Parents concerned about controversial Common Core academic standards

Written By BY SANDRA GUY Staff Reporter Posted: 03/30/2014, 02:29am
Array Heather Strong, parent of a first and second grader at Pritzker Elementary School along with other parents, learns about the Chicago Public Schools' new Common Core curriculum at a parents' academy. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Chicago Sun-Times is chronicling how parents of Chicago Public School students gauge the progress of the new Common Core curriculum and their children’s progress along the way. This is the second installment.

Parents of Chicago Public School students say they are concerned about poorly designed instructional and testing material in the new and controversial Common Core K-12 academic standards that right-wing activists criticize as an intrusive federal mandate.

A parent the Sun-Times featured in an Aug. 31 story about the Common Core standards says that, six months later, he sees little difference in the pace and standard of learning at his daughter’s school, Oscar Mayer, but he is unimpressed by the material.

“The promise — to have students understand key concepts — is not being fulfilled by allegedly (Common Core)-aligned material,” said Chris Ball, whose daughter, Sina, attends Oscar Mayer magnet school in Lincoln Park.

“Silly questions about authors’ and characters’ motives are asked when no evidence to form conjectures is provided,” Ball wrote in an email.

“For example, a story is presented, and the children are asked: ‘Why do you think the author wrote the story?’ Aside from ‘to earn a living’ or ‘that’s what the commissioning editor wanted,’ no information is available to answer the question. Students are supposed to impute motives to the author based on the theme of the story. So a story about flower is supposed to be evidence that the author adores flowers.

“There is an absence of irony in the world of [Common Core] workbook writers: If the character says, ‘It’s a fine line between stupid and, uh, clever,’ the workbook would have you believe there is indeed a fine line.”

Julie Fain, of Rogers Park, whose two children attend Pritzker Elementary and whose husband is Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey, wondered how much data one school system needs, based on the multiple Common Core-aligned tests underway. She said the material appears to reinforce a culture of measurement, data and assessment over “real” teaching.

She cited the so-called MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests in math and English in grades 2-8, administered by the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) of Portland, Ore.; quarterly benchmarks in English and some math; and the unpopular Illinois Standard Achievement Test.

Fain is a member of More Than A Score, the organization that’s working on opting out of the ISAT.

“When there is vastly too much data, teachers are overwhelmed, and instead of some of it being helpful, it’s all a big complicated mess,” Fain said.

Julie Burdette of Wrigleyville, another parent interviewed in August, said she has seen no difference in how her daughter is taught at Blaine Elementary and heard nothing about Common Core.

Amy Dolhay, a mother of four daughters who attend Ebinger School, in the Far Northwest Side’s Edison Park neighborhood, says the principal and teachers have kept her up to date with the rollout, and she approves of the curriculum’s rigor.

“There has been an ongoing dialogue about the changes, and why teacher instruction will be different,” said Dolhay, an instructor at Robert Morris University’s nursing and health-studies department who is on Ebinger’s Local School Council.

Dolhay said teachers and Principal Serena Peterson-Klosa send out monthly newsletters with explanations and updates that “say specifically the curriculum’s focus for the next month and what our children will be practicing.”

Dolhay approves of Common Core because it is rigorous and lets students learn at their own pace. That’s important because CPS students must show they can perform in an outstanding way if they are to win slots in selective-enrollment high schools, she said.

Dolhay isn’t yet willing to call herself an ambassador for Common Core, however. Part of the increased rigor may be due to the school principal, in her third year, and increased expectations of teachers, as well as a longer school day, she said.

And some children may have a hard time with Common Core, causing parents to have to spend more time with schoolwork, Dolhay said.

CPS officials say they have sought to answer parents’ concerns by holding meetings about Common Core and showing off students’ work, and they believe students are gaining important skills such as critical thinking and in-depth research that will benefit them in the long run.

Cynthia Green, director of CPS’ Department of Literacy, said schools may choose to not call the standards Common Core because the words are irrelevant to the goal of teaching students to delve deeper into their coursework at a higher level.

Didi Swartz, director of assessments, said the central office has sent a letter to parents explaining Common Core-based changes in testing and instruction, and listing resources for parents to find out more on their own, but each school has its own strategy.

Dalia Flores, chief of staff of the CPS Office of Teaching and Learning, said that for students to come home and tell parents ‘We’re doing Common Core’ wouldn’t communicate what students were learning.

Serena Peterson-Klosa, principal at Ebinger Elementary, said parents have flocked to nighttime presentations, held once each quarter, of students’ achievements in each of the Common Core’s main subjects, even during the frigid winter. The events — a Science Night, a Literacy Night and, this quarter, a Math Night — feature students showing off their projects. On Literacy Night, 300 students and guests came (the student body totals 700) to hear students read books they had written, see a theater performance and watch videos students had made of their book reviews.

“In some instances, it was the first time a parent had heard his or her child read his own writing. It was a magical night,” Peterson-Klosa said. “We consider Common Core synonymous with the students being college- and career-ready.”

Teachers who have taken special training coach other teachers. They adhere to a week-by-week professional development plan. Teachers are newly being assessed on their performance this year, too, as part of the high-stakes outcome of Common Core, Peterson-Klosa said.

“A year or two ago, we were worried whether students could write extended responses to ISAT (test) questions, and now (under Common Core) we’re seeing students writing argumentative papers and supporting their arguments based on a variety of text sources,” she said.

Joenile S. Albert-Reese, principal at Pritzker School, a Wicker Park fine and performing arts magnet school, started a Common Core curriculum three years ago. She publishes weekly newsletters and hosts monthly Saturday school and a quarterly parents’ academy in which teachers in K-8 explain the skills children are learning, strategies for teaching those skills and how parents can help, Albert-Reese said.

“Rather than teach from September to March, we teach from March to March (year-round),” she said. “Rather than let everyone coast after the ISAT test is over, we start immediately with the next grade’s entry work.”

Albert-Reese believes the Common Core’s requirements are part of the essential skill-building techniques that students need. “We cannot enhance a child’s education if he opts out of a test,” she said. “Without data, you cannot help the student. You are whistling in the wind.”

She said she can more closely monitor students’ progress because of data collected with Common Core.

As a result of the close monitoring, Albert-Reese set up an all-boys and an all-girls sixth-grade fine-arts class. The result: Test scores skyrocketed, and not one of the students had to attend summer school last year.


Twitter: @sandraguy

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