a second look

Ahead of state’s Common Core review, Commissioner Elia looks outside New York

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

New York is one of dozens of states that adopted the Common Core standards in recent years. Soon, it will be a part of another trend: states conducting a formal review of them.

At least 18 states have taken steps to revise, rebrand, or review the standards since adopting them in 2010, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers. New York is set to begin its own review effort this year, prompted by state lawmakers who ordered Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to examine the state’s reading and math standards.

The move comes after a record number of students were estimated to have opted out of this year’s state tests, reflecting a growing backlash to standardized testing and concerns about the school and teacher evaluations that emerge from those scores. For Elia, who took over the state education department last month, the formal review offers a test for how she will respond to those concerns — and a chance to say the state is taking action.

“It allows everyone to have a voice, particularly the practitioners who are implementing standards in our schools,” Elia said last month.

Both critics and supporters of the standards say they welcome the scrutiny. Supporters say a careful look at the math and English language arts standards will affirm that New York should not abandon the guidelines, which outline the skills students should learn in English and math for each grade in order to eventually succeed in college or in a profession.

“The biggest win in a [Common Core] review is that the reviewers actually read the standards, some I’m sure for the first time,” said Ken Slentz, the superintendent of the Skaneateles Central Schools district in upstate New York who helped implement the standards as a deputy commissioner.

Critics say it will shine a light on problems with the standards, particularly the guidelines for learning in early grades. Kathleen Cashin, a member of the state’s education policymaking board who has long called for such a review, said reviewers need to examine how far the standards push New York’s youngest students.

“I’m not saying you don’t want rigor, but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s appropriate,” Cashin said. “You don’t ask a five-year-old to jump 10 feet high.”

Concerns that states and schools were not pushing students far enough were at the heart of the movement to get states to adopt common standards. In 2009, 86 percent of New York students in grades three through eight were said to be proficient in math and 77 percent proficient in English, but a much smaller share was deemed to have critical “college-ready.”

New York adopted the Common Core standards in 2010, along with 44 states and the District of Columbia. The federal government encouraged the move, which helped the state secure a $700 million grant for education.

The rollout of more challenging state tests and the introduction of new classroom materials over the next few years were both rocky. Proficiency rates on state tests dropped precipitously, and complaints about the state’s new teacher evaluation system, tied to the tests, have persisted.

Some states, like Florida and Indiana, have used a review process to revise or get rid of the standards altogether, although replacements have resembled the Common Core. But city and state officials in New York have so far stood by the standards themselves.

How Elia will conduct the review is not yet clear. State law requires her to “seek input from education stakeholders” and to complete the review by next summer, but the commissioner is otherwise free to direct the process.

Elia has offered some clues. In her public remarks about New York’s review, she has mentioned similar processes in Tennessee and Kentucky, where reviews have included a months-long public comment period, online surveys, and an analysis of the feedback by a smaller group of officials.

Kentucky dubbed its review the “academic standards challenge,” asking people to vote with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on each standard and to explain how it should be changed. Nearly 90 percent of respondents gave an overall “thumbs up” to the standards.

The public is more divided in Tennessee, where people were asked to “keep it,” “remove it,” or “replace it” for the standards. Of over 130,000 reviews, 55 percent opted to “keep it.” But officials charged with appointed members to a review committee are now disagreeing over whether its purpose is to repeal the standards or just to evaluate them, in a reflection of how polarizing the standards have become. (Neither state has offered formal recommendations yet.)

[Read more coverage of Tennessee’s standards review from Chalkbeat Tennessee here.]

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank based in Washington, D.C. that is supportive of the standards, has been tracking the review processes. The revised standards that have come out of many of them are similar to the Common Core, he noted.

“Most states are merely making tweaks because they are discovering that the Common Core are, in fact, well aligned with the research on college and career readiness,” Petrilli said. “It’s impossible to come up with college and career ready standards that look nothing like the Common Core.”

The standards for learning in earlier grades appear more ripe for substantive changes, however. In Kentucky, more than 70 percent of the “thumbs down” were for standards in kindergarten through third grades, according to feedback posted online.

The New York state teachers union, which is also reviewing the standards, has also raised concerns about the standards encouraging younger students to sit “for long periods of time for academic work — and missing out on play time, arts, music and other areas.”

Susan Neuman, an education professor at New York University and a specialist in early literacy development, said that the Common Core standards in early grades don’t appear to account for the order in which children build language comprehension skills.

Before ever trying to understand printed words, Neuman said, children have to develop their vocabulary through activities centered on speaking and listening. But kindergarten standards for those skills are “buried” within dozens standards centered on reading and writing, she said, which could lead teachers to teach literacy out of order.

“What good teaching should be doing is moving from the oral comprehension to the reading comprehension,” said Neuman. “But the way [the standards are] structured, you don’t see that right away.”

Lisa Siegman, principal of P.S. 3 in the West Village, said she thought the standards overemphasized reading and writing in early grades while leaving out a focus on what she calls “social learning”— the process by which students might observe science experiments or comment on one another’s art work.

But she also said that she encouraged her teachers to interpret the Common Core with flexibility.

“Just because something’s not in the standards doesn’t mean you can’t teach it,” Siegman said. “You create a situation where you teach the standards and you use your judgment.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”