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November 22, 2013

The new standards for students, known as Common Core, are changing education in New York. The first scores measuring where students stood were released earlier this year. Statewide, only about 30 percent of students in grades three through eight were considered proficient in English. To find out more about the new standards and why the results were so low, Morning Edition host Monica Sandreczki spoke with Doctor Jon Supovitz. He’s Director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Morning Edition: Dr. Jon Supovitz, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Jon Supovitz: It’s my pleasure.

ME: Well, first I’d like to start with the basic question: Very briefly, what is the Common Core?

JS: In the 1990’s, all of the states developed their own standards and this was an attempt for us really to try and boost the quality of education and to increase our expectations of what children should know and be able to do.

But what that produced was a lot of variation in different states as to the emphasis and quality of their standards. So the latest movement, it is a standards movement but it’s called the Common Core state standards. This is a development of the states to develop a uniform set of standards.

ME: How exactly is it set up?

JS: One thing that is quite explicit is that the College and Career Ready Standards, which are also called the Common Core State Standards, are a set of expectations of what kids should know and be able to do at each grade level juncture.

So there are sets of skills that 3rd graders matriculating to be 4th graders and 4th graders heading into 5th grade should know and be able to do.

Now, this has no overlap with curricula, which are the specific materials that teachers and schools use to help kids to get to that set of expectations. So while these are a set of expectations for performance, they are not a prescribed curricula for teachers and schools to use.

One thing the Common Core has done a nice job on is kind of avoiding the wars that education has gone through. We had wars between phonics and whole language. There were people who felt like you learned to read by doing phonemic repetition and other people thought that you learned to read and write by expressing yourself and it was less important if you had you know spelling errors or grammatical errors. You’d get those along the way.

Or in math, you know, do you learn math by the way I was taught and perhaps the way you were taught to really master the formula and then you could apply the formula.

The more progressive way of teaching is to teach sort of the deeper concepts of what is underlying the formula and the formula is less important because once you can more organically arrive at the formula, you have a much more versatile way of applying it. So there’s conceptual understanding versus procedural understanding.

And the Common Core sort of says, “Both, you need both.” And so it kind of balances out these different camps.

ME: Well, what happens to these kids right now who are in transition in the system?

JS: So I think is the classic problem of how do you change a system while you’re operating the system?

We can’t just say, well, 7th, 8th and 9th graders didn’t live with the current set of standards since kindergarten so we’re just going to throw them into the wind.

We have to work the best we can to increase the expectations but also I think it’s clear that the set of expectations has to be calibrated with where students currently are. In this interim period, we have to both seek to enact the expectations of the standards but still recognize where students are and work to move them forward.

ME: How long do you think it will take before schools can adapt to these new Common Core standards?

JS: So let’s put it this way: when George Bush authorized No Child Left Behind in 2002, the goal was that by 2014, each state would have 100% efficiency. Did we achieve that goal? No, we didn’t achieve that goal. Was it a mistake to put that goal out there? No, it wasn’t a mistake to put that goal out there because it gave us something to strive for.

I think that, let’s put it this way, let me answer your question this way, if in ten years, we haven’t made substantial progress, I think that we can consider that this reform has fallen short of our expectations.

ME: Well, Dr. Jon Supovitz, thank you so much for talking with me today.

JS: It was a pleasure, nice to talk to you.

Dr. Jon Supovitz is the Director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. State Education Commissioner John King will be in Binghamton on Monday, from 6:00-8:00pm, at West Middle School for a public forum on Common Core.