Some Mid-Columbia teachers concerned about Common Core standards

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 15, 2013 

It was through fiction that one Kennewick teacher inspired her students to love reading.

Teri Staudinger, who taught fourth grade at Hawthorne Elementary School before heading up the district's teachers union for the past few years, said all types of literature, from novels and poetry, to magazine articles and biographies, have a place in the classroom.

But she fears new state education standards requiring more nonfiction reading will remove that balance.

"We need both; we need a combination," she said. "We don't need to take away poetry and art and fiction."

Anxiety often accompanies change, and some Mid-Columbia teachers said they have concerns about how the Common Core State Standards will affect how students perform and how student performance will be used to evaluate teachers.

There's also been political criticism of the standards, with some conservative groups saying local school districts are losing control of what's taught in the classroom.

Application of knowledge

The new math and language arts standards being adopted by Washington and most other states. The new benchmarks focus on critical thinking and real-life application of knowledge instead of memorization or rote practice of equations. They will be accompanied by new standardized tests, called the SBACs (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium), that students will begin taking in spring 2015.

The new standards will be challenging, said Beth Austin, a fourth-grade teacher at Pasco's Ruth Livingston Elementary School.

She and her fellow teachers will have to rethink how they teach and collaborate across subjects. And students will be pushed to perform in a new way.

"I think kids will notice," she said. "It will be less multiple choice and pointing to an answer. It's a 'Can I apply that learning to a real world?' scenario."

Austin said the change is worth it for equitable student performance comparisons between states, but Richard Reuther of Richland isn't so sure.

Reuther, who taught in the Seattle area and is active in education issues in the Tri-Cities, said he is dismayed at what looks to be a reduced emphasis of fiction and the humanities in the classroom in favor of more nonfiction reading.

"We gain our humanity from fiction," he said. "Students read ('The Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn', and that's the closest they'll get to black-and-white race issues."

The standards call for a reduction in fiction as students move through their education, with high school students spending about 30 percent of their reading on fiction. But school district officials and other teachers said that will be spread across a student's entire school day and include readings in science and social studies as well as language arts.

"I still think there's a place for fiction," said Kim Maldonado, a language arts teacher at Hanford High School and co-chairwoman of the school's English department. "We're trying to bring in more critique and analysis pieces related to fiction (students are reading)."

But Maldonado and her fellow English department co-chairwoman, Bertha Rachinski, have their concerns too. They said the standards are great for students who are college-bound, but that isn't the path for all students.

"I think it's more demanding for struggling students," Rachinski said. "English language learners will struggle."

Teachers concerned

The new standardized tests also are causing anxiety for teachers.

Maldonado said she hasn't seen what the tests will look like and is concerned about a possible student collaboration portion -- described as a combined word problem and essay -- that could negatively affect student scores.

Staudinger said the requirement that high school students pass language arts and math tests based on Common Core standards in the next few years to graduate is worrisome. State education officials have predicted there will be low scores in the first few years, much like there were in New York state, where the standards recently went into effect.

"We're trying to get students to think more deeply," said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. "It will take a few years."

Those low test scores also are a problem as teachers around the state prepare for a new teacher evaluation system -- one the federal government wants tied more firmly to the tests, Staudinger said.

"Kennewick teachers are overwhelmed with the new evaluation system," she said. "That's led them to not get into Common Core yet."

State and district officials said there's a push for test scores to be more of a factor in teacher evaluations. But they want to delay that aspect of the evaluations because they know early scores will be low.

Against new standards

Political opponents, particularly those from conservative groups, have blasted the new standards.

Ron Higgins, who is running for the Richland School Board, has criticized the standards for undermining local authority over education, as well as the lack of classical literature and adequate math education in them.

Others have said the new standards promote social brainwashing.

"I think this is against our state and federal constitutions, where the federal government is taking complete control of our education," said Lester Storm, a member of the Tri-Cities Tea Party during a July meeting of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners.

The Common Core standards are the result of an initiative started by state governors to create consistent standards and are not a federal initiative. However, that hasn't stopped some states, which initially were part of the effort, to withdraw because President Obama's administration is supportive of the Common Core.

'Hope it is successful'

Despite the criticism, Common Core has its supporters. Zillah High School science teacher Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 National Teacher of the Year, has come out in support of them.

"I think the one thing to remember about Common Core is that Common Core is about a standard," he said in a release. "It's about where we want students to be at the end of a year or at the end of class. It's not about how to get there, it's about where they need to be."

The College Board, which is responsible for the SAT college entrance exam, Washington industry leaders Boeing and Microsoft and the National Parent Teacher Association also count themselves among the numerous businesses, organizations and agencies endorsing the new standards.

"Ensuring high academic expectations for all students, regardless of their ZIP code, is aligned with PTA's public policy priority of equity and opportunity for every child," reads a statement on the National PTA's website.

Many of the critics of the Common Core standards said they aren't necessarily against the idea of new educational benchmarks, though they think Washington already requires students to perform at a high level, which some school district administrators agree with. They just don't think the system needs a complete overhaul.

"There's this hew and cry that schools are failing, schools are failing," Reuther said. "The schools are not failing."

But the state and much of the nation has set itself on the path of putting new expectations on students when it comes to math and language arts.

"Since this is what we have to do, I hope it is successful," Staudinger said.

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