Common Core, a controversial newly adopted set of education standards nationwide, has become a major concern of educators, school administrators and parents in Harford County and across Maryland.
One state delegate from Harford hopes to stop the program in its tracks, and one of the leaders of the county Board of Education said recently the county should assert control over Common Core and other mandates from the Annapolis and Washington, even to the point of refusing to implement them.
The Common Core State Standards, adopted by the Maryland State Board of Education in 2010, are a set of academic goals in English language arts, mathematics and technology to create consistent educational standards for all students.
States across the country have been independently setting their own Common Core Standards. While the program is not a specific mandate from the federal government, Common Core standards are viewed by state leaders and educators as an extension of the 2001 Federal No Child Left Behind Act and its 2009 successor Race to the Top, federal mandates for minimum performance goals for local school systems.
Common Core and a new assessment test that goes with it are slated to be fully implemented in the county public school system, and school districts across Maryland, by the 2014-15 school year, according to school officials.
According to state education officials, the goal of Common Core is to prepare students for the workforce and to earn two-year and four-year degrees in the global economy.
Among critics, concerns with Common Core among Harford parents range from too much control of their children's education from afar to excessive administrative costs that take away scarce financial resources at a time when the local public school system has been enmeshed in a several-year battle with county government officials about funding.
Teachers likewise have raised red flags about Common Core, among them that they are being forced to use an unproven, one-size-fits-all curriculum that will unfairly judge their own performance in the classroom. Other teachers say the concept is good, but add the caveat that it has to be adequately funded.
Supervisors and principals responsible for seeing the program is followed, say Common Core will provide students with instruction more relevant to what they will experience after they leave school. Going back decades, however, similar claims have been made for other supposedly new and improved curriculum development programs.
For students, Common Core is the latest buzzword among their teachers. What does it mean? Depends on who is doing the explaining.
'Vital to success'
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, Common Core focuses on 21st century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity "that are vital to success in college and the workplace."
Sarah Morris, supervisor of math for Harford County Public Schools, said under the Common Core standards there will be greater emphasis on using writing to explain math concepts and problem solving based on prior knowledge.
"Students will work in groups and see what they already know to solve a problem," Morris said. "Math is not always a step-by-step process. There will be more opportunity to think about what you already know and apply it to a problem."
Morris said Common Core will also push for an appreciation of math.
"It is a culturally acceptable thing not to like mathematics," Morris said. "We're pushing a more positive attitude."
Morris said students will learn that math rules their every day lives, like setting the table and figuring out the one-to-one ratio of plates, forks, cups and spoons.
In language arts and English, Kris Scarry, county schools supervisor of language arts, said students will learn how to synthesize ideas across text and evaluate common threads. She said students will be encouraged to form an opinion about a topic.
"There will also be more emphasis in listening and speaking and the importance of oral language," Scary said. "Students will learn how to listen to their peers when they answer questions and directly respond to their comments."
Common Core emphasizes college and career readiness, Morris said. She said the curriculum is "backward mapped" with the expectation to look at each grade level and determine what a child needs to learn to be ready by the time they graduate.
Dr. Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum and instruction for county schools, said Common Core creates a level playing field, but said HCPS has always had high, rigorous standards, which will continue.
"It's about accelerating students and ensuring that all children have the opportunity to be successful," Brown said.
Technology driven, but...
Under Common Core, a new annual student assessment called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, is set to phase out the annual Maryland School Assessment test, or MSA, which was first implemented a decade ago.
MSA has served as the main vehicle for Maryland public schools to measure student learning and progress in order to meet state and federal student progress mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Keeping up with new technology standards, PARCC eventually will be administered online, not in the classroom as MSA, and its predecessor, the much-maligned Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, MSPAP, which unlike the MSA didn't test an individual student's performance.
The PARCC in Harford will be field tested on both pencil and paper and online this academic year, Teri Kranefeld, county schools manager of communications, said. She said at least one class at each school will field test PARCC this year, with the exclusion of the John Archer School, which serves special needs students.
"Since there are very few classes selected to participate in the field test at each school, HCPS will have sufficient devices needed for this limited population of students," Kranefeld said. "However, HCPS does not have the technological resources to fully implement PARCC online in the 2014-15 school year."
Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the teachers union, said technology-based learning in most Harford schools is limited because of the lack of computers for students. He said there is not even a one to 10 ratio of computers to students in Harford.
"[Common Core] is designed so that kids will seamlessly integrate their learning with technology," Burbey said. "Tell me a job you do not have to integrate technology into."
Comes with a price
Leaders in school districts across Maryland have been griping about the less than smooth transition to Common Core and Harford, where the public schools have had to battle with stagnant county and state funding support, is no exception.
Lack of resources and little professional development opportunities are just a few of the worries of educators and school administrators struggling to implement the new system.
Burbey said Harford will not be able to adequately implement the new set of standards until the county shifts its priority to properly fund its schools.
"The largest problem is because we are so underfunded and have been for sometime, teachers just are not being provided, ample resources for development," said Burbey, whose organization bargains collectively for the county's 2,770 classroom teachers.
This school year, HCPS experienced a $19.5 million gap in the amount of money it requested and what it received from local, state and federal funding sources. Another $33 million increase is being requested from the county executive and county council next school year, one unlikely to be approved, most elected officials say.
"The county executive has not put education as his top priority," Burbey said. "There have been problems with the budget for the last five years."
Kranefeld said it will be difficult to determine how much money Harford would need to properly fund and implement Common Core, "as it is a moving target at this point."
Budget requests for fiscal year 2014-205, will include requests for Common Core, the PARCC assessment and other county educational programs, Kranefeld said. Historically, she said, funding to develop curriculum, align assessments and instructional materials have been cut over time, as the overall budget has not grown as fast as school leaders believe necessary.
"[PARCC] will require most of the funding due to its technological requirements," Kranefeld said. "As this is a field test for the assessment, the requirements have not yet been finalized."
Overall, the Harford County Public School System is requesting a $484.7 million operating budget for next school year, a 7 percent increase over last year's $452.8 million budget.
Despite his worries about funding, Burbey said Common Core is a set of ambitious standards, which educators believe will equip students with technology and critical thinking skills to become more competitive in the workplace.
"It will benefit all students and raising the rigor of all students will be good," Burbey said.
He said the concepts associated with Common Core are "admirable and sound," but without adequate training for implementation for the county's educators "teachers are left now to adapt in the classrooms."
Andrew Bleichfeld, president of the Maryland Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the council calls the Common Core Standards "an auspicious advance in mathematics education."
"[Common Core] has transformed the classroom," Bleichfeld, who teaches math at Harford Tech, said. "It has more students analyzing and critiquing each other's work and being precise in their language and mathematics."
MCTM has been a part of the conversation of implementing Common Core since it was introduced in the state, Bleichfeld said. He said the council has been providing workshops and conferences around the state for the past few years to help students prepare for the new standards.
Bleichfeld said he expects hardships as the HCPS implements the new standards and the PARCC assessment, but remains optimistic about Common Core.
"Anything that changes education takes a while to get going," Bleichfeld said.
Left in the dark
In November, Robin Payne, principal of North Bend Elementary School in Jarrettsville, said her administration had not received clear information on how Common Core is to be implemented in the classroom, more than eight weeks into the school year.
"It's almost like it is being left up to each individual school," Payne said. "The teachers are overwhelmed."
Sandra Monaco-Burton, president of the Harford County Council PTA, said her biggest concern is that in most cases Harford parents have little understanding or knowledge about Common Core.
"Most parents have no idea what Common Core means to the classroom or to their children," Monoca-Burton explained. "The creation of Common Core did not contain any parent involvement."
Monaco-Burton said even the parents who want to understand Common Core can't do it effectively.
"There's an informational website, but no person to go to talk," she said.
Kranefeld said the school system has made a "collective effort" to inform schools and parents of Common Core information from the Maryland State Department of Education. She said school officials have held meetings to educate parents and schools. There is also a video archived on the school's website which details Common Core.
But at many schools, administrators say it has been left up to them to explain to parents how the new standards will impact their children's education.
North Bend Elementary held its first Parent Academy in November, offering sessions to address parents concerns on their children's education. One session looked at Common Core's English language arts standards.
Payne said the academy was a school-led venture to let parents know where their child should be academically for their grade level and what they can do at home to reinforce the new standards.
Scarry, HCPS supervisor of English language arts, was invited to present information to parents about how Common Core will be used in the classroom and reinforced at home.
Scarry said Maryland and Harford County's high education curriculum was already a close mirror to the new nationwide Common Core Standards. She said the new standards force students to draw parallels between their fiction and non-fiction reading, which will have a 50-50 split in the classroom.
How it works
"Essentially, if your child is reading fictional book based in Egypt, they would couple that with a non-fictional informational text on Egypt," Scarry said.
Scarry said in the English language arts Common Core is pushing students toward multiple sources and becoming critical thinkers. She said the technology complement is pushing students to the Internet to gather additional resources.
Following the presentation, many parents still voiced concerns about the PARCC assessment and students being taught to take a test, which is a commonly noted criticism of the Maryland School Assessment.
Scarry said the PARCC assessment debunks the old criticism as it requires students to build on critical thinking skills by comparing themes and ideas in provided texts and consider the "big idea."