USD 457 Board of Education meeting about Common Core. "The federal government was not at the table for this at all."

Kansas had strong input in the development of Common Core, Cauble said, noting she traveled to Washington, D.C., for two years before Kansas adopted it, and a team of educators from across the state also analyzed the standards. She also said the standards are different in every state because states are given "15 percent to add to the standards." In Kansas, that 15 percent focused on technology and giving teachers more flexibility in what they can do, she said.

"If you go into a classroom, you might see a project in which the students are using iPads or they're connecting internationally on assignments," she said. "What makes it really outstanding is the fact the students no longer fill in blanks, and they no longer memorize and spout it back.

"They have to demonstrate. This is the biggest part of Common Core. It's not teaching to the test anymore. We're teaching to the knowledge and the use of that knowledge. ... We are expecting a high level of cognitive thinking — there are not as many standards, but they go very deep."

Leaving 'No Child' behind

After two years of studying Common Core, the Kansas State BOE in August 2010 voted to adopt the teaching standards, with then-board member Walt Chappell, whose term expired last year and whose views often differed from the board, being the only one voting in opposition.

About a year later, states learned they could obtain waivers from No Child Left Behind if they met certain requirements from the U.S. Department of Education: Transitioning to college- and career-ready standards and assessments, evaluating teacher and principal effectiveness and support improvement, and developing systems of recognition, accountability and support.

No Child Left Behind mandated school districts have 100 percent of students proficient on academic assessments by 2014 and deemed schools as "failing" if they didn't make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). NCLB restricted the types of activities that could be funded for those schools that failed to make AYP, and continued failure resulted in "corrective action," and eventually, "restructuring."

"In our waiver, we wanted to change the accountability system," said Brad Neuenswander, Kansas' deputy education commissioner of learning services. "We wanted to move away from a single target and a single focused measure for all kids and all buildings to a multiple view of student performance.

"We went from a single target in AYP to four annual measurable objectives: achievement, growth, gaps and reduction of non-proficient students."

The state "went from one-size-fits-all" to looking at student achievement over time, he said.

"It was a class score previously, and now they have to show the growth of an individual student," Cauble noted. "We all know that we can take a test on one day and do well, but on another day, depending on what other things are going on in our life and what stresses we might encounter, we can't do our best."

The reason Kansas chose Common Core, prior to obtaining the NCLB waiver, was because the state revises its English language arts and mathematics every seven years "and it just happened to be at the same time states were getting together and working on these standards," Neuenswander said.

States are relieved from NCLB requirements, but there is still accountability of how students perform. It's just calculated differently, using the four annual measurable objectives, he explained.

"I believe it's a truer reflection of the buildings that need the most support," Neuenswander said. "Kansas has had standards for years ... it's basically what should the kid know and be able to do at a certain grade level, and it's up to the districts and teachers how they want to teach that — that's the curriculum."

Politically charged

Rick Atha, superintendent of Garden City USD 457, acknowledged Common Core has recently become "pretty highly charged." Garden City teachers plan to offer presentations on Common Core to the public tonight at the school board meeting, and board members hope to offer their own presentation to the Kansas Association of School Boards meeting in December in Wichita.

"Somehow, it's got politicized, and I can't answer to that," he said. "I think it's important we don't politicize it, either.

"The standards are in line with college and career readiness. It's looking at what 21st century skills kids need to go into the adult world. Multiple-choice doesn't call for a very high level of learning. A lot of tests used to simply be at a recall level, and now you're going to have to think, you're going to have to analyze the situation, and you're going to have to make a decision."

Cauble will discuss Common Core teaching standards with state representatives amid a board retreat/meeting of the Garden City USD 457 Board of Education. The public is invited to attend the meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. at the USD 457 Education Support Center, 1205 Fleming St.

Cauble has extended an offer to talk about Common Core, also known as the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards, to any group within the 40-county western Kansas district she represents. Patrons can reach Cauble, who recently moved to Dodge City, at (620) 629-5423 or by email at

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