A new set of educational expectations greets students, teachers this fall

New Hampshire is phasing in the Common Core State Standards initiative

Better preparing kids for college and careers, and doing it in a way that is clearer and more in depth than before, is the goal of the Common Core State Standards, slated to be rolled out in part this fall.

The very idea of new state standards and expectations has sparked some controversy and confusion.

"Change is always scary," said Heather Gage who is the Division of Instruction Director and Chief of Staff for the Department of Education. "But change has happened before. … We have to continue to get better and move with the times and make sure that our kids have the best available resources and knowledge available to them. We can't stay static. We have to move. And we have to make sure we have high expectations of ourselves and our kids."

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a uniform set of K-12 academic standards in math and English Language Arts. The standards lay out the academic knowledge and skills students need to have in core subjects. It is not a curriculum. Curriculum decisions are made by individual school districts with the goal of achieving the standards.

State standards, as a concept and in practice, have been around for a long time and in fact, New Hampshire has some already called the Grade Level Expectations or GLEs. The idea of having uniformed standards is that even if the way students learned a core set of skills was different from school to school or teacher to teacher, they were all still in theory learning those basic skills. But while the standards in New Hampshire are similar to those found in New England or even the Northeast, they vary greatly from say a state like California, which can create problems for students, said Gage.

"We don't live in a static society," Gage said. "For some kids, especially in our military which is the obvious one, but so many of our parents are working in jobs that move them now, whether they are in the military or not. …But there is a strong movement and a belief — and I absolutely believed it — that we need students to have the ability to learn at high levels, at high expectations across the country (not just in their state) if we are going to be competitive in today's society."

While there's always been some talk in having a uniform set of standards nationwide, educators and state officials didn't really start getting serious about doing it until 2008. It was then that the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) made it a goal to provide a "clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce," according to corestandards.org.

"What we were doing before is going a mile wide and an inch deep with learning," Gage said. "We were trying to teach kids everything known to man in a classroom in a certain amount of days in a year. We were trying to flood them with information and some of it, according to higher education and the business community, isn't necessarily what they need help with. And we didn't have time to build the critical thinking skills that we really want in our students."

Once a draft was in place the Governors and School Officers sought feedback on the standards from national organizations representing teachers, postsecondary educators, civil rights groups, English language learners, and students with disabilities, among others. They then asked the public for comments and received nearly 10,000 responses, according to corestandards.org. Gage said at each step, the state weighed in. And at this point, the issue was opened up to public comment in New Hampshire.

The result were standards that, at their, well, core, are intended to get students graduating with skills that make them ready for college or careers.

Because the standards are not federally mandated, once they were finalized it was up to each state's Department of Education to determine whether the standards were right for the state. Gage said because the NH Department of Education was intermittently involved in the process of drafting the standards, once the final standards came to the NH Board of Education, the process was quick.

"When they came out in the Spring of 2010, we were very well aware and educators around the state were very well aware of what was in the standards, so we immediately—probably a month to two months later—were able to adopt them at the state level," Gage said.

Tom Raffio, chairman of the NH School Board, said the board believed these standards were and are right for the state because they are more aligned with current college and real world expectations.

"I know as a CEO of a company," Raffio, who is also the president and CEO of Northeast Delta Dental,
"we sometimes get recent high school and college graduates that don't meet our standards in English, Math and analytical skills. I really think these standards will lead to more qualified students."

That said Raffio was quick to point out that the state also doesn’t want to be overly prescriptive, so each district in the state can refuse to use the standards with no penalty or consequences.

"That’s a big misunderstanding out there," Raffio said. "We live in the Live Free or Die state, so we like to really try to make the point that if any school board out there doesn't want to follow them, they don't have to. I personally would think that was a mistake, but they don't have to follow them."

So far, Gage said, none of the districts have outright rejected the standards, but have had a lot of questions.

"There are people who have very real concerns," Gage said. "But it’s usually just that they don't have the correct information, or they have questions that we just don't have the answers to yet."

The actual curriculum to reach the standards will remain in the hands of each district. That means the way material is taught, the tools and materials needed to teach it and textbook choice will remain local.

"There is no national curriculum and there never will be, not only because state and local policymakers would not allow it as a matter of policy, but because the CCSS call for the development of a more robust market for instructional tools," according to the NH Department of Education.

So what are the standards?

According to the department of education, the standards are based on the "best standards from states and high-performing nations." They also integrate qualities and skills that college officials and business leaders said have been lacking in students and members of the workforce.

"Even those kids that go directly into jobs after high school, the business community is adamant that those kids need to have the same level of skills that a kid going to college will have," Gage said. "And what they are seeing is that kids aren't getting that same depth of knowledge to be able to get into the work field and get started working."

 Those qualities include, among other things, the ability to problem solve and think critically. Under common core, that translates to more project work where students will work in teams and at times lead themselves and self-motivate.

"Are the current GLEs good? Sure, but they don't get to the depth of knowledge that we want to because there is so much to cover,” Gage said. So the reason why we believe (Common Core) are better is because it takes the standards and weeds out those things (that won't prepare kids for college or career). And we're not necessarily teaching fewer skills. What it means that we are getting deeper on those skills and the skills we are requiring are much more clear."

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Alstead.

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