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Survey results show support for Common Core in First State schools

Delaware Public Media

About two-thirds of the state’s public school teachers have “quite a bit” or “fully” embraced the new Common Core curriculum standards, a survey conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education indicates.

But, according to the survey and interviews with a small sampling of teachers, support for the new standards, which have been adopted in most of the nation, doesn’t mean that teachers’ work has gotten any easier.

Results of the survey, taken in early 2015 by teachers and principals in Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico and Nevada, were released earlier this month. The sampling group included 1,340 English/language arts and math teachers in grades four through eight (225 from Delaware) and 126 elementary and middle school principals (22 from Delaware).

Key findings from the survey:

  • 67 percent of the Delaware teachers responding (and 72 percent of the total teacher sample) reported that teachers at their school had “embraced quite a bit” or “fully embraced” the Common Core standards.
  • 86 percent of the Delaware teachers (and 89 percent of the total sample) reported that their building principal had “embraced quite a bit” or “fully embraced” the Common Core standards.
  • 82 percent of the Delaware teachers (and 81 percent of the total sample) agreed or strongly agreed that teachers in their school are effectively implementing Common Core.
  • 75 percent of the Delaware teachers (and 69 percent of the total sample) agreed or strongly agreed that in the long run, the Common Core standards will have a positive effect on student learning.
  • Delaware principals reported that 59 percent of math teachers (compared with 73 percent of the overall sample) and 85 percent of the English language arts teachers (compared with74 percent of the overall sample) had “embraced quite a bit” or “fully embraced” the standards for their subject areas.
  • Responses from principals indicated that parental resistance to Common Core was significantly lower in Delaware than in Massachusetts, Maryland and New Mexico.

“We’re pleased that a majority of teachers [surveyed]” have embraced the Common Core standards, said Michael Watson, chief academic officer at the State Department of Education.
He was even more pleased to see the level of perceived parental support for Common Core. In the survey, principals characterized resistance as 44.1 percent “not at all,” 45.5 percent as “slightly” and 10.4 percent as “somewhat.”

“We know there’s a lot of national noise on this,” Watson said, “so it’s great to see that our local districts and our charter schools have done a tremendous job of communicating what these standards are all about.”

The Common Core is a set of academic standards in mathematics and English language arts that outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college and careers, regardless of where they live. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards.

In the past two years, Common Core has faced increased opposition, from both conservative and progressive factions.  In general, conservative and libertarian opponents see the standards as another step toward federal intrusion in an area that has traditionally been a state and local responsibility, while liberals and progressives object to the intertwining of the standards with accountability measures like Delaware’s new high-stakes Smarter Balanced student assessment program, which is now in its second year.

The survey results indicated that teachers feel that Common Core has made their work more difficult. Some 80 percent of the Delaware teachers surveyed said that had to change between half and nearly all of their classroom instruction methods to adjust to the new standards.  Nearly three-quarters of the math teachers and almost 70 percent of the English language arts teachers aid they had to change between one-half and nearly all of the instructional materials they use in their classrooms.

“Common Core has made teaching less creative and more proscriptive,” says Lisa Edler, a teacher at Kirk Middle School in the Christina District.

“I am teaching fourth grade students, ranging from gifted to learning disabled, to use higher order thinking skills, skills that their 9-year-old brains may not be able to grasp or master,” says Kim Carlson, a teacher at North Smyrna Elementary School. When she started teaching in 1988, Carlson recalls, “the science department chairman handed me a textbook and said do what you want.” Now, she says, “I’m told what to teach by my state and district, I pace my teaching the way the district tells me to, and I use the teaching methods I’m told to use.”

“Common Core has caused me to restructure my teaching strategies,” says Stacie Zdrojewski, a fifth grade teacher at Richey Elementary in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. The standards call for “more depth and less breadth,” forcing teachers and students “to really dig deep into the curriculum.”

For newer teachers like Shani Benson, who has a third grade class at South Dover Elementary in the Capital School District, Common Core hasn’t made much of a difference because “I’ve never really known a world without it.” Her biggest challenge, she says, is finding supplemental resources to keep learning exciting for her students.

Benson does note that she sees more resistance to Common Core in the lower grades. “The perception is that we are asking students to do more than they are developmentally ready for. We have moved away from learning through play in kindergarten, which has left the kindergarten teachers feeling overwhelmed,” she says.

The survey did point out that there has been more difficulty for teachers transitioning into the new standards for math than for those in English language arts. Two key issues, Watson says, are that concepts formerly taught in one grade are now taught in another and the new standards place “greater emphasis on conceptual understanding in middle school grades.”

The Department of Education recognizes that teachers generally need more professional development to meet the math standards, Watson says. One solution it is working on is offering districts the chance to apply for competitive grants to get funds to develop their own training programs, which then could be shared with other districts.

“If we continue to run [the same] state-driven professional development for all teachers,” he says, “we’re not on a path for success for all kids.”

Although the survey was taken before the first round of Smarter Balanced testing last year, Watson says he hasn’t noticed any significant change in teacher feelings toward Common Core since the start of the new state assessment program.

Some teachers contacted by Delaware Public Media disagree. “It is hard to explain to a child why a test given once a year is so important when it has no bearing on their grades or promotion,” Carlson says.

“Although most teachers have embraced the Common Core, we are not as excited about the required Smarter Balanced testing,” Zdrojewski says.

Zdrojewski, however, is optimistic about Common Core’s impact on younger students.

“We realize there are going to be challenges, especially at the upper grades, because these students have not previously been exposed to these standards and the rigor required by Common Core,” she says, but “I am excited to see the effects that the Common Core will have on the students who will be taught in this way from kindergarten on up.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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