“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.