LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Freshmen in Kate Barrows’ English class at Liberty High School, an alternative school in Louisville, were trying to solve a crime. A wealthy man had received a letter demanding money, or else his daughter would be kidnapped. Barrows guided the students through a series of questions to identify the extortionist.
Was the writer male or female? They thought female: The writer asked for the money in a “pretty blue pocketbook.” Could it have been a professional gangster? A gangster would just rob you and wouldn’t bother with threatening notes, the class decided.
The exercise was a lighthearted way to demonstrate how Barrows will expect her students to read more difficult texts later in the year. “We’re going to keep looking at this page of writing, and we’re going to tear it apart,” Barrows said.
In Karen Cash’s Algebra 2 class down the hall, students cut grid paper to make boxes, graphed the volume of the shapes they created, and wrote algebraic equations based on the patterns. Liberty’s math department has made it a point to have students work through the mathematical process on their own instead of listening to lectures. Students have a checklist to go through when they can’t solve a problem, before turning to the old default of asking a teacher. Questions on the checklist include: What information does the problem give us? Can we draw a picture?
Liberty’s emphasis on inquiry-based learning is relatively new, and it comes courtesy of the Common Core State Standards, which Kentucky adopted three years ago. Since then, Barrows, Cash, and other teachers across the state have focused on new concepts and trained in new teaching methods. Yet, Kentucky has still not seen a substantial increase in test scores—the yardstick that the success of the new standards will ultimately be measured on.
In fall 2010, Kentucky became the first of 45 states to adopt the Common Core, making the state a test case for the standards. So far, Kentucky’s experience over the past three school years suggests it will be a slow and potentially frustrating road ahead for the other states that are using the Common Core. Test scores are still dismal, and state officials have expressed concern that the pace of improvement is not fast enough. Districts have also seen varying success in changing how teachers teach, something that was supposed to change under the new standards.
The National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, two nonprofit coalitions, developed the Common Core in 2009 and 2010 out of a concern that the United States was falling behind on international measures of student achievement and stagnating on its own benchmarks of success, like the National Assessment of Education Progress.
“To maintain America’s competitive edge, we need for all our students to be prepared and ready to compete with students from around the world,” NGA Vice Chair Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas said when the initiative was announced in June of 2009. “Common standards that allow us to internationally benchmark our students’ performance with other top countries have the potential to bring about a real and meaningful transformation of our education system.”
The groups hired experts from universities, testing groups ACT, Inc. and College Board, and other nonprofits to write the standards, and committees of educators reviewed and validated their work.
Common Core architects promised it would fundamentally change teaching and learning. “The day has come for both mathematics and language arts. What sits before the governors is the greatest opportunity we have to improve learning in these two areas,” William Schmidt, a Michigan State University Professor who helped review math standards, said in June 2010. “This truly could be the turning point for education reform in the United States.”
Not only would the standards be much more difficult than those in place in many states, they would move away from rote memorization. In math, students would be more responsible for showing their work and applying formulas rather than just memorizing them. In English, an emphasis would be placed on detailed critiques of readings and forming arguments based on evidence, not opinions. Teachers would transition from lecturing to facilitating student discussions.
In 2009, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on states to “raise the bar dramatically in terms of higher standards.” The Obama administration gave out grants and waivers from federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind law to states that adopted more rigorous standards, which most states interpreted as the Common Core. Duncan called the Common Core standards “an important step toward the improvement of quality education nationwide” when they were released and pledged to “support state implementation efforts” with federal funds.
A bipartisan group of high-profile education leaders—including former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, both Republicans, and Democratic governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts—have also championed the Common Core.
“There are a lot of people that believe that somehow this is a national takeover of what is the domain of local and state governments,” Bush said in a September speech to the National Press Club. “But in fact, these are 45 states that have voluntarily come together to create fewer, higher, deeper standards that, when you benchmark them to the best of the world, they are world class.”
Critics have raised concerns about the content of the standards themselves, however. For instance, the English standards call for more informational texts to be read and analyzed in all classes, including science and social studies. Some educators, like Sandra Stotsky, who worked on Massachusetts's acclaimed standards, worry the emphasis will decrease the amount of time studying great literature and important concepts in other subjects.
“If a science teacher is trying to teach a chemistry lab, what do you want them to do?” she said. “Give them a book on Madame Curie?”
For Kentucky, the standards represented an opportunity to aim again for a long-time goal. Educators had hoped for years to compete with states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, the country’s education elite. Two decades earlier, the state had undertaken an ambitious education overhaul, the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which introduced new standards and assessments. But the reforms failed to catapult the state to the top. Kentucky students continued to be mediocre on national exams. A report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, gave Kentucky’s old math and English standards a D. Only 11 other states were rated as poorly or worse in both subjects.
In April 2009 a state law mandated that Kentucky develop more rigorous educational standards. Shortly after, the architects of the Common Core began working on their new standards. Kentucky expressed interest early on, and officials and educators gave feedback often. In 2010, although the standards had not yet been completed, the state board of education voted to adopt them. The finished Common Core standards received an A- in math and B+ in English from the Fordham report.
“Our teachers are going to need a lot of help. It’s hard work, but it’s the right work, at the right time, for the right people,” Kentucky education commissioner Terry Holliday said in a video-taped interview in 2011.
“It will help level the playing field with other states,” said Kelly Sprinkles, superintendent of Knox County Public Schools in southeastern Kentucky. “We have more distance to travel, but Common Core will help us get there.”
Common Core comes with a slew of state mandates about content and emphasizes testing as a measure of school success. While some schools and teachers, like the ones at Liberty, have fully bought into the changes and have access to resources to help them make those changes happen, in other places Common Core is seen as more of a top-down content shift.
“It’s kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on a very big boat,” fourth-grade teacher Justin Elliott, from Engelhard Elementary School in Louisville, said. “Sometimes the way we use Common Core puts us further down the right path, and sometimes the way we use the Common Core turns into a way to know, ‘Okay, what am I going to drill them on this week?’”
At nearly every grade level in Kentucky, Common Core introduces content to students at a younger age than the old standards did. For example, in math, the order of operations used to be covered late in the year in sixth grade; under the Common Core, fifth graders start with it on day one.
“They’re still having trouble mastering the basics and you’re trying to add stuff on top,” said Jason Cornett, a math teacher at Flat Lick Elementary School in Knox County. “Over all [Common Core] is a positive change, but it’s been hard on some of the kids in the middle of the transition.”
Knox County, an isolated, rural district in the Appalachian Mountains with a 16 percent unemployment rate, is the kind of low-performing district that officials hope Common Core will pull up. At Flat Lick, the district’s poorest elementary school, 89 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunch. Attendance rates are always highest on Friday, when the school gives out backpacks full of free food to students.
The district has traditionally been among the lowest performing in the state; in 2013, the district scored in the 20th percentile statewide on standardized tests.
The state hosted a series of regional trainings in 2010, where representatives from school districts could learn how to teach their colleagues about the new standards. No extra funding has been allocated to districts to help them prepare for Common Core, though.
Knox County, which is about two hours away from the nearest urban area, sent a few teachers to the training, but is doing the bulk of the transition work in-house. The district has used grant money from state and local sources to pay teachers to compare Common Core to the state’s old standards, revise the district’s curricula, and identify gaps in content.
Flat Lick, like other schools in Knox County, relies primarily on one-on-one interventions to make up the difference between Common Core and the old standards. Teachers meet weekly to determine which students need extra help and small groups of students are frequently pulled out of class. But the effort is difficult to sustain. The school has lost a math resource teacher, and drops in Title I funding threaten the school’s ability to do more remediation even as students struggle with basic arithmetic.
The transition to Common Core has been less noticeable at Knox’s highest performing school. Jesse D. Lay Elementary School’s students are mostly working class, and the school ranked in the 69th percentile on Kentucky’s 2013 tests.
Sheila Terrell, Lay’s curriculum director, and her principal, Jeff Frost, compared Common Core to using a new textbook and said it’s led to only minor changes in how their teachers operate in the classroom. They comply with all state laws and mandates, but don’t feel like an overhaul of their classroom teaching is necessary. Lay already has good teachers, they say, and good teaching is good teaching.
Superintendent Sprinkles expects a more dramatic shift for most schools, though. “There’s no way a teacher can teach the old way—stand and deliver,” he said.
Still in transition, the district is a mix of old and new. In a classroom at Knox Central High School this August, Victoria Pope was guiding her Advanced Placement U.S. Literature students through William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” a lesson she teaches every year. Students sat in rows, their heads bowed over thick textbooks, and took turns reading out loud. Pope perched on a stool at the front of the room occasionally interjecting with questions—“Why would he want you to know there was a guy on the ship who made fun of him?”—and comments— “He’s telling you he fixed a beam. He wants you to know he’s self-sufficient.”
Across the hallway, Rachel Hibbard was experimenting with a new way of teaching English. She introduced her sophomores to the rhetorical triangle, a lens used to analyze different kinds of arguments, with a Ram truck commercial. Under Common Core, the rhetorical triangle concept will be a cornerstone of 10th grade as students are asked to think critically about the relationship between audience and message and to construct arguments on their own. Students were actively answering her questions and chiming in with some of their own.
The first tests based on the Common Core standards were administered in Kentucky in spring of 2012, at the end of the first year of full implementation. Testing the harder standards produced worse results. Proficiency ratings were about 30 percentage points lower than they had been the year before. The same drop was seen in New York this spring when it became the second state to test under the new standards. Common Core supporters say the results are a necessary growing pain of shifting to more difficult, but still realistic expectations of students. David Coleman, one of the Common Core architects, told The Atlantic last year that states who use the standards should expect “a short-term reduction in [test] scores.”
The news was only slightly better for Kentucky this year. “Overall, the math and reading scores in grade 3 though 8 and high school did go up, but the concerns we have is that they did not go up fast enough,” Holliday said at a September press conference announcing the new results. Statewide only about 40 percent of students scored at least proficient in math and about 50 percent in reading. And the gap has increased between the percentage of white students who are proficient and the percentage of African Americans.
Opponents have become more vocal. A group of Kentuckians is attempting to follow Ohio’s lead and get a bill introduced to repeal the standards. In June, the board of education felt the need to pass a resolution reaffirming its support for the Common Core.
The mix of educator responses to Common Core in Kentucky—and the still-lackluster test scores—suggest it won’t lead to an instant revolution, in Kentucky or elsewhere. The standards have to contend with the skill level of students and declining school budgets, which allow for limited education resources to help them catch up. Common Core also has to win the respect of skeptical educators who have seen waves of education reform before. And incremental progress provides openings for opponents to make their case against the standards and erode support among an American public that’s still unfamiliar and confused about what they are.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.