Jan Keenoy did not want to overwhelm the teachers in front of her.
She told them to take it slow. Be realistic with expectations. Don’t stress.
The teachers from across the St. Louis area had come to learn about changes afoot — state education officials have approved a new national set of standards in math and English, called the Common Core.
For the first time, students in Missouri will be taught the same skills and knowledge as students in Illinois, Florida or any state. Supporters say getting the nation’s students on the same page is key to catching up with nations that are outpacing the U.S. academically.
By 2014-15, the state will rewrite its Missouri Assessment Program, given to students each spring, to base it on the national standards. The three-year effort involves training teachers and administrators — in sessions such as the one led by Keenoy — to adapt teaching to the Common Core.
“We’re doing this because it’s really the right way to teach kids,” said Keenoy, a retired teacher, as she led the workshop at a restaurant banquet room in Maryland Heights this week. “It’s about every student moving towards the ideal, bit by bit.”
But not everyone agrees. In Jefferson City, some legislators want to put the brakes on the effort.
Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, one of the sponsors of a bill to stop the Common Core in Missouri, said the state was coerced into the standards by federal education officials.
That concern picks up on a long-standing resistance among conservatives against federal oversight of schools, in favor of local control by school boards. On its website, The Missouri Coalition Against the Common Core calls the standards an “illegal overreach by the U.S. Department of Education into our local classrooms.”
In 2009, the National Governors Association began pushing for common standards in English and math, with bipartisan support from the nation’s governors.
Many education reformers have viewed the common standards as a centerpiece of U.S. academic competitiveness. The Gates Foundation directed millions of dollars toward the effort. And the White House required states to adopt the new standards to compete for billions of dollars of grants under the Race to the Top initiative.
In 2010, Missouri joined most states, including Illinois, and signed on to the Common Core. Missouri’s decision was made by the state Board of Education, with no formal legislative action. Critics — both in Missouri and elsewhere — say the changes are too significant to not involve elected officials. Several legislatures are currently debating a repeal.
Missouri’s Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said there were misperceptions about the standards, such as that they dictate curriculum to schools. The standards define what students need to know, but they don’t tell teachers how to do their jobs, she said.
“The ‘how’ is up to the districts,” Nicastro said.
At a hearing last week on the Senate bill, 18 people, including teachers, administrators and representatives from education groups, testified in favor of the change.
Fourteen opposed the new standards. Among them was James Shuls, an education policy analyst with the Show-Me Institute. He said the national approach would make it hard for parents to have a say in what’s taught in their school.
“If a parent has an issue with the standards at their child’s school, who should they approach?” Shuls wrote in his testimony. “Their teacher, principal and local school board will not have the authority to make changes and even DESE officials will have little influence in altering or improving the standards.”
Nicastro said the Common Core had come along at a time when the state’s current standards — nearly two decades old — are due for an update.
For one, she said, the standards don’t line up with the skills colleges and universities expect from incoming freshmen. According to the Missouri education department, 36 percent of high school graduates who enter a public college or university must take at least one remedial course.
“There’s a compelling case to be made on why we need to do something different,” Nicastro said.
Among the changes Missouri is making under Common Core is beefing up the amount of non-fiction texts used in school assignments and requiring math students to explain what they know and be able to apply it to real-world situations.
Whether more rigorous expectations will mean increased student achievement in Missouri is unknown. In 2009, one researcher at the Brookings Institution found that states with weak standards performed nearly the same on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as those with stronger standards.
Much of the recent debate in Jefferson City has centered on the expense.
Lamping is also critical of the potential cost for the new, computer-based test. The state is still reviewing the total pricetag, which will require increased bandwidth so large numbers can take the exam at the same time.
Nicastro said an online test will allow for quicker turnaround of results for teachers and students. She said state would be headed that direction regardless of the new standards.
The fight to repeal the standards in some places doesn’t worry Carrie Heath Phillips, Common Core State Standards Program Director for the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups that helped craft them. She called the attempts “a temporary distraction.”
“Teachers like the Common Core,” she said. “They’re the ones who will be advocates for the legislation.”
Educators say a national measuring stick will ensure Missouri students are not falling behind.
“If we withdraw from the Common Core, we are putting our kids at a competitive disadvantage for post-secondary admission and the job market,” said Don Senti, a retired school district superintendent and executive director of Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis.
SOME READY, SOME NOT
In St. Louis, some districts, such as Clayton, are writing and teaching curriculum based on the new standards, while others are just beginning to talk about the changes coming down the road. That’s because low-performing districts feel they must focus on the standards that students are tested on now, said Keenoy, who ran one of the workshops for teachers organized by Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis.
Third-grade teacher Renetta Batteast, who teaches at Airport Elementary in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, said her district had begun to talk about the new standards, and she likes that educators across the country can share curriculum ideas based on them. But they will also expect more out of students, teachers and parents.
“Right now, I think people are nervous because it’s different,” Batteast said.
Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-O’Fallon and sponsor of the House bill, said he heard from teachers with concerns about the quality of the standards two years ago. And then he learned of the needed technology for the new test.
“You have a huge, huge cost that we don’t have the funds to pay for,” he said.
Nicastro and state education officials have support from school districts, education groups and business leaders for the Common Core. Lamping said he didn’t think either bill would stop the Common Core, because of that support. But he does hope to delay the process.
“The parents, the citizens of Missouri should have enough information on whether this is a good idea,” Lamping said. “We should know what it’s going to cost.”
Elisa Crouch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.