Are Children Learning

A year after Common Core, the next battle could be Indiana's new science standards

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Schools in the Tindley network are among the most racially isolated in the city.

Indiana could be gearing up for another fight over academic standards — this time, in science.

Over the next year, the Indiana Department of Education will work toward an update of the state’s science standards, which are expectations for what kids in each grade should learn.

But already some are worried the revision process will rely too heavily on standards that critics say are too easy, too unclear and too close to the drama that accompanied Indiana’s adoption, and subsequent abandonment, of the Common Core State Standards in English and math.

The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and standards-based reform organization Achieve. But to Erin Tuttle, who helped found Hoosiers Against Common Core, those standards are nothing more than “sister standards to Common Core.”

“What I see with these is the same mistakes as Common Core,” Tuttle said. “Why are we going to go down his same road? It seems like there are better, more efficient ways of doing this that could result in better learning opportunities for Indiana students.”

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the Next Generation standards are just one guide Indiana’s standards-setting committee will look at, just as was the case with the state’s new English and math standards, which replaced Common Core in 2014.

“We get together our crew, and it’ll include a wide constituency of people that will serve on those committees, and we look at our standards,” Ritz said. “Yes, we look at national standards as well. We’re required to do that in the statute, making sure we’re looking at what’s out there.”

Tuttle argued the standards-writing process is part of the problem. She said the state is not open enough about how it develops standards and doesn’t give enough time for public input.

“After my experience with Common Core, I have no faith at all that the Indiana Department of Education will do a proper vetting of the Next Generation standards,” Tuttle said.

Jeremy Eltz, a science specialist with the department who is working on the standards, said he hopes to have a draft up for public comment by the end of the month. He’s invited more than 150 teachers, professors and community organizations — like the NAACP, the local Catholic archdiocese and homeschooling groups — for input.

“We’re a couple weeks behind at this point,” Eltz said. “But the way I have it set up, I have a few months built in, so this isn’t a hard deadline.”

The department presented the estimated timeline for the standards along with an update to the Indiana State Board of Education at its February meeting. The process is not expected to be completed until early 2016.

Critics argue national standards don’t measure up

Indiana last revised its science standards in 2010, creating ones Tuttle argues are far superior to the those created by Achieve.

So far, just 13 states have adopted the new science standards, which were completed in 2013.

Based on a review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group, Indiana’s 2010 science standards earned an “A-” grade, while the Next Generation standards earned a “C.” Tuttle said the national standards were ranked low in part because they cut out science content to add in more skills and practice.

“One criticism is that they don’t have enough content in chemistry or physics to actually construct a high school course,” Tuttle said. “There isn’t enough material there.”

Eltz agreed with Tuttle that the new national science standards are lighter in content. But he doesn’t necessarily think that’s bad. The standards’ emphasis on skills and scientific practice is important for students, too, he said. Indiana’s science standards now are fairly content-driven, he said.

“You really want your students to be able to perform the practice of a scientist and an engineer,” Eltz said. “But you also want a student to not have to Google everything when they get that job.”

Tuttle has similar concerns, right down to the same worry that kids won’t know what they need to know.

“With Common Core and with these it seems to be how we’re teaching stuff, not what we’re teaching,” Tuttle said. “You can’t Google everything.”

It would be irresponsible not to consider national standards, Eltz said. But it doesn’t mean Indiana has to adopt them verbatim. He said the state’s current science standards are generally well-liked by educators, so he doesn’t foresee having to make big, fundamental changes to them.

When updating the standards, Eltz said, the goal is to balance content, practice, national standards and other research — especially since reports have shown time spent on science in elementary school classrooms fell from three hours per week to about two from 1994 to 2012.

If teachers have less time to teach science, maybe science standards should include less content, he suggested. Research shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s certainly not the only factor.

“I focus more on the research and what’s best for kids,” Eltz said. “I mean, a letter grade from a think-tank is good, but what’s best for the kids is better.”

Is history repeating itself in Indiana?

Tuttle and fellow Indiana mom Heather Crossin helped spark the opposition movement to Common Core back in 2013.

With children in private school, the women were concerned after seeing their kids’ homework include new teaching approaches as the state moved to adopt Common Core.

So they took the issue to the statehouse. Tuttle and Crossin persuaded state Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, to propose a bill to “pause” Indiana’s adoption of common Core to allow a year of study and re-evaluation of math and English standards.

In the months that followed, both Ritz and Gov. Mike Pence joined forces to push the idea that Indiana should have its own state-specific standards. The agreement to adopt Common Core was then voided by the legislature in early 2014, and new standards were set the following summer. Schools began implementing them for the first time last fall.

But it wasn’t necessarily a win for Tuttle. She and other Common Core critics have described Indiana’s new standards as a watered-down version of the standards they worked so hard to banish. She’s not confident that this time it’ll be any different, no matter how much “noise” they made about it.

At the final Common Core meeting of the Education Roundtable last year, for example, some of Tuttle’s sign-carrying anti-Common Core activists shouted in shock and horror as Pence joined Ritz in endorsing Indiana’s rewritten academic standards, the ones they urged him to reject as too similar to Common Core.

“Having somebody’s attention is different than having somebody’s action,” she said.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.