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Education

Common Core Is Out, But What's Next For Missouri Students?

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Missouri is in the process of rewriting the learning standards that govern the academic expectations for students in the state. Later this month, the Missouri State Board of Education will meet to review the drafts of revised standards that were submitted to the state by working groups made up of educators and parents.

"We’re  optimistic that we’re going to have some very good standards, better than the ones we’ve had before," says Sarah Potter with the Missouri State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

This can be an arcane and opaque topic for parents and even teachers, but the education experts KCUR  spoke with agree this is a big deal for the state.

To help our listeners better understand what's happening with the Missouri learning standards, we thought we would tackle some of the most common questions we hear about the Common Core. 

What are learning standards? 

There has been a lot of confusion between 'learning standards' and 'curriculum.' They are not the same. Think of standards as guidelines or even goals. For instance, one draft learning standard for middle school American History in Missouri is: "Analyze diverse Native American cultures to explain the way they adapted to their various environments." This is something Missouri students should know how to do by the time they get to high school. How they do it, what materials they use, what actual 'Native American cultures' they learn about is the curriculum. 

When people say 'curriculum,' then, they are talking about what goes on in the classroom. Who decides that?

Short answer: teachers. Longer answer: it depends from district to district and school to school. Craig Carson, an Assistant Superintendent of schools in Ozark, Missouri, and a member of the group that drafted the new K-5 social studies standards, says, "All curriculum is made at the local level." He says in bigger districts — like Kansas City or Independence — teams of educators often write curriculum to be used by many teachers across a district. In smaller districts or in charter schools, individual teachers often have more latitude to create their own customized curriculum for their class, as long as it is aligned to the standards.

How does the Common Core fit into all this? I've heard a lot about it, most of it not good. 

Remember our distinction between 'standards' and 'curriculum?' That is, goals for students and the actual way they get to those goals. The Common Core is a set of standards in math and English adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia (including, at one time, both Missouri and Kansas). The Common Core standards were intended to be a way to measure student performance across states. 

This was seen by its supporters as important because teachers and parents often complained that it was unfair to compare students' performance on standardized tests from state to state because states had different standards and different tests. Nancy Bergfeld, a former teacher and now-school board member in Northwest R-1 schools near St. Louis, puts it this way: "I would want to know how my children are doing compared to kids in other states, in other nations. That is the point of the Common Core."

Why, then, have I heard so much controversy around the Common Core? 

It has become a political lightning rod. This is not a perfect analogy, but think of it as Obamacare for education. In fact, some conservatives have dubbed it ObamaCore. 

Common Core opponents in Missouri deride the standards for a variety of reasons: some see it as big-government intrusion, some worry that student data will be collected and mined without parents' consent, others have specific ideological objections with particular standards (especially in science and social studies, which are actually not part of the Common Core). 

How has that political process played out in Missouri?

Last year, the Missouri General Assembly passed and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law a bill that essentially abolished the Common Core in Missouri and required the state to write new standards. For the past year or so, working groups of educators and parents have met to draft these new replacement standards. If you really want, you can view all the standards (for every grade level in the four major subject areas) here. Later this month, the state Board of Education reviews these drafts for the first time. 

But my biggest concern is this: how will this affect my school-aged children?

Educators do fear this uncertainly in standards and the controversy over the Common Core will have a negative impact on student learning. Bear in mind, that as the state rewrites its standards, students will still be held to the expectation of learning the Common Core standards (and science and social studies standards aligned to other national standards). But the tests students take this year will be different from last year's exams because, according to state law now, schools cannot give tests aligned to the standards that were thrown out. 

This worries educators like Superintendent Craig Carson. "There is still a lot of work to do to get the new standards and the new tests in place before next school year," he says. 

A public comment period on the new standards will last until the end of December and then more revisions will occur. But even after the standards themselves get approved, teachers and districts will need to to build curriculum off those standards and tests will need to be written and aligned to those standards. 

Officials with DESE admit this is a "tight timeline."Other educators worry it will keep Missouri kids in flux for years to come. 

Kyle Palmer is a morning newscaster and reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find him on Twitter @kcurkyle. 

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