The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

August 5, 2013

Common Core issues overblown, lawmakers told

HARRISBURG — State education officials told a House panel Monday that fears about changes to state educational standards are largely based on misconceptions about what the changes mean.

Most lawmakers on the Education Committee seemed to buy the argument, but critics remain unconvinced.

Pennsylvania is in the midst of adopting Common Core standards, modeled on national standards developed under the leadership of the National Governors Association and Council of Chief School Officers, spurred by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The connection with the national Common Core standards has fueled controversy over whether the initiative will result in Pennsylvania schools losing control over what is taught in the classroom.

To mollify those fears, the state has added language to clarify that the standards will not interfere with school districts’ authority to set curriculum and purchase textbooks and will not include any provision to collect additional

data about students, said Carolyn Dumaresq, executive deputy director of the state Education Department.

The Common Core push is intended to help ensure that students graduate from high school ready for work, college or the military. Critics argue that the state has not adequately explained how the change in standards will achieve that goal.

Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, was the most skeptical lawmaker on the House Education Committee.

After the hearing, Rapp, who worked as an advocate for special needs students before going into politics, said her experience has been that regardless of what state education officials say, things play out differently “in the trenches.”

She questioned the state’s plan for using online remediation as a tool to help students catch up once they have fallen behind on the standards.

Rapp said that parents have told her their children have been parked in online remediation sessions without any teacher oversight. In response to Rapp’s question, Dumaresq said the state does not have any data on whether the online remediation is effective.

Most on the House Education Committee appeared satisfied with the state’s efforts and argued that halting use of the new standards would bedevil schools that already have invested time and energy in buying textbooks and training teachers.

Rep. C. Adam Harris, R-Juniata, signed on as a cosponsor of a bill that would bar the state from rolling out the Common Core standards without the approval of the Legislature. Harris said Monday that he initially had reservations about the move toward Common Core. But the more he has learned about the effort, the more comfortable he has become with it.

After the Education Committee hearing, Harris said he was satisfied that the state’s approach still provided sufficient local control.

Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, said that if McDonald’s can make a hamburger taste the same at all locations, it is unclear why people believe that schools across the country should not be expected to meet the same quality standards.

Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence, said he has been worried about the new standards since local school officials complained about them in a meeting last spring.

Gibbons said he refuses to support the new standards at a time when schools are not being adequately funded. Rather than pour dollars into new standards, new materials and training for teachers, the state could hire teachers, reduce class sizes and invest in early childhood education,

Gibbons said.

“I would rather see them spend the money on things we know work,” Gibbons said.

Superintendent C. Joyce Nicksick of the Wilmington Area School District in Lawrence County said that she is not particularly opposed to Common Core. Some members of her local school board are opposed to the new standards, she said.

Nicksick said she is more worried that the new standards are part of a raft of dramatic changes handed down by the state in a short period of time, including new teacher and principal evaluations, the Keystone Exams and student projects for students who flunk the Keystone Exams.

Small, rural school districts often are not as wealthy as other districts, which will make it tougher to cope with the changes and adjust to the needs of their students quickly, Nicksick said.

“I don’t want to sound like we don’t want accountability,” Nicksick said. “I just wish we had a level playing field.”

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