The calm before the score: Delaware districts ramp up Common Core outreach

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Common Core. Smarter Balance. It sends shivers through some. Understanding it is an education by itself.

It’s a Tuesday night in late March and I’m chatting with a group of five parents inside a dimly lit gymnasium at Cedar Lane Elementary School in Middletown, Delaware.

The topic: Common Core.The mood: general wariness, with a side helping of confusion.

“Everything that I know is from what I’ve heard from friends with older kids or my nephews that are a little bit older, but that’s the extent of it,”says Robin Rich, a chemical engineer at DuPont and the mother of a kindergartner. “Mostly just grumblings is what you hear about it. Like parents are frustrated.”

William Gandy, father to another kindergartner, bases his assessment of Common Core on what he “hear[s] in the news and see[s] in the paper. And from friends that talk about it”

He isn’t impressed, particularly with the new mathematics standards.

“I’m just having trouble understanding why three times five isn’t 15 anymore,” he says with a flat affect that suggests mild annoyance. “You know, I just need to hear what they’re teaching and understand why. That’s all.”

That indeed is why he’s here at a Common Core-themed information night held by the Appoquinimink School District. The event’s purpose is to disabuse parents of their skepticism, and purge them of misinformation.

“We want parents to be informed. We don’t want them to be making decisions based upon things that they read or things on Facebook or Twitter,” says Debbie Panchisin, the district’s director of elementary curriculum.

That may sound like an odd and ill-timed goal considering Delaware adopted Common Core five years ago, but it is indicative of the precarious position this once popular initiative holds in the education landscape.

“An important year”

Put simply, people don’t like Common Core as much as they once did. It is a worrisome trend for Common Core backers, one made even more worrisome by the ongoing rollout of new standardized tests intended to measure student mastery of the standards.

“It’s an important year in the process,” says Scott Norton, an executive with the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the organizations that created Common Core. “Anytime a state implements a new assessment, it’s a pretty big deal. And the fact that many, many, many states are doing that exactly at the same time makes it just automatically a big year.”

Delaware is one of 18 states transitioning to the Smarter Balanced assessment test this year, according to Education Week. Another ten states and the District of Columbia will administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment. Both tests are supposed to gauge student understanding of Common Core material. By and large that means they are harder than the tests they are replacing, and that scores will likely drop.

From the biggest states to the smallest districts, education officials are bracing for a potential backlash when assessment scores go public later this year. To mitigate that, they’ve held information nights, distributed fliers, facilitated seminars, and run advertisements – all in a sort of preemptive strike against anticipated discontent.

The efforts in Delaware’s Appoquinimink School District offer just a small snapshot of the broader campaign to bolster Common Core in what could be a crucial twelve-month stretch for the standards.

Core confusion

A point of clarification before we proceed further: Common Core is not a test or a testing mandate. Standardized testing dates back generations, the SAT was introduced in 1926, and the current testing landscape owes much of its contour to the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002. That law ordered states to test students in grades three through eight and again in eleventh grade.

Common Core, by contrast, is a set of educational benchmarks established in partnership by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It is, in short, a document stating what students should know by the time they leave each grade.

In the jargon-heavy world of education reform, Common Core and standardized testing both fall under the auspices of “standards and accountability.” But this is merely a philosophical association. Common Core is not a standardized test. And standardized tests well predate Common Core.

These distinctions aren’t likely to matter, though, in the court of public opinion, where polling data suggests two basic facts about Common Core:

1.) It is increasingly unpopular.2.) It is broadly misunderstood.

“There’s a lot of misperception about Common Core where people believe something that can be demonstrated to be factually incorrect,” says Michael Henderson, a researcher at Louisiana State University and education pollster.

Henderson recently conducted a poll where different sets of Louisiana residents were read contradictory statements about Common Core (i.e. the federal government requires Common Core participation, state participation is voluntary) and asked whether they were true or false. In every case, voters were more likely to answer true than false, indicating that people are both impressionable and uninformed when it comes to Common Core.

“The debate will rekindle”

Even so, support is waning. Another poll by Henderson and two colleagues from Harvard found 53 percent support for the standards in 2014 compared to 65 percent a year earlier. That study found a sharp drop in Republicans who say they like Common Core, evidence of a backlash among conservatives who see the standards as a federal overreach.

There’s reason to think that an introduction of new assessment tests could compound the Core’s public image problems. In particular, Henderson says, there’s the possibility that lower scores on these tougher exams could generate public scrutiny. “Because of that, the debate will rekindle,” Henderson says. “There will likely be some negativity further attached to it if people are displeased with the results they see from the tests.”

For proof of this phenomenon, many point to New York, which introduced a more difficult, Common Core aligned assessment in 2013. There, dissatisfaction with testing spurred a robust parent opt-out movement. Public opinion of Common Core also slipped.

“What we found was that as the implementation took place, the calls for either halting the implementation or revamping, did increase,” said Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute (SRI), in an email.

Just 34 percent of New Yorkers think the state should continue to implement Common Core, according to a 2015 SRI poll.

#PrepareforPARCC

To avoid New York’s fate, states are trying to ease parent and teacher anxiety beforehand. New Jersey’s education commissioner, David Hespe, has written op-eds about the new PARCC test and its purpose. Maryland has run PSAs, held summer academies for teachers, offered practice tests to journalists, and even launched a twitter campaign (#PrepareforPARCC). A letter sent earlier this year to parents in Hawaii epitomizes the type of rhetoric education officials across the country are using.

“We expected the change to the new test and standards will result in a drop in scores as compared to previous years,” wrote Hawaii state superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi. “Lower test scores do not mean students are performing any worse because there are newer, higher expectations for student learning.”

In addition to hosting online resources about the new Smarter Balanced test, Delaware handed out six “communication grants”–between $1,000 and $10,000 in value–to districts and charter schools. In the Caesar Rodney School District, located just outside Dover, each school administering the new test received $1,000 to purchase informational materials, says supervisor of instruction Christine Alois.

The nearby Capital School District held a district-wide academy on the new test where parents could take a practice version and ask questions about it.

“There’s a lot of negative publicity out there right now around the Common Core, and thus Smarter [Balanced],” says LaWanda Burgoyne, the district’s assessment and school improvement specialist. “Internally we’re certainly preparing for what the backlash from that might be.”

In a Common Core world

Appoquinimink’s parent information night feels both like preparation for a backlash and acknowledgement that one already exists.

“Folks get worried that multiplication and division are going away or that kids can’t add and subtract with fluency,” says curriculum adviser Debbie Panchisin to a computer lab full of parents. “That’s not true.”

Panchisin explains that the new Smarter Balanced test is designed to gauge whether students understand the why behind various mathematical operations taught in the Common Core curriculum, not merely how to get the right answer using some formula or “trick,” as Panchisin calls it.

She then guides the parents through a practice test, noting the technological bells and whistles on this new, computerized assessment. A third-grade math question, for instance, features a number line where students can drag and drop different fractions to demonstrate they understand each one’s relative value.

In a session on Common Core math, district specialist Charlie Webb tells parents to solve 23 times 49, and then asks an unlucky volunteer to explain how he ended up with the correct answer. As the parent describes each step–carry the two, add a zero, etc, and so on–Webb asks him why he’s doing it this way.

“Because my teacher told me to,” the parent replies over and over, triggering laughter with each sheepish admission.

“I can tell you this is exactly the way it’s been solved for the third time tonight,” Webb announces. “The exact same words and sentences.”

Webb then explains how in a Common Core world, students might be asked to solve the problem two or three different ways. They might take 49 and break that down into seven times seven. Or they might multiply 50 by 23 and then subtract 23. This is supposed to reinforce the notion that multiplication–even when it’s really complicated–is just repetitive addition, not some impenetrable formula to be memorized and applied without thought.

“It’s not necessarily evil”

It is a surprisingly lively session, but 20 minutes on Common Core math won’t be enough to ease every parent’s anxiety. When Webb asks for questions, a mom with short blond hair pipes up.

“This is gonna sound silly,” she says. “but I don’t like to think of myself as not smart. I went to college, have a master’s degree. But how do you…”

She searches for a question, but instead comes up with a confession.

“Like if my kid came home with this and they were trying to explain this to me, I wouldn’t know how to help them.”

That sentiment has been percolating ever since Delaware adopted Common Core in 2010. It is the type of sentiment that accompanies any sort of major change, containing within it notes of frustration, resignation, and confusion. If unchecked, it can become a conduit for resistance and resentment. And with another sweep of big changes coming in the form of new assessments, addressing it has become an increasingly vital goal for education officials.

With the Appoquinimink information night winding down, I caught up again with Robin Rich, the chemical engineer and parent of a kindergartner.

Thanks to the information night, she says she understands the logic behind the standards and the test. She still doesn’t see why there’s such stigma around Common Core, and wishes the teachers had more directly addressed the roots of anti-Core sentiment.

Overall, though, it seems Appoquinimink can count Rich as a convert.

“It’s not necessarily evil,” she says.

For Common Core backers, that’s a start.

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