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JACKSON, Miss. — Educators across Mississippi say the already-lagging state will “move backwards” if Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves throw out the Common Core academic standards and create new ones.

On Monday, Reeves said that the Obama administration is using the standards to “hijack” states’ educational autonomy — despite the fact that Mississippi chose to adopt Common Core as its new standards in 2010, as did 44 other states and Washington, D.C.

Gov. Bryant weighed in this week as well, releasing a statement thanking Reeves for “joining me in opposing Common Core in Mississippi.”

The remarks by the governor and his lieutenant angered Rhea Williams-Bishop, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Education Innovation.

“The education of Mississippi children should not be ‘politicized’ in this way,” Williams-Bishop said. “This is not about what is best for students or best practices in education or even based on proven research, but rather more political rhetoric based on taking advantage of the latest buzz phrase or issue of the day and today it just happens to be ‘Common Core.’”

Mississippi Common Core
Charlotte McNeese, a kindergarten teacher at Ann Smith Elementary in Ridgeland, teaches her students how to write a sequence of events in a lesson last year. With the new Common Core standards, teachers say students are learning more challenging concepts at an earlier age. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

Williams-Bishop also noted that questions and issues around the Common Core should have been raised by the governor before the state adopted the new standards and invested considerable “time, effort and taxpayer dollars.”

The remarks of the governor and his lieutenant come at a time when the standards have become a contentious political topic in Mississippi, leading to confusion about what they are and how they are changing teaching and learning.

Mississippi adopted the more rigorous Common Core standards in 2010 after the Obama administration required tougher standards for those seeking state waivers from the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The Common Core standards lay out what students should learn in math and English language arts in kindergarten through 12th grades, and Mississippi’s schools have been slowly rolling them out.

Related: Cramming for Common Core: one Mississippi school district has to make big changes in limited time

As the state’s political, economic and education leaders have argued over the topic this week, educators have been largely missing from the conversation. Some contend that Mississippi’s elected officials are out of touch with what’s actually happening in classrooms in a state that consistently posts some of the lowest test scores in the U.S.

“You just get frustrated and tired with trying to appease people who really have no idea what’s going on with you day to day,” said Mary Alex Street, a Kindergarten teacher at Lockard Elementary School in Indianola. “It’s just really mind-blowing that this is something they’re considering doing at this point.”

Mississippi Common Core
Student work in the hallway of Eastside Elementary shows the “partial product” method of solving a multiplication problem, one of many methods students have learned with Common Core. Many teachers say the new standards go deeper than the old standards and should not be dropped. (Photo: Jackie Mader) Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Some schools started teaching the standards to the youngest grades first, giving teachers and students time to adjust without the pressure of standardized exams. In the older grades, many teachers taught a hybrid of Common Core and the state’s old standards, since Mississippi’s students were still tested on them through last spring. Other districts waited until this fall and are just now in the first few months of implementation.

Teachers who have been working with the new standards say it’s simply too early to conclude that the Common Core isn’t effective.

“I don’t think we’ve been teaching the standards long enough to tell if it’s going to fail,” said Robin Herring, a fifth-grade teacher at Eastside Elementary in Clinton. “It really scares me that if we stop in the middle of what we’re doing that we’re just going to move backwards.”

Some critics of the Common Core have applauded Reeves and his criticism of the standards. State Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, said that dropping Common Core would be the “best decision” for the state. “The state of Mississippi needs to move away from this and every other state needs to move away from this if they care about children,” Hill told the Associated Press this week.

Although the transition has been a heavy lift for educators, many teachers are optimistic that the new standards will raise the bar for students. Common Core introduces more challenging material earlier and covers fewer topics but delves deeper. In 2010, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., called Mississippi’s English standards “mysterious,” and “among the worst in the country” in a report that compared the old state standards to the Common Core. While the report said that about 15 states had English standards that were the same as or better than Common Core’s, it concluded that the Common Core standards are “significantly superior to what the Magnolia State has in place today.”

Related: In rural Mississippi, optimism for Common Core

Bryce Yelverton, a high school math teacher in Clinton, said that the new standards aren’t the issue. Instead, he blames the curriculum that individual schools and districts have chosen to help teach them.

“What the common public doesn’t understand, but teachers understand, is that the standards tell you what to teach. They don’t tell you how to teach it,” Yelverton said.

”I don’t think we’ve been teaching the standards long enough to tell if it’s going to fail … It really scares me that if we stop in the middle of what we’re doing, that we’re just going to move backwards.” Robin Herring, fifth-grade teacher in Clinton.

Some districts and schools have adopted textbooks and curricula that interpret or try to teach the standards in a bizarre way, which leads to public confusion and frustration, Yelverton said. “That’s not Common Core’s fault, that’s the curriculum. If [people] are really upset about Common Core, they should be talking about curriculum specialists and textbook companies.”

Other educators are also concerned that throwing away the standards will be costly. Shannon Eubanks, principal of the Enterprise Attendance Center in Brookhaven, said thousands of dollars that districts have spent on new Common Core-aligned resources will be wasted if the state writes new standards.

“We’re going to have to throw all that way, unless you’re going to keep the same standards and just re-label them,” Eubanks said. “If we do that, all we’re doing is putting lipstick on a pig, we’re not changing anything.”

State Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who introduced legislation earlier this year to repeal the standards, said that the time that teachers have put into Common Core and the money that schools have spent on resources should not be factors in the decision to keep or cut Common Core. “I understand that and why it’s a concern, but the main concern is our children and what they’re learning in the classrooms,” Watson said.

He added that he’s skeptical about Reeves’ recent change of heart regarding the standards, since Reeves did not support efforts to repeal the standards during the last legislative session. “When I introduced a number of pieces of legislation to either repeal [Common Core] in whole or repeal pieces of it, [Reeves] allowed every one of them to die,” Watson said. “If he was against Common Core state standards, then he would have rallied the troops.”

On Tuesday, the state’s superintendent of education, Carey Wright, published a joint statement with John Kelly, chair of the state’s board of education, warning that abandoning the new standards and writing new ones is not as simple as it seems. “Developing new standards is a multiyear, and very expensive, process. Implementing new standards also takes several years … Changing course after our educators have been working in good faith for years to help students reach higher standards is unfair and counterproductive,” Wright’s statement said.

Bryant fired back at Wright on Tuesday, and said that the state should throw out the standards regardless of Wright’s position. “What the superintendent needs to understand is that she’s not in charge of public education in Mississippi. The public is,” Bryant told reporters.

Rachel Canter, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Mississippi First, said that part of the problem is that the public isn’t well informed on the standards.

“We have not done a very good job in Mississippi of helping parents understand what the Common Core actually is, and supporting teachers as they try to make this very difficult transition,” Canter said. “Instead of fighting about what the standards are and should be and repeating a bunch of false information about them, what we should be doing is focusing on how to support teachers and parents and students.”

Teacher Robin Herring said that regardless of what the state decides, educators should have input. “I think people who aren’t in education, honestly, they don’t know what’s really going on unless they come and spend twenty hours a week observing education and what the teachers are dealing with.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

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