Delaware and the Common Core [video]

Going by numbers alone, Delaware public school students are not “college and career ready.”

“Right now only about one out of five of our children are graduating from high school really ready to move on and be successful,” Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said. 

With only 30 percent of high school freshmen making it to their second year in college, and with fewer jobs available without a college degree, Delaware Governor Jack Markell says the state’s public schools needed to evolve.

“If you look at kids’ performance and you compare that to what’s going on around the world, other countries have really accelerated academic achievement over the last 20 or 30 years,” said Gov. Markell, D-Del.

That’s why Delaware adopted what are called Common Core State Standards in 2010. Gov. Markell served as co-chair of the Common Core effort developed by the National Governors Association, with help from teachers and other education experts from around the country. The standards encompass English, reading, writing and math, and are considered more competitive with a focus on critical thinking as opposed to rote learning.

“In prior years, what we saw is 50 states have 50 different sets of standards… Why would a child in New Jersey learn different things in terms of how to write and do math than a child in Delaware? And so the governors got together and said that they needed to work on a set of standards that not only were common in nature across the states, but then were significantly better than the standards that each state had adopted right now,” Murphy said.

Now, 45 states, including Delaware, Washington, D.C. and four U.S. territories have adopted Common Core. Describing them as federal standards, critics say this sort of one-size-fits-all approach lets the government dictate what and how students learn.

“These are not federal standards, these are not national standards. People call them that, but that’s not what they are,” Murphy said. “How you meet those expectations is a local decision. So the books that my children are reading right now in their class, the decisions about those books were made at the school or at the local district level.”

In the classroom

Over the past three years, school districts have gradually implemented the new standards in their curriculum. The Appoquinimink School District, however, was an early adopter, teaching to the new standards almost immediately.  

Holly Grandfield teaches fifth grade at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown. She says Common Core not only changed her curriculum, but also raised the bar on what she teaches.

“The level of the text that they’re being asked to read and analyze, so it’s just a much higher level, deeper thinking that I know I did in high school, and I’m asking my 5th graders to do it,” Grandfield said. “Teaching it is tricky, I’m not going to lie, it’s very challenging.” 

In September, Delaware’s Board of Education adopted the Next Generation standards, like Common Core, but for science.

“The way the original standards were written, they were very fact-based. They need to know that this equals this, they need to know that this process is this,” said Redding Middle School science teacher Robert Ferrell.

But Ferrell who teaches eighth grade science doesn’t want his kids to just spit out definitions and formulas. A philosophy that aligns perfectly with the Next Generation standards.

“We want them to be literate individuals… but being literate means that you can take information, digest it, use it and apply what you’ve got,” said Ferrell who incorporates a lot of hands-on learning into his classes. 

“I do tell [my students,] ‘Sometimes your brain’s going to feel a little uncomfortable… and we’re going to conquer that together.’ And hopefully get them to that point where they are able to figure things out on their own and be willing to be risk-takers,” Grandfield said.

New assessment in 2014

With these new standards, next school year students will take a new assessment test called, ‘Smarter Balanced,’ which will replace DCAS. Practice tests are available on the Smarter Balanced website, providing a sneak peek of what will be expected of your child. 

Secretary Murphy warns student performance will drop in the first year of the new assessment test, but says it’s a sacrifice the state is willing to make to put students on a path towards success beyond high school.

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