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In Louisiana, mixed signals on Common Core heighten schools’ anxiety

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NEW ORLEANS — One year ago, the big debate over the Common Core standards in Louisiana centered on how to put them into practice.  Now, the Core is on shakier ground.

Political opposition is rising in the state and Gov. Bobby Jindal has distanced himself from the Core, raising the possibility that teachers may have to put the brakes on standards they’ve been working on for years.

This week has not been easy.

There is now “huge confusion,” said Vermilion Parish Superintendent Jerome Puyau, who’s been trying to quench a firestorm of parental anger. “Parents are stressed. Teachers are stressed.”

Louisiana was an early supporter of the Common Core State Standards, which aim to promote critical thinking.  The state’s schools are teaching to the standards now — and students will be tested as soon as December on how well they meet the new expectations.

The Core, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, was developed under the National Governors Association, partly in response to federal incentives for states to adopt standards in their schools that would ensure that students are ready for college and careers.

In 2010, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt the standards and then–Superintendent Paul Pastorek signed on to lead the development of a new set of tests, PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which Louisiana and 18 other states plus the District of Columbia will start using in 2014. Louisiana Catholic Archdiocese schools decided to use the standards too.

While educators worked to figure out how to meet the new expectations, the political atmosphere remained relatively calm even as Tea Party–backed politicians challenged Common Core in other states. A resolution this spring by State Rep. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, which demanded the state withdraw from Common Core, drew hours of testimony but was firmly quashed in committee.

“To put the brakes on and put something in reverse after working on it for three and a half years is a big deal and has educators confused.” And if the state dropped the standards, “then the question is, what is left in their place?”

But in August, as students returned to schools and teachers debuted new math and English lessons, Jindal evaded a question about his support in an address to the conservative RedState gathering. That set things off. This week State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, pledged to file a bill to halt implementation and parents are speaking out across the state, including in Baton Rouge, Vermilion and St. Tammany. Longtime Common Core supporters such as state Senate Education Chair Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, Superintendent John White and members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education are attending community forums, looking to garner support.

Jindal is now treading a political middle line. His spokesman Kyle Plotkin spoke delicately Monday, saying the governor did not support “a national or federalized curriculum,” a critique of the Core that has also been invoked by the Tea Party.

On Thursday, Jindal made his strongest statement yet in support of “rigorous and higher standards for our kids.” However, he avoided the phrase “Common Core,” and said he had problems with “federal intrusion” into Louisiana education. On the same day, the Louisiana Democratic Party called Common Core rollout a “trainwreck.”

But not only is there no federal curriculum, there isn’t even a Louisiana curriculum. Instead, the Common Core lays out overarching education principles and specific skills students should master in different grade levels. For instance, first graders should be able to describe a story’s characters, settings, and major events using key details. And the state Department of Education has taken a hands-off approach, putting the decisions about how to teach those principles and skills into districts’ hands — a choice that has itself been controversial among educators.

Louisiana superintendent rejects top-down approach

States across the nation are facing the question of how to put these new standards into practice. Some have responded with a relatively centralized approach. New York, for instance, has created a set of state-sponsored curricula aligned with the Common Core (although districts do not have to use the new curricula). In Tennessee, the professional development is relatively consistent across schools and districts.

Click to read our series

Click to read our series

But Louisiana is taking a more laissez-faire tack, giving school districts considerable latitude in how to implement the Core.

“Some districts believe we should prescribe actions down to the lesson level for teachers,” said State Superintendent John White. But “we know we are never going to realize the value of the new standards if we reduce them to a set of rules for teachers to follow.”

White believes a hands-off approach empowers teachers and principals to be creative. Whether intentionally or not, it’s also politically shrewd given the current attacks on the Core in Louisiana charging that it represents federal and state encroachment on local affairs. Embracing the new curricular standards, but in a decentralized fashion, allows state officials to say they are honoring local autonomy and control.

The state has provided schools with some common resources, including sample year-long plans, videos, and examples of the types of questions students will be tested on, and created a cohort of teacher-leaders to offer guidance to their peers. Some school leaders say they would have preferred the state provide more support and consistency with Common Core implementation, however.

“I appreciate decentralization on some level,” said Bernard Taylor, the superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish School System. “But there’s something to be said for the economy of scale and sharing of best practices if there’s a more comprehensive approach given to us by the state.”

A learning experience for teachers

With no single mastermind calling the shots, Louisiana schools have tackled the Core in a variety of different ways.

In Baton Rouge, Taylor plans to bring in experts to help design a new curriculum and coach teachers in how to teach it — even if that expertise comes at a significant cost. Taylor proposed hiring the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning for up to $2.7 million over four years. When some school board members protested that price tag, the district issued a request for proposals; Taylor hopes to hire an outside group by the end of the fall.

Greta Anderson works with 5th grade students at New Orleans' Dibert elementary school. Anderson has embraced the Common Core, doing considerable online research on her own. (Photo: FirstLine schools)

Greta Anderson works with 5th grade students at New Orleans’ Dibert elementary school. Anderson has embraced the Common Core, doing considerable online research on her own. (Photo: FirstLine schools)

“In the end, what I believe we need is technical assistance,” said Taylor. “This work is very multifaceted and I’m not sure if people understand the magnitude of the change.” He said the Pittsburgh-based group would provide comprehensive training in curriculum development, teaching strategies, and student assessment.

The comparatively small and rural Plaquemines Parish School District has taken a different course. While the district has brought in numerous experts and speakers for professional development sessions, teachers have done the majority of the new curriculum development on their own.

Shelley Ritz, the principal of Belle Chasse Primary school in Plaquemines, says the process has been both liberating and daunting for teachers. The state essentially said, “Here are standards, interpret that,” said Ritz. “That was tough. Most teachers are fluent in pedagogy, but they are not developers of curriculum.”

The district provided stipends for teachers to come in at various points over their summer breaks, which most teachers took full advantage of. On one July morning, dozens of teachers worked virtually nonstop in the district’s central office, scarcely looking up when someone announced lunch break. The teachers brainstormed lesson plans and conferred on PARCC.

For veteran educators like Mary Beth Newchurch, who teaches fourth grade at Belle Chasse Primary, the Common Core validates the autonomy she has always exercised in her classroom. “I think it does give us teachers more leeway,” she said.

Ritz is proud of how energetically her teachers have studied the Core and adjusted their lesson plans. She worries, however, that interpreting standards  — and then translating them into effective curriculum and classroom instruction — will come far more easily to some teachers than others.

“Some teachers really have the capability to tap in and understand what a standard is,” she said. “Others are not as fluent.”

Various nonprofits and education support organizations have jumped in as well to support charter schools, which don’t have the same district-level resources to draw upon. Both the funding group New Schools for New Orleans and the Eastbank Collaborative of charters have created Common Core cohorts for teachers and administrators.

Inexpensive options draw interest

Several districts and charter schools have taken a middle-of-the-road approach: developing or purchasing a Common Core-aligned curriculum teachers can use as a resource at little to no cost.

In St. Tammany, educators worked in-house to revise the district’s existing online curriculum to match the Core standards, said Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Arabie.

Jesse McMaster, a concerned parent voices his opinion as more than 100 parents gathered for a meeting to discuss their concerns and anger over the implementation of Common Core at Lake Harbor School in Mandeville, Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)

Jesse McMaster, a concerned parent, voices his opinion as more than 100 parents gathered for a meeting to discuss their concerns and anger over the implementation of Common Core at Lake Harbor School in Mandeville, Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)

The Common Core stresses that students should be able to pull specific examples from texts when writing about them, for instance. So an old writing prompt in St. Tammany’s online curriculum read:  Write a report on Amelia Earhart. What did you like or dislike about the Biography of Amelia Earhart and why? By contrast, the new prompt reads: After reading three texts describing Amelia Earhart’s bravery, write an essay that analyzes the strength of the arguments about her bravery in at least two of the texts. Remember to use textual evidence to support your ideas.

Arabie said the curriculum is not “scripted” in that teachers should elaborate or diverge from it based on their students’ needs. “We don’t say, ‘Monday at this time you have to do A, B, C and D,’ ” she said.

FirstLine, a charter network that operates five schools in New Orleans, has also provided its teachers with math curriculum materials in sync with the Common Core. In FirstLine’s case, the curriculum was created by an outside organization, a nonprofit contracted by the New York State Education Department as part of an effort known as EngageNY.

Kirsten Feil, the director of academic support, said FirstLine opted to use the materials, which are free, because national experts steeped in the new standards helped review the units. “We don’t have the resources in house to do that,” she said.

Culling new materials

Regardless of whether they are called on to be curriculum developers or not, Common Core will put Louisiana’s teachers to the test.

“There’s no one right answer to this,” said Greta Anderson, a fifth-grade math teacher at FirstLine’s Dibert school. “You could have a great curriculum, but not teach it well. Or you could have a weak curriculum, but be a great teacher.”

Anderson has done substantial research on the Common Core on her own, scrutinizing several new online curricula and training programs. “Personally, I don’t think anything has been vetted enough to say, ‘Oh, this is the best thing around.’ Everything says it’s Common Core-aligned.”

After years of her own research, Anderson can spot red flags that call into question the claim of “alignment”: Too many shortcuts or tricks like the “invert and multiply” strategy of dividing fractions (part of the point of Common Core is to move away from shortcuts in math instruction); a dumbing down of the material (the new standards encourage students to wrestle with complex material on their own); or a focus on closed-ended questions. “For so many people, good math teaching has been about making it painless for kids to learn math,” she said. “Now it’s a different mindset.”

Anderson plans to rely on a blend of EngageNY and strategies and lessons culled from her own experience and online exploration. When teaching her fifth-graders about place value, for instance, she will use elements from a Common Core preparation program called LearnZillion and a game-based instructional software program called ST Math, among other resources.

Anderson said she has enjoyed the research, but thinks the shift to Common Core could be more challenging for first-year teachers and for teachers who aren’t as accustomed to using online tools.

“These mathematical leaders did a ton of work to create standards, but they didn’t actually create users’ guides,” she said.

With a thousand Common Core flowers blooming, teachers can hit the occasional thorn. Vermilion Parish made national headlines this month when a parent took offense to language in afourth-grade worksheet, created from a Common Core website, that referred to the song “Po Pimp” and the band Speedknot Mobstaz.

Superintendent Puyau apologized and said the district had pulled everything from that website, which legal counsel told him not to identify.

Vermilion is using EngageNY for math, and blending that curriculum with other resources for English. Administrators are now reading “every word” of the materials before they go into the classroom, Puyau said.

Moving too fast?

By late August, EngageNY had released unit and lesson plans in math for the first half of the school year, but teachers still awaited the second half, which likely won’t arrive for several weeks.

Becky Boudreaux, a concerned parent voices her opinion as more than 100 parents gathered for a meeting to discuss their concerns and anger over the implementation of Common Core at Lake Harbor School in Mandeville, Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)

Becky Boudreaux, a concerned parent voices her opinion as more than 100 parents gathered for a meeting to discuss their concerns and anger over the implementation of Common Core at Lake Harbor School in Mandeville, Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)

That delay was a problem for Puyau, who supports Common Core but thinks that the timeline has been too tight for such big changes. “The curriculum is still being written for the ELA and the math side – it’s not finished,” he said. EngageNY is “staying a step ahead of us.”

He also blamed the speed of implementation for some of the stumbles his district experienced putting together materials.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Boards, agreed, saying Louisiana was “trying to build the airplane while it’s flying.”

Karen Richardson, a Vermilion elementary teacher with 24 years of experience, identified a different problem for her students: a lack of time allotted to help students with the transition from Louisiana’s previous grade-level expectations.

“The problem is it’s not where they left off” in the spring, Richardson said. Some concepts were not taught or not fully taught in the lower grades. For instance, fourth-grade Common Core math assumes that students have memorized their multiplication tables. “You can’t teach multiplication by 10 if they don’t know how to multiply,” she said.

She doesn’t know what the end-of-year tests will look like. And with EngageNY incomplete, she doesn’t know what she’ll be teaching in the spring. Parents are confused by new math terminology.

“We’re just at a loss and we don’t know where to turn,” Richardson summarized. “We have experienced teachers and some very, very good teachers who are worried and concerned.”

For some teachers, the concerns have dissipated as they’ve had more exposure to the standards.

In April, Ronicka Harrison Briscoe from New Orleans’ Andrew Wilson charter elementary school told NBC News she didn’t have enough support from the state to implement the standards – even though she was participating in the teacher-leader program.

“You have to seek out resources,” she said at the time. “It has been a very difficult process to have to research these things on our own.”

But since then, she’s found more guidance, both through the Common Core cohorts convened by New Schools for New Orleans and the Eastbank Charter Collaborative, and from the Louisiana Department of Education.

Though she still could use more time, the state has “attempted to provide more guidance around planning and instruction,” Harrison Briscoe said.

Dropping Common Core: the consequences for schools

While politicians can call for the state to pull out of Common Core, it’s not so simple for schools. Superintendent White said his phone had been ringing off the hook this week with distressed teachers and superintendents wondering what they’re supposed to do.

The Louisiana Common Core–aligned tests are nearly complete, White said; next week, the state Department of Education will release hundreds of sample questions.

“To put the brakes on and put something in reverse after working on it for three and a half years is a big deal and has educators confused,” he said. And if the state dropped the standards, “then the question is, what is left in their place?”

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Craig Freeman hoped there would be no changes in his district. He went to a Common Core parent meeting at his daughter’s school this week. Parents had questions, but all the teachers were excited, he said.

Beyond that, “It would be financially disastrous for us to switch mid-stream,” Freeman said. “We’re in the sixth or the seventh week of school.” Besides, “If we’re going to change it, when do we change it? Do we tell the kids this is a lost year?”

FirstLine is going full steam ahead: all levels of the organization are committed to Common Core, an administrator said.

In Vermilion Parish, Puyau is having a more difficult time. The “Po Pimp” episode hasn’t been the end of families furiously objecting to the content of assignments. A parent lambasted the Common Core for an assignment in her child’s social studies class – not knowing the state is still using its own standards for that subject.

To dampen the flames, Puyau has cleared his schedule for the coming week to meet with parents and is trying to create more support for families.  For instance, math teachers are creating videos showing how to solve Common Core problems so parents can help children with their homework.

Puyau has also pulled some of the English books he’d taken from a state Department of Education suggested-reading list and gone back to previous favorites – out of concern the selections were too mature. Rather than use “To Kill a Mockingbird” in eighth grade, Vermilion will use “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

But despite the headaches, Puyau said dropping the new standards “is not an option unless our state makes a definitive decision,” he said. “It’s good conversations. Are we going to pull out of Common Core? No. Are we going to adjust what we’re teaching? Of course.”

Lauren McGaughy contributed reporting to this story.

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