What Kentucky Can Teach the Rest of the U.S. About the Common Core

Three years ago, it became the first state to adopt the new, tougher K-12 standards
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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.

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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.”

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Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report.

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