Ron Gower/TIMES NEWS Tyler Black, left, 7, and his brother Spencer, 5, try out their backpacks for school, which starts Monday, with their pet dog Lily. Students returning to classes next week probably won't even realize they will be learning to reach higher standards.
Pennsylvania is poised to implement new, more rigorous educational standards. But while the adoption of Common Core State Standards would raise the learning bar and bring Pennsylvania in line with a national, uniform educational structure, the change has its detractors, and the swell of opposition has prompted the state to move more slowly in implementing the standards.
A nationwide, but not a federal, initiative, Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. It is a set of goals and expectations aimed at making sure all children are able to master the same skills at each grade level.
Common Core establishes benchmarks set standards that help measure to what degree students grasp grade-level concepts in math and English for each grade from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
States can adjust Common Core standards to their own needs. Pennsylvania has done just that, bringing the standards into alignment with the Keystone exams to create PA Common Core.
The Keystone exams, which replaced the 11th grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, are given at the end of each course of study, so that students who have not shown a grasp of the subject matter can be brought up to speed quickly.
The state Board of Education on March 14 adopted the benchmarks, making Pennsylvania the 45th state to adopt the standards. School districts were expected to have the standards in place as of July 1.
But ongoing opposition from some groups has prompted the state senate to hold public hearings on Common Core. The first was held in May, and the second is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Aug. 29 in Hearing Room 1 of the state Capitol's North Office Building, 401 North St., Harrisburg.
"There are a number of misconceptions and questions surrounding Common Core and its implementation, and this hearing is an opportunity to gather questions from students, parents, teachers and others, and get answers directly from state Department of Education and Pennsylvania State Board of Education officials," said Sen. Mike Folmer, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
State Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said he expects the process to wrap up by late fall.
"Under the Regulatory Review Act, the Education committees of the House and Senate will have 20 days after the state Board of Education submits the regulations to them to take action," he said.
That will be some time after Sept. 12, when the board votes on its revised package.
"If the committees do not take action, the regulations are deemed approved, and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission will then make its final ruling," Eller said.
Educators are getting ready
For the most part, educators are on board with the new standards.
"Over the past school year, we have been adjusting our curriculum and implementing the Pennsylvania Common Core standards in language arts and math, and will continue to do so as we go forward," said Weatherly Area School District Superintendent Tom McLaughlin.
"We don't feel the standards are meant to be too rigorous. The Common Core standards are looking for more critical thinking from our students and have our students display more depth of knowledge. Rigor doesn't mean more work for teachers and more homework for students, it means making adjustments and increasing your expectations for your students," he said. "I feel a very important piece of implementing these standards is not taking away the creativity and expertise of our teachers."
The Pennsylvania State Education Association says teachers and students will need time to prepare and adapt to the new standards.
"PSEA is not opposed to the implementation of the PA Common Core, but we believe that educators and students need the appropriate resources and time to implement it. In particular, educators and students need to understand the new standards, and educators need to align curriculum with the standards, receive professional development, and find the materials and other resources needed to support student learning in the standards," said spokesman Wythe Keever.
"School districts will need to look at their current programs against the revised standards, make sure that their curriculum is aligned with the state's standards, provide professional development to teachers and administrators on the new standards and curriculum, and develop new lesson plans for student learning. Students should have instruction based on the revised academic standards before they are tested on them, and before schools and staff are held accountable for results on the new tests," he said.
"Teachers are committed to implementing high academic standards. Changes in direction and timelines at the state level make that more difficult. We look forward to clear direction soon. We know that once the state Board of Education takes final action the real work will begin," Keever said.
Larry Wittig, chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Education, and president of the Tamaqua Area School Board, said in a March 14 press release that, "The action taken by the state board today has strengthened the process by which school districts provide that education. Pennsylvania students, parents, employers and taxpayers should be pleased to finally have consistent predictable graduation requirements for all school districts."
Although private schools are not required to use Common Core, Allentown Diocese schools will have them in place, albeit with a few tweaks.
"The Pennsylvania Common Core Standards have been implemented slowly and thoughtfully in the Diocese of Allentown. Our schools are aligning themselves with PA Common Core Standards to provide a clear set of shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics to ultimately prepare students to graduate from college and be career ready, along with being competitive with students from other areas," said diocese spokesman Matt Kerr.
Joan Benso, president and CEO of the advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, on May 15 testified before the Senate Education Committee.
"Here's the bottom line: If we want to truly ensure our high school graduates are ready for the challenges they will face after high school, whether they are going on to post-secondary education, the military or the workforce, we need to recalibrate our expectations and expect more from those students so they can achieve more in the classroom. The high-order problem-solving and critical thinking skills reflected in the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards are what our students will need to succeed," she said.
Not all agree
But others urge caution, or are outright opposed to implementing the standards.
Pennsylvanians Against Common Core, believes the standards are the wrong way to go.
Cheryl Boise, educational adviser and researcher for PACC, said the organization believes Common Core "undermines the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment authority of states over education and establishes national control of school standards.
"This will require teaching using entirely new and, in some cases, untested methods. Why should the entire U.S. be subjected to a grand experiment using methods that are not documented to work?" she said.
However, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, says that's not true.
According to the group's website, "It's not a mandate or a federal idea. The standards were created by educators, parents, business leaders and experts in English and math, along with governors and other state-level leaders. Pennsylvanians helped develop the standards, and our state along with 45 others voluntarily adopted them."
PACC also worries about privacy concerns.
"Common Core requires that massive student tracking will occur in order to assess the performance of these untested methods," Boise said.
Again, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children disagrees.
"Common Core does not entail the collection of any new student data, nor does it create any new information sharing between your local schools and state or federal government," its website says.
There are just too many problems with Common Core, PACC believes.
"There is no evidence to justify a single standard for all students, given the diversity of interests, talents and needs among students. A one-size-fits-all model assumes that we already know the best standard for all students; it assumes that one best way for all students exists," Boise said.
Although the actual price tag of implementing the standards has yet to be nailed down, cost may also be a worrisome factor.
Boise of Pennsylvanians Against Common Core described the standards as another unfunded mandate for school districts.
"This was justified by telling the legislature that is was 'revenue neutral.' However, the Regulatory Analysis Form Regulation 2976 says 'the state board documents did not adequately address the fiscal impact,'" she said.
"The cost for Pennsylvania is estimated to be nearly $650 million to implement, while (the state's) 'Race to the Top' funds received are only $41 million, most of which has already been spent on teacher training. (Pennsylvania's Independent Regulatory Review Commission) agrees that (Common Core Standards) implementation will be costly," Boise said.
The $650 million figure is from a report by the Pioneer Institute, Boise said.
However, PDE spokesman Eller said that "from the state board's and the department's perspective, no new costs will be borne by schools. The $650 million figure includes items of which Pennsylvania is not doing, such as the national Common Core assessments."
Keever of PSEA says that implementing any new standards will of course incur costs: For curriculum development, professional development, and for designing new assessments to track students' progress.
"These costs are going to vary from district to district, depending on how much work they have already done on this," he said.
He said that nearly $1 billion has been cut from schools by Gov. Tom Corbett; some has been restored, but school districts statewide are still below earlier funding levels.
"Unfortunately, it is often those districts currently struggling financially that will have the greatest needs going forward and the state is not offering them any additional assistance," Keever said.