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LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Freshmen in Kate Barrows’ English class at Liberty High School, an alternative school in Louisville, Ky., were trying to solve a crime. A wealthy man had received a letter demanding money, or else his daughter would be kidnapped. Barrows guided the students through a series of questions to identify the extortionist.

Was the writer male or female? They thought female: the writer asked for the money in a “pretty blue pocketbook.” Could it have been a professional gangster? A gangster would just rob you and wouldn’t bother with threatening notes, the class decided.

Kentucky Common Core standards
Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday was a driving force in the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards. (Photo: Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear)

The exercise was a lighthearted way to demonstrate how Barrows will expect her students to read more difficult texts later in the year to meet the Common Core State Standards, which Kentucky schools have been teaching for the last three years. “We’re going to keep looking at this page of writing, and we’re going to tear it apart,” Barrows said.

In Karen Cash’s Algebra 2 class down the hall, students cut grid paper to make boxes, graphed the volume of the shapes they created and wrote algebraic equations based on the patterns. Liberty’s math department has made it a point to have students work through the mathematical process on their own instead of listening to lectures. Students have a checklist to go through when they can’t solve a problem, before turning to the old default of asking a teacher. Questions on the checklist include: What information does the problem give us? Can we draw a picture?

At Liberty, a school for students at risk of dropping out where 87 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch—a measure of poverty—the faculty has attended multiple district-run trainings on the new standards and overhauled lesson plans. Like educational leaders around the country, they’re putting their faith in Common Core to make significant improvements in student achievement. But after more than two years of effort at Liberty, they have yet to see a substantial increase in test scores—the yardstick that the success of the new standards will ultimately be measured on.

Across the state, test scores are still dismal and state officials have expressed concern that the pace of improvement is not fast enough. Districts have also seen varying success in changing how teachers teach, something that was supposed to dramatically change under the new standards. In 2010 Kentucky was the first of 45 states to adopt the new standards, making the state a test case that others are watching closely as they roll out Common Core and try to manage a growing backlash against the standards. So far, the state’s experience suggests it will be a slow and potentially frustrating road ahead.

The National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, two nonprofit coalitions, developed the Common Core out of a concern that the United States was falling behind on international measures of student achievement and stagnating on its own benchmarks of success, like the National Assessment of Education Progress. The groups hired experts to write them, and committees of experts and educators reviewed and validated their work.

Common Core architects promised it would fundamentally change teaching and learning. Not only would the standards be much more difficult than those in place in many states, they would move away from rote memorization toward inquiry-based learning.  In math, students would be more responsible for showing their work and applying formulas rather than just memorizing them. In English, an emphasis would be placed on detailed critiques of readings and forming arguments based on evidence not opinions. Teachers would transition from lecturing to facilitating student discussions.

In 2009, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on states to “raise the bar dramatically in terms of higher standards,” and participation grew as the Obama administration gave out grants and waivers from federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind law to states that adopted more rigorous standards, which most states interpreted as the Common Core. A bipartisan group of high-profile education leaders—including former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, both Republicans, and Democratic governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts—also championed the Common Core.

For Kentucky especially, the standards represented an opportunity to aim again for a long-time goal. There, educators had hoped for years to compete with states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, the country’s education elite. Two decades earlier, the state had undertaken an ambitious education overhaul, the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), which introduced new standards and assessments. But the reforms failed to catapult the state to the top. Kentucky students continued to be mediocre on national exams. A 2010 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, gave Kentucky’s math and English standards a D. Only 11 other states were rated as poorly or worse in both subjects.

Kentucky Common Core standards
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The state’s education officials decided to pin their hopes on the Common Core in a new attempt to revolutionize classrooms in inner-city schools like Liberty and in remote, high-poverty Appalachian towns.

“It will help level the playing field with other states,” said Kelly Sprinkles, superintendent of Knox County Public Schools in southeastern Kentucky. “We have more distance to travel, but Common Core will help us get there.”

In 2009, the year reform-minded Education Commissioner Terry Holliday was hired, a state law mandated that Kentucky develop more rigorous standards. Shortly after, the development of the Common Core began. Kentucky expressed interest early on and officials and educators gave feedback often. In 2010, although the standards had not yet been completed, the state board of education voted to adopt them. (The finished standards received an A- in math and B+ in English from Fordham report.)

The first tests based on the standards were administered in 2012. Proficiency ratings were about 30 percentage points lower than they had been the year before. The same drop was seen in New York this spring when it became the second state to test under the new standards. Common Core supporters say the results are a necessary growing pain of shifting to more difficult, but still realistic expectations of students.

Test scores went up this year in most grades and subjects, but statewide only about 40 percent of students scored at least proficient in math and about 50 percent in reading. And the gap has increased between the percentage of white students who are proficient and the percentage of African Americans. “Overall, the math and reading scores in grade 3-8 and high school did go up, but the concerns we have is that they did not go up fast enough,” Holliday said at a September press conference announcing the new results.

Although many Kentucky educators praise the Common Core for its back-to-basics approach in the elementary years and increased rigor, the poor results have raised concerns about whether it was fair suddenly to ask students to do harder work without properly teaching them foundational skills and whether schools have enough resources to implement the new standards faithfully. Political opponents have become more vocal, and in June, the board of education felt the need to pass a resolution reaffirming its support for the Common Core.

Much like the Kentucky reforms of two decades ago, Common Core comes with a slew of state mandates about content and keeps the emphasis on testing as a measure of school success. While some schools and teachers, like the ones at Liberty, have fully bought into the changes and have access to resources to help them make those changes happen, in other places Common Core is seen as more of a top-down content shift rather than something that will produce significant changes in teaching.

“It’s kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on a very big boat,” fourth-grade teacher Justin Elliott, from Engelhard Elementary School in Louisville, said of switching standards. “Sometimes the way we use Common Core puts us further down the right path, and sometimes the way we use the Common Core turns into a way to know, ‘Okay, what am I going to drill them on this week?’”

More with less

At nearly every grade level in Kentucky, Common Core pushes down content to younger students. For example, in math, the order of operations (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction) used to be covered late in the year in sixth grade; under the Common Core State Standards, fifth graders start with it on day one.

Kentucky Common Core standards
At Knox Central High School, located in the Appalachian Mountains, some classrooms have been transformed under Common Core, while others remain much like they were five years ago. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

On day five, Jason Cornett’s fifth-grade math class at Flat Lick Elementary School in Knox County was working on problems in pairs. While his first class of the day had generally gotten the right answers, his second class was struggling. At times, they failed to grasp the new concept and so they added before dividing, for instance. Other times, they were stumped by multiplication and division. Many used their fingers for addition and subtraction.

“They’re still having trouble mastering the basics and you’re trying to add stuff on top,” said Cornett. “Over all [Common Core] is a positive change, but it’s been hard on some of the kids in the middle of the transition.”

Knox County, an isolated, rural district in the Appalachian Mountains, has a nearly 16 percent unemployment rate, according to census data. Thirty-five percent of adults over the age of 25 haven’t graduated from high school. More than two-thirds of residents live in poverty, including half of those under 18. At Flat Lick, the district’s poorest elementary school, 89 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunch. Attendance rates are always highest on Friday, when the school gives out backpacks full of free food to students.

The district has traditionally been among the lowest performing in the state; in 2013, the district improved to the 20th percentile.

The state hosted a series of regional trainings in 2010, where representatives from school districts could learn how to teach their colleagues about the new standards. No extra funding has been allocated to districts to help them prepare for Common Core, though.

Knox County, which is about two hours away from the nearest urban area, sent a few teachers to the training, but is doing the bulk of the transition work in-house. The district has used grant money from state and local sources to pay teachers to compare Common Core to the state’s old standards, revise the district’s curricula and identify gaps in content.

Flat Lick, like other schools in Knox County, relies primarily on one-on-one interventions to make up the difference between Common Core and the old standards. Teachers meet weekly to determine which students need extra help and small groups of students are frequently pulled out of class. But the effort is difficult to sustain. The school has lost a math resource teacher and drops in Title I funding threaten the school’s ability to do more remediation even as students struggle with basic arithmetic.

In Cornett’s class, the students— partially motivated by candy that was promised for the first pair to come up with a correct answer for each problem—begged him for more problems as time ran out.

“What is seven times seven?” one girl shouted out as she worked on an equation.

“Y’all are in fifth grade. You need to know your multiplication tables,” Cornett told her.

“Well I don’t,” she said. Moments later, though, she settled on 49 as the right answer.  Counting on her hands, she solved the rest of the problem.


Three hours away in Louisville, Jeffrey Elliott (Justin Elliott’s brother) reminded his first graders at the high-poverty Slaughter Elementary School not to use their fingers to add 2 and 3. Instead, they drew dots or tally marks on a whiteboard and counted them. They then shared and critiqued each other’s work, looking for errors such as a 3 written backwards.

Elliott likes that under Common Core he has more freedom to teach interdisciplinary lessons now and make learning a social experience. “It’s letting us teach in a manner we could only pay lip service to before,” he said. “We’re starting to teach kids to think as people rather than as students.”

But although Elliott is mostly excited about the potential for the new standards to create “democratic, thoughtful, critical thinking” citizens, he’s concerned about the amount of testing and data collecting that he worries will accompany Common Core. “They don’t need to get data collected from them 100 times a day,” he said.

He was wearing a baby blue t-shirt that read, “Show what you know! Crums Lane Elementary KERA ‘95.” A find from Goodwill, the shirt is one of his favorites. He began wearing it several years ago to faculty meetings as a sarcastic protest against the state’s emphasis on standardized testing. Elliott was in elementary school when KERA passed in 1990. The law ushered in an era of accountability and testing that is intensifying under Common Core.

That landmark legislation was brought on by a lawsuit from poor Appalachian counties that claimed they weren’t getting adequate funding for education. The state supreme court ruled that not only was Kentucky’s school funding unconstitutional, the entire education system was so rife with inequalities that it must be reinvented.

KERA put in place strict regulations to equalize spending. The Department of Education developed new tests that included more open-ended questions and required students to make portfolios in math and English from work collected throughout the school year. Schools where students performed well were rewarded with more money, and where students performed poorly, teachers and administrators could be fired by an outside authority.

The changes were the first of their kind nationally. Not long after, Texas began a similar accountability regime, which was later adapted by the Bush administration into No Child Left Behind.

Under KERA, funding was equalized and test scores on the state exam increased steadily. Kentucky’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given to students in every state, also improved.

But although its ranking improved and the math and English scores of black students rose, critics and researchers have pointed to the fact that the scores of white students—who make up about 85 percent of the state’s student population—remained mostly stagnant on both NAEP and the ACT.  The gap between the rich and poor also stayed the same, according to a 2003 study by Mathematica Policy Research.

“Does that sound like a huge amount of progress has been made?” said Richard Innes, educational analyst at the conservative Bluegrass Institute, who has been critical of both KERA and Common Core. “Especially in math, we still are pretty abysmal.”

Innes sees a parallel between the KERA and the shift to Common Core. In particular, he’s skeptical that the new tests being developed for Common Core, which also include more open-ended questions and performance tasks, will succeed in the long run where KERA failed. “Unfortunately education has a history of doing the same thing over and over again and thinking sometime this is going to turn out different,” he said.

The pendulum

Sheila Terrell, curriculum director at Knox County’s Jesse D. Lay Elementary School, is used to state-mandated education reform that fades over time. She has worked in Knox County schools for more than 30 years and says she’s “seen it all.” In many ways, Common Core is reminiscent of the reforms initiated under KERA, but in terms of content, the two are at odds. According to Terrell, Common Core marks a return to the academic materials and teaching methods of the 1980s, which KERA attempted to eradicate.

On an August afternoon, Terrell poked her head into a third-grade math class where students were multiplying 304 by 69 without using calculators. She laughed. “See,” she said. “It’s a pendulum.”

Before KERA, teachers quizzed students every day on their multiplication tables, she says. But under KERA, rote memorization was discouraged and calculators were always allowed. Common Core has shifted back – students must master basic arithmetic in their heads. Similarly, KERA reduced lessons on grammar and spelling. Common Core has reinstated them.

Lay’s students are mostly working class and the school is the highest performing in the district. It ranked in the 69th percentile on Kentucky’s 2013 tests. (It’s also fondly known as the melting pot of Knox County because of its nine English learner students.)

Terrell and her principal, Jeff Frost, compared Common Core to using a new textbook and said it’s led to only minor changes in how their teachers operate in the classroom. They comply with all state laws and mandates, but don’t feel like an overhaul of their classroom teaching is necessary. Lay already has good teachers, they say, and good teaching is good teaching.

Superintendent Kelly Sprinkles expects a more dramatic shift for most schools, though. “There’s no way a teacher can teach the old way – stand and deliver,” he said.

Still in transition, the district is a mix of old and new. In a classroom at Knox Central High School this August, Victoria Pope was guiding her Advanced Placement U.S. Literature students through William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” a lesson she teaches every year. Students sat in rows, their heads bowed over thick textbooks, and took turns reading out loud. Pope perched on a stool at the front of the room occasionally interjecting with questions—“Why would he want you to know there was a guy on the ship who made fun of him?”—and comments— “He’s telling you he fixed a beam. He wants you to know he’s self-sufficient.”

Across the hallway, Rachel Hibbard was experimenting with a new way of teaching English. She introduced her sophomores to the rhetorical triangle, a lens used to analyze different kinds of arguments, with a Ram truck commercial. Under Common Core, the rhetorical triangle concept will be a cornerstone of 10th grade as students are asked to think critically about the relationship between audience and message and to construct arguments on their own. Student were actively answering her questions and chiming in with some of their own.

The mix of educator responses to Common Core in Knox County and elsewhere in Kentucky —and the still lackluster test scores—suggest it won’t be an instant revolution in Kentucky or elsewhere. The standards have to contend with the skill level of students and declining school budgets, which allow for limited education resources to help them catch up. Common Core also has to win the respect of skeptical educators who have seen waves of education reform before. And incremental progress provides openings for opponents to make their case against the standards and erode support among an American public that’s still unfamiliar and confused about what they are.

Knox educators are generally hopeful that Common Core will end up helping their students, but temper their enthusiasm.

“The rigor is there. If we get to that, we will send kids out into the world well prepared,” Terrell said. “Time will tell if it’s any different.”

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

October 15, 2012: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Education Commissioner Terry Holliday was appointed by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. Holliday was hired by the Board of Education. 

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