Part two of a two-part series on the Common Core standards, focusing on a low-performing school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. (Read the first piece in the series.)
This story was co-produced with WGBH.
BOSTON – The metal detector at Dorchester’s Jeremiah Burke High School beeped softly as students passed through it on a cold November morning. An unmanned wooden table sat nearby. Four years ago, passing a search at the metal detector was a morning ritual at the Burke, as locals call it. Now, used only as an infrequent spot check, it’s becoming a relic.
The school has been attempting to turn itself around for the past four years with a host of internal strategies and policies. It has focused intensely on fostering relationships with students and improving school safety – “setting the table” for learning as Principal Lindsa McIntyre refers to it. Test scores have risen and discipline problems are down.
The Burke’s next big change, though, will push rigorous academics into the spotlight. Massachusetts is one of 45 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which specify which math and language arts skills students should have at each grade level. The Burke, and all schools in the Boston area, may have to rework significant portions of curriculum and will likely be judged on a new test based on the standards. The state is waiting until next year to make its decision on what assessments to use.
Common Core proponents argue that the Burke is an example of a school that can be boosted by the standards, which are designed to promote critical thinking and deeper understanding of concepts. One of the lowest performing schools in the state, the Burke’s test scores lag behind most Boston Public Schools and are well below the area’s more affluent suburbs. Of ninth-graders that started in 2008, just 47 percent graduated four years later. About 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, an indication of low family income. Common Core, in theory, is meant to help the Burke catch up to higher performing schools and prepare its students for college.
But critics are skeptical, arguing that the new standards might actually widen the gulf between the Burke and its peers. McIntyre, who has spearheaded the Burke’s Common Core efforts so far, also has questions – and some concerns – about how the changes will work at her school. She’s been focused on creating a nurturing school climate, but students still struggle academically and come in unprepared. Now they’ll be asked to do more difficult work and staff will have to devote significant amounts of time to mastering the standards.
“I’m not really sure if it’s going do what it needs to do,” McIntyre said.
Proponents hope that Common Core will fundamentally overhaul teaching and learning across the country. In English classes, students will be asked to read more nonfiction texts and analyze them more thoroughly. In math, the focus will shift from rote memorization of formulas to developing a deeper understanding of concepts. The standards architects aimed to bridge the current disconnect between a high school diploma and college readiness and send students off to higher education or the workforce better prepared. Right now, as many as 65 percent of students at Massachusetts community colleges have to take remedial classes – even after meeting high school standards.
“They believe that they’ve done what’s expected of them in high school as do their parents, and then they enroll in one of our public institutions, and they have a very good chance of ending up in remedial education,” said Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland. “The whole goal of [Common Core] is to develop a standard at the 11th-grade level which will really reflect readiness to do college-level work.”
In 2010, two national groups began creating the Common Core, working from the skills an 11th- and 12th -grader should have and moving backward. That same year, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which rewarded states with funding for promising to take on a number of education reforms, doled out points to states that pledged to adopt “college- and career-ready” standards.
Most states, including Massachusetts, took this to mean the Common Core. The chance at extra money convinced the state department of education to abandon its already acclaimed standards in favor of the national ones. (Massachusetts ended up winning $250 million in Race to the Top, but rolling out Common Core alone will cost $275 million, according to the Pioneer Institute, Boston-based advocacy group that has been a vocal national critic of Common Core.)
It was a move that angered several former state officials and many advocates and community members, who argued that the state was, at best, bowing to federal pressure and, at worst, watering down academic expectations. A 2010 report by the right-leaning think tank the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports the new standards, gave Massachusetts an A-minus for its English standards and a B-plus for math. Common Core got a B-plus in English and A-minus in math.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, says he believes the new standards are worse than the old ones. For instance, the math sequence under the new standards pushes some concepts back a grade or two, which would make it hard, if not impossible, to teach AP Calculus, he said. He predicts that some schools will ignore the changes, putting their students farther ahead of the ones that follow them.
“There will be some schools that will continue to push forward because they know that their kids, in order to get into Harvard, will need do that,” he said. “Now we have the haves- and the have-nots.”
At Concord-Carlisle Regional High school, where nearly all of the students would qualify as haves and nearly all are college-bound, the standards have yet to fully infiltrate classrooms. Principal Peter Badalament is reserving judgment. They come at a time when the state is revamping its evaluation systems for teachers and administrators, putting pressure on schools and districts to cover more ground during valuable professional development time. “There’s a fair amount of feeling that we’re overloaded,” Badalament said. “My initial reaction was, ‘When are we supposed to do that?’”
Several staff members at Dorchester’s high-performing Boston Collegiate Charter School are more enthusiastic. They’re working with the Burke and nearby Catholic Cristo Rey Boston High School teachers to design new lessons and are already starting to introduce them their courses.
Hanging outside math teacher Arielle Zern’s room at Boston Collegiate was an example of the kind of work her students will soon be expected to complete on a regular basis. She’d given each one a graph with a downward slope. They needed to label it, write the equation for it and explain their reasoning. One student detailed how the line depicted the decline in the number of Miley Cyrus fans.
While she’s a fan of the changes, Zern says it wouldn’t be possible if her students didn’t come in well prepared from Boston Collegiate’s middle school program. “At another school, it would be, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” she said. “Our kids have these amazing skills.”
At the Burke, students will soon be asked to do the same level of work, but many will likely not be ready for it. Nearly three-quarters of students come in performing at a fifth-grade level in math. “They would be on the fast track to drop out,” McIntyre said. “They’re students who have been marginalized and disenfranchised for most of their years.”
Although a high priority has been placed on meeting students’ social and emotional needs, the Burke has also worked on improving academics in recent years. With a federal School Improvement Grant, the Burke has extended the school day. They’ve beefed up their interventions – in many cases they teach Algebra I in half a year to catch students up – and are placing a school wide focus on debate.
McIntyre has a list of worries about how Common Core will fit into this. For starters, a new nationally developed test will likely replace the existing state tests. For a school whose fate is tied closely to how students fare on standardized exams, the shift is unsettling. “How do we understand our performance in light of [this test]?” she said. Nobody’s talking to us about that.”
Although there are some district resources available, McIntyre says she feels like the school is mostly on its own when it comes to introducing the new standards into classrooms. Still, the Burke is moving forward to teach the full Common Core next year. “The reality is it’s coming,” McIntyre said. “We’re getting ready for it to be here.”