Common Core Education Standards in Bozeman

Kristi Gaines, a second-grade teacher at Meadowlark Elementary School in Bozeman, teaches a writing lesson to her students on Tuesday, Sept. 9. Schools in Bozeman and in Montana are implementing the Common Core education standards, with many teachers expecting positive results.

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If you were a third-grader at Emily Dickinson School in Bozeman, your teacher might ask you to plan a birthday party with a $100 spending limit, look up newspaper ads to find how much cakes and supplies cost, and then write a persuasive letter to explain why your party plan is the best.

Or if you were a fifth-grader, the teacher might ask you to plan a big dinner, inviting a famous person – it could be Harry Potter – and write an explanation of how you would create a meal for 12 people, using math skills to adjust recipe fractions and estimate the cost.

Those are a couple of lessons Bozeman teachers have developed to meet the new Common Core education standards.

Bozeman’s public schools have been working to carry out the Common Core standards for the past three years. Superintendent Rob Watson and Bozeman School Board trustees have made it one of the top priorities for Bozeman schools again this year.

At the same time, the Common Core is facing a growing backlash across the country. Some states have ditched the Common Core, and in Montana opponents have started to campaign against it.

Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction and one of the Common Core’s biggest supporters, says the new standards are good for Montana students because they are “more rigorous” than Montana’s old standards.

Juneau visited Bozeman schools to praise them for doing “a great job” putting Common Core standards into classrooms.

She unveiled a new pro-Common Core Web page and video featuring three local teachers. It’s the first of about 20 videos planned for an Internet campaign to persuade the public that Montana teachers, principals and business people support the new standards.

Yet even Juneau conceded that next spring, when Montana students take the new Smarter Balanced standardized test designed to fit the Common Core, test scores will likely drop for schools and kids.

Students who scored as “proficient,” or at grade level in reading and math, under the state’s old test may not be proficient under the new test, Juneau said. She quickly added that she’s confident Montana students’ scores and skills will only get stronger over time.

With the growing controversy, plus the chance their child’s and local school’s test scores may fall, it’s likely to leave some Bozeman parents wondering whether the Common Core is a big step forward -- or a big mistake.

“I think our teachers are going to step up to the plate,” Juneau said, “and students are going to rise to the challenges.”

Backlash

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the states developed 50 different sets of educational standards for what children should learn. Though some states set high expectations, others were accused of dumbing down their standards so schools could pass standardized tests.

The Common Core was developed to create more demanding standards to help American kids compete with the rest of the world. Behind the Common Core were the National Governors Association and states’ chief education leaders, business groups and nonprofits affiliated with the Gates Foundation. States could adopt the standards voluntarily.

The Obama administration pushed the new standards, offering states billions in Race to the Top money and waivers from No Child Left Behind as incentives.

The New York Times called the Common Core “the most significant change in American education in a generation.”

Under the Common Core, students are expected to learn to think critically and understand more deeply. There’s more emphasis on applying math and writing skills to real-world problems. More emphasis on nonfiction reading to find information and weigh evidence. More emphasis on writing persuasively.

Montana may have been the last of 45 states to adopt the Common Core standards, when the state Board of Public Education adopted it in November 2011, but today the state’s education leaders are strong supporters.

Juneau, a Democrat, said the new rigorous standards lay out a clearer path for what children should learn at each grade level and will better prepare Montana kids for college and careers in the 21st century.

Across the nation, the Common Core has come under increasing attack, from both the right and left. The loudest outcry has come from conservatives, who have denounced the Common Core as a federal power grab, as “tyranny” destroying local control, as dumbing down American schools, as “ObamaCore,” and as a secret plan to push a liberal or socialist agenda.

Indiana and Oklahoma have scrapped the Common Core. North Carolina, South Carolina and Missouri governors have signed bills to reconsider adoption. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has sued the Obama administration, accusing it of using federal grants and rules to force states to join the Common Core.

Another Republican presidential hopeful, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, asked his legislature to repeal the standards, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie created a commission to study the issue. Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a ban. Arizona, Iowa and Florida are erasing the toxic Common Core label, rebranding their standards with a name that sounds more homegrown.

Meanwhile, national teachers unions that first backed the Common Core have become critical, arguing it’s unfair that many states are basing teachers’ job evaluations on student scores from brand new standardized tests based on a brand new way of teaching.

FairTest, a group opposed to high-stakes standardized tests, argues that if children struggle to clear a bar at 5 feet, they’re unlikely to become world-class jumpers just because someone raised it to 6 feet and yelled, “Jump higher.”

Roadblocks

In Montana, the anti-Common Core contingent is organizing, and it faces an uphill battle.

Roger Webb, a Republican state senator from Billings and real estate developer, has requested a bill be drafted to remove all state funding for the Common Core.

Webb called the new standards “a nightmare” and “one-size-fits-all scenario,” that the state is “cramming down school districts’ throats.”

Three times during the 2013 Legislature, Webb said, lawmakers asked Juneau’s Office of Public Instruction if any money was appropriated for the Common Core and were told no. It turns out, he said, they changed the name to “professional development.”

“If it’s so good and great, why are they hiding it?” Webb asked. “I guess they’re ashamed of it.”

Juneau said OPI asked the Legislature for $6 million for professional development for teachers, to help them prepare for the changes. Asked how much lawmakers approved, she raised her fingers in a circle -- zero. So school districts and OPI had to prepare using the time and money set aside every year for teacher training.

OPI’s website also says the new tests cost $29 per student, less than the $32 per student for the state’s old No Child Left Behind tests.

Webb shared a dozen online articles and websites, alleging that Common Core means dumbing down education; that “liberal educated globalists (will) brainwash your kids;” that math lessons are really pushing “equity” and “social justice” liberal propaganda and United Nations one-world goals; that kids will read technical writing and federal reports instead of literary classics; and that teachers are forced into a “zombie like” conformity, teaching generic lessons that stifle creativity, freedom and innovation.

Debra Lamm is founder of Montanans Against Common Core, which has a website and Facebook page and posted forms Montana parents can use to opt out of standardized tests. She said her movement is growing.

Lamm, a Republican state House candidate from the Paradise Valley, said she opposes the Common Core because it treats children like “human capital” that needs job training, not human beings who need an education. It creates national standards, she said, and she cited experts involved in drafting the Common Core who refused to endorse it, saying the new standards would actually dumb down schools.

Both Webb and Lamm warned that the standardized tests used with Common Core are collecting tons of data on kids. It’s an “invasion of children’s privacy,” Lamm said. Webb called it “absolutely scary” and said the data includes family incomes and religion.

Montana’s Office of Public Instruction says the only data being collected is the same data collected for years under state and federal law. No Child Left Behind requires schools to show test scores for groups of students who are racial minorities, have disabilities and who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. No information, OPI says, is collected on students’ religion.

Though teachers’ unions nationally have criticized the way some states are carrying out the Common Core, in Montana the largest teachers’ union is a strong supporter.

“I think it’s a big step forward,” said Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT union. MEA-MFT supports the Common Core because in Montana the standardized test isn’t being used to grade individual teachers.

When he was a teacher in Helena, Feaver said, new kids would show up from California and they were always behind. It makes sense, he said, to have similar standards from state to state.

“There ought to be an expectation that a kid in Montana, a kid in California, and kid in New Jersey have the same expectations of the highest possible achievement,” Feaver said. “Folks who don’t like the Common Core couldn’t care less about the Common Core. Their primary interest is to discredit public education.”

Feaver said he expects Common Core to be just one of the education battles in the 2015 Legislature – along with Gov. Steve Bullock’s call to fund preschool education and renewed attempts to “privatize” education with school vouchers and tax credits – like a bill the governor vetoed in 2013.

That brings up one of two big roadblocks facing Common Core opponents.

Feaver pointed out one, that the Montana Constitution gives the state Board of Public Education – not the Legislature – the power to set the state’s basic education standards. And Montana Supreme Court decisions require the Legislature to fund a basic education.

The second is that the Democratic governor may well veto any anti-Common Core bill that’s opposed by Montana’s education community.

Asked in Bozeman if the Common Core is a mistake, Bullock said there is “a fair amount of misunderstanding of what it is.”

The standards were “set up by the states,” Bullock said. “They came from the state level and from businesses. … All the educators put together their curriculum recognizing, in a state with local control, it’s folks here in Bozeman that are going to design the curriculum.”

‘Right thing to do’

On Tuesday, when Juneau visited her classroom, Meadowlark School teacher Kristi Gaines sat in a rocking chair and gathered her second-graders on a rug for a “writing workshop.”

Gaines talked about how to organize ideas before writing. As an example, the teacher wrote her big idea – my hike on Mount Washburn with my brother – on a sheet of paper. She drew a big circle around that and in smaller letters around the edges, wrote five questions -- who, what, when, where and why. And one interesting detail -- seeing a marmot.

“Why do I take the time to do this before I write?” she asked.

“You’ve got to think about it,” one boy said.

Gaines asked the children to turn to their partners and talk about what they wanted to write. Before sending them off to start, she asked them to consider one more challenge – adding an “extra special item that will make your readers really interested.”

Superintendent Rob Watson said the writing workshop is a teaching strategy that’s a change. The Common Core stresses persuasive writing and writing for information, he said. “That’s why details are so important.”

At Emily Dickinson School, teachers said they don’t feel stifled by the Common Core.

“The Common Core standards are a blueprint,” said Rachel Screnar, a fifth-grade teacher. “We can be creative… As a teacher that’s exciting. How I do it is up to me and my colleagues.”

Fourth-grade teacher Laura Hovland said at first the Common Core was a little intimidating and overwhelming. But Bozeman teachers were given a lot of time over the past few years to study it, work together and figure out what works with their students.

One of the biggest changes, the two teachers said, is using math workshops to help students build a stronger numbers sense.

Instead of a “sit and git” lecture presentation and rote memorization of math facts, they said, kids in math workshops learn to collaborate and talk about five or six ways to solve math problems.

Principal Sarah Hays said the Common Core standards will help prepare kids for a future that adults can hardly imagine.

“I’m very much in favor of the standards,” Hays said. “They’re rigorous but doable.”

Instructional coach Anne Keith, Montana’s 2010 teacher of the year and winner of a 2008 presidential award for teaching math, is featured along with Gaines on Juneau’s first Common Core video.

“I’m amazed,” Keith says in the video. “I see little people that are solving problems that my middle-schoolers couldn’t tackle a few years ago. They’re confident, they’re excited about learning, and teachers are amazed that kids are climbing to the level they are in math.”

Juneau said Montana adopted the Common Core because it’s the “right thing to do,” not because of pressure from the federal government.

“A lot of the discussion from the anti-Common Core side is about fear and what’s not in the standards,” Juneau said. “This is the anti-public education group speaking out. If not the Common Core it would be something else.”

She said OPI has posted the Common Core videos and “accurate information” on its website (www.opi.mt.gov) to answer questions for teachers, legislators and parents.

“If they meet with their teacher, they’ll find nothing scary,” Juneau said. “When you visit classrooms you see it’s just good education.

“I think it’s going to be a great positive benefit for public education in Montana, for teachers and students,” Juneau said. “Over time, as students progress with the new standards, they are going to be better qualified. Upon graduation, they’re going to be ready for anything.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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