It’s just after noon in Cay Freeman’s math mastery class. As her students habitually file in, she greets them with today’s lesson.
“What do you know about area?”
Freeman has taught at Windsor’s Sage Park Middle School for 29 years, but today she’s taking a different approach – one that helps her students reach the Common Core state standards.
“I’m not teaching just a series of steps to get an answer,” said Freeman. “I’m teaching for an understanding.”
The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created the standards, in part, to get teachers to take that same approach. The initiative aims for students to master certain skills in each grade level.
Freeman likes the new standards better than the old ones, which she compares to a GPS. She said that before Common Core, teachers were told how to get from point A to point B by following textbooks geared — by and large — toward students in bigger markets like California or Texas. Now, she can create a more personalized curriculum.
“Instead of just following the GPS,” said Freeman, “I can take a map out and say, ‘Let me map the route that I’m going to take with my students to get them to where they need to be.”
So far, so good, she added. And her students’ active participation suggests they’re adapting to the new system well.
But not everyone can relate.
“Basically, Savannah’s eyes hurt on Fridays when she had a lot of computer testing,” said Robert Mann, a concerned father from Thompson. “Sometimes she’d come home with stomach aches, or before bed [she’d say], ‘I have a headache, dad.’”
Mann questions the effects of Common Core on his 7-year-old daughter and, above all, how much of her information gets mined as data through P20 WIN, which collects things like students’ names and test scores.
“They say the data’s not shared outside the school, but that’s not possible,” said Mann. “It has to be shared, because the curriculum companies use the information they’re given to make graphs and send information back to the school.”
But under the P20 WIN Research Report, “agencies use the system to share data that is 'scrubbed' of personally identifiable information.”
The State Department of Education, Board of Regions and Department of Labor analyze the date. These agencies have the right to do so without consent under a FERPA regulation that “permits education records to be disclosed to authorized representatives of state and local education agencies, among others, in connection with an audit or evaluation of federal- or state-supported education programs, or for the enforcement of or compliance with federal legal requirements that relate to those programs.”
Still, Mann isn’t sold. He worries that the stress over Common Core is too much for a second grader, especially when it comes to math homework.
“[Sometimes] you have to send it in with the homework not done because we didn’t understand it,” said Mann.
He also wonders who benefits from the standards more: the children or the big businesses.
A recent study estimated the instructional materials market for grades K-12 in the U.S. is worth more than $20 billion, and a marketing survey from last year suggests 68 percent of school districts nationwide are investing in new materials that line up with the Common Core standards.
This means the companies creating worksheets or test prep for Common Core can make a lot of money off the new system.
But it's nothing new. As Connecticut Council for Education Reform Director Jeffrey Villar points out, we’ve had math and language arts standards for more than 20 years in Connecticut.
“We actually changed standards a few times,” said Villar. “We raised the bar a few times, and Connecticut continuously improved.”
Villar insists that as the job market gets more selective, we need to give our students the tools to keep competing worldwide.
“We’ve been importing a lot of talent,” said Villar. “In other words, bringing in folks into our country with the skill sets because we haven’t been producing as much.”
How much talent, exactly?
“Across the country, there’s about 1.3 million positions that our businesses can’t fill because our folks don’t have the skill sets necessary,” said Villar.
He added that those holes mostly fall in the math- and science-related fields.
But with so much emphasis on getting our kids college and career ready, some worry we’re missing the point.
“These are 7- and 8-year-olds we’re talking about here,” said Madison Supt. Tom Scarice.
Scarice is the only superintendent in the state to openly disagree with Common Core. He likes a lot of the actual standards, but said the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — the test Connecticut adopted as part of Common Core — inevitably creates a high-stress, high-stakes environment.
“To test prep, to narrow curriculum, to drive more anxiety in the classroom,” said Scarice. “If the teacher’s anxious, I guarantee you the 20 or 25 kids are going to be anxious as well.”
Life’s full of tests, Villar added.
“You know, your driver’s test, your professional licensing test,” said Villar. “And they’re all stressful. The more you dwell on it, the more stress you create.”
But for Robert Mann, that’s easier said than done. He recently joined a group called Connecticut Against Common Core and plans on opting his daughter out of the SBAC test next year.
“We’ll pull her out of school before they tell us what she’s going to take and what she’s not going to take,” said Mann. “I think it’s our parental right to opt her out of anything.”