Educator ears ringing with the noise over Common Core standards and their performance tests may well catch a softer sound during this spring’s Missouri and Kansas legislatures.
A relative calm, even.
But it’s going to take a lot of work on both sides of the state line to make it last.
“Public confidence” is at stake, said Julie Kramschuster, a high school teacher serving on one of eight work groups reviewing and writing Missouri education standards this spring. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write standards in a truly autonomous way as experienced teachers without interference from politicians or bureaucrats.”
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So goes Missouri’s version of a temporary truce in the standards wars.
New state tests will carry on this spring, aligned to Missouri’s adaptation of the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts, while the work groups take a hard look at learning targets and write potentially new standards to present to the state school board this fall.
Missouri legislators this session likely will be inclined to wait and see, said state Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
“My message to (the work groups),” Pearce said, “was to hang in there.”
Kansas lawmakers also may ease back on their Common Core battles because many see a similar potential re-examination of the standards on the state’s horizon.
Kansas state school board policy calls for a review of its standards every seven years. Because the state adopted its Common Core-based standards in 2010, the process of reviewing them will get under way in less than two years.
With many school districts in the state having invested 41/2 years of work implementing the standards, it may be more palatable even for staunch Common Core opponents to let the conflict go to the review process.
“I don’t think we’ll have the stomach to say, ‘Flat-out repeal it,’” said Rep. John Bradford, a Lansing Republican who sponsored a failed attempt in 2013 to defund the state’s Common Core efforts.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be legislative attempts this spring to stop Common Core, Bradford said, but it may be harder to marshal votes. He expects an inclination “to do it through the state school board.”
Facing a challenge
The Common Core State Standards, adopted by more than 40 states including Kansas and Missouri, were established in a joint movement by state governors and chief education officers starting a decade ago to create common learning targets in math and English language arts.
The intent was to agree on rigorous grade-level expectations for students wherever their families might move throughout the nation.
The standards would allow schools, with common tests, to compare their performance to those in other states and more easily identify successful practices.
Ideological fights since then over fears of federal influence, profiteering and weakened local control have derailed or threatened the work toward Common Core.
Kansas education officials are hoping to craft a peaceful path through the state’s next round of standards reviews.
“There is always a population that is not in favor of our standards,” said Brad Neuenswander, the state’s interim education commissioner. “(But) we’ve never had this much input and attention to our standards process.”
That’s why the state intends to organize a process for 2016 to give people a chance to weigh in on Kansas’ math and English language arts standards a year ahead of the state’s review.
“We are responding to people who are not usually a part of the process but who want to be,” Neuenswander said.
The coming review, coupled with the Legislature’s action last year to protect privacy in student data, should ease concerns that had been pressing many lawmakers to take apart Common Core, said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican.
“We have far bigger problems,” she said, referring to the court-tangled struggle over Kansas’ education budget.
‘Plenty of altruism’
Meanwhile, Missouri’s standards journey is carrying on at a hopeful pace, still with a chance that the work groups will achieve a consensus on standards that seemed impossible a year ago.
The only reason that a legislature sharply divided over Common Core was able to agree on the rewriting process as a solution was that each side expects a different outcome — either a reaffirmation of Common Core or the creation of a much different set of standards.
The ideological divides are present, say several participants in the work groups contacted by The Star, but the groups are tending to the work mostly with genuine respect and collaboration.
There are some frustrations.
Maridella Carter, an instructional coach from Blue Springs working on the secondary level English language arts group, said that the group’s majority voted to include standards for non-fictional and informational texts like those emphasized in the Common Core standards.
But she thinks that an effort within the group to persist in arguing for a predominance of fictional, literature texts amounts to “interruptions” of their work.
And Kramschuster, a Center High School teacher on the secondary math group, expressed concern that the process is having to get past what she called the predetermination of some supporters of the common standards to “whitewash the Common Core.”
But most agree that the groups are working hard with good intentions.
“There’s plenty of altruism all around,” Kramschuster said.
The state also convened work groups on science standards and history and social studies standards — not part of Common Core, but with their own ideological divides.
The science groups are working with a menu of standards models that includes the Next Generation Science Standards, which carry a similar mission as Common Core to build a consensus model between states.
Airick Leonard West, a Kansas City school board member serving on the elementary science work group, is encouraged by what he’s seeing.
“Partisanship and ideology have taken a backseat to the more pressing concerns of student preparation and teacher support,” West said.
The work is carrying on with “urgency” and “professionalism,” he said.
Out of sync
All of this, however, throws the required state testing this spring out of sync.
Missouri is carrying out its first full season of math and English language arts testing in grades three through eight this spring created by the Smarter Balanced collaboration for a consortium of 16 states.
The tests are aligned to Common Core, which may or may not be Missouri’s standards in the coming years.
And, as part of the new law that established the standards work groups, the test results cannot negatively affect a district’s accreditation status during this transition period.
Kansas went through a test transition last year, dropping out of the Smarter Balanced consortium and instead returning to the University of Kansas’ Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation to develop its exams as it has in the past.
The first full run of the new tests was marred by a “distributed denial of service” cyberattack, but security adjustments, the state thinks, have all systems ready to go this spring.
It might seem like a mightily confusing time for teachers at work in their classrooms. But it doesn’t have to be, said Janie Pyle, associate superintendent of the Raytown School District.
“My concern is that students get caught in the middle,” she said. “We need to make sure that no time is being wasted in the classroom while we wait for people to make up their minds.”
Good instruction is still good instruction, she said. “Education itself is bigger than a standard.”
That said, she’d still like to see “cooperation and collaboration between people where they might have differing opinions.”
Teachers will carry on, she said, and maybe the wrangling over standards will draw more attention to the work and needs of the classroom.