With the federally backed Common Core State Standards making waves in Maryland’s public schools, local day schools — although private — may not be totally immune to the controversial changes.
It is “important for us as a school that the school and the faculty be aware of what our students’ peers are learning at other schools — both public and private,” said Robyn Blum, assistant head of Krieger Schechter’s middle school.
The standards, developed in a joint effort between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, were adopted unanimously by the Maryland State Board of Education in 2010. Among other changes, the new standards shift the writing focus from narrative writing to evidence-based writing and stress the importance of the mathematical process rather than simply giving the correct answer to a mathematics problem.
Prior to the Common Core standards, every state was responsible for developing its own statewide criteria. Creators touted Common Core as a means to ensure that all students across the country were equally prepared for college or the workforce by the time they graduated high school, regardless of the state in which they live.
From there, it was up to states to determine whether or not they would adopt the standards, but many opponents have pointed to federal incentives as a means of leaving the states no choice but to adopt it.
The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program challenged states to submit plans to reform their schools. The administration’s website counts 19 states that have been awarded more than $4 billion for their K-12 plans, including Maryland, which was awarded $250 million over the course of four years in 2010. The Race to the Top website acknowledges 48 states that it says have “worked together to create a voluntary set of rigorous college- and career-ready standards.” While the program made no direct mention of Common Core, those states that adopted the standards were eligible for the grant.
While Krieger Schechter hasn’t implemented any of the Common Core changes yet, the school and its teachers have kept a “thoughtful eye” on what is happening in public schools, Blum said.
And what is happening in public schools is a mix of emotions and reactions.
Across the country, parents, teachers and politicians have cried foul on the new standards. Republican officials have branded them a federal takeover of education. In Maryland, every Republican gubernatorial candidate has vowed to either stop Common Core in the state or place a moratorium on the implementation of the new standards. In September, a Howard County man drew national attention after he was escorted out of and later arrested for interrupting a meeting on education standards in Towson to voice his opposition to the new education standards. The charges were eventually dropped, but the story took off on talk radio and cable news. On May 16, Baltimore County Schools superintendent Dallas Dance admitted errors in the implementation of the program, which took affect across the state last fall.
Marta Mossburg, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute has reservations about the new standards, but Krieger Schechter is on the right path, she said.
The independence that day schools and other private schools have from state mandates is one of their biggest assets, but the fact that the redesigned SATs, which will begin in 2016, will closely reflect the Common Core standards could muddle that autonomy, said Mossburg.
“One of the biggest impacts is going to be the fact that the SATs are changing to reflect K-12 curriculum versus what colleges want to see in college readiness,” said Mossburg. “It’s going to force the homogenization of curriculum, not just at the public school level, but at the private school level [too] because those kids are also going to be taking the test in order to get into college. That’s a big issue.”
Parents who think that sending their children to private schools exempts them from dealing with the new standards will be disappointed, she said.
“We’re talking about an indirect effect,” she added. “Even if people aren’t going to be forced to use Common Core standards, children are going to be tested based on Common Core standards, that’s just how it is, it’s a reality. It’s going to impact everyone, regardless of whether they’re in public school or private school.”
Marc Kramer is executive director at RAVSAK, a New York-based non-denominational Jewish day school network. His organization includes Jewish elementary, middle and high schools from across North America. RAVSAK doesn’t have an official stance on the new state standards, but he said he and the rest of his staff have been watching as many of their member schools decide how to approach the changes in their own states.
“The Common Core is a game changer for education in this country,” said Kramer. “Now, in what direction it’s going to change the game, I think we don’t know.”
While state accreditation or state funding may affect the freedom of private schools in some states to choose which parts of Common Core, if any, they want to implement, “church-exempt” private schools in Maryland are entirely excused from the new standards regardless of accreditation or funding, according to the state’s education department.
Many schools Kramer has heard from are still grappling with how much of the standards, if any, they want to apply to their own day schools.
“In some places schools will simply have to take it on full score, and in other places schools will be informed by it and may choose to adopt or adapt certain aspects of it,” he said.
Kramer’s own children attend a day school that has chosen to incorporate some of the Common Core. Though some of the publicized problems with the standards are frightening, he said he trusts in the school’s leadership to do what is best for his children’s education.
“I know it’s not going to be perfect. I’m not looking for perfect,” he said. “We have to agree that there is no place in this world called ‘Perfect.’”
While some of the kinks in Common Core are still being worked out, Kramer said he is encouraged by the notion of a standard set of skills and knowledge.
“There are educators who are very, very intrigued by the premise of the Common Core and its notions of essential skills and knowledge and the standards and the ability to use those structures as evidence of the vibrancy and success of the Jewish day school,” he said.
For parents who sometimes worry that the education their children are receiving is not as good as may seem, he added, the standards could provide a means for them to see how much their kids are really learning.
Unlike other schools however, Jewish schools must balance any new standards or subjects they decide to take on with the core parts of their curriculum that make them Jewish schools.
“That’s their value-added, that’s their raison d’etre,” said Kramer. “So the challenge will become: How does a school stay focused in an unwavering way on Jewish peoplehood, on religious purposefulness, on Jewish literacy, on building the Jewish future and at the same time be responsive to and aware of and able to embrace changes in the world of education?”
At Pardes Day School, in Phoenix, Ariz., Jill Kessler, head of school, thinks she has found the answer.
“The Common Core has been very politicized, but we do not engage in any of the politics regarding Common Core,” she said. “If you look at the [subject] strands, it’s a higher level of excellence.”
The standards, renamed in Arizona the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, were adopted by the state in 2010. The school has been working on slowly adopting the Common Core standards, subject by subject, for three years.
A major factor in Pardes’ decision to implement the standards was the SAT, the test most high schools juniors and seniors are required to take to get into college.
“The new SATs are all going to be aligned with the Common Core, and our students coming from Jewish day schools must be competitive, they must have an excellent secular education as well as Judaic education in order to be competitive in today’s environment,” she said. “I really believe that it would hurt enrollment in our Jewish day schools if we, in fact, don’t get on the bandwagon and deliver the level of excellence that parents expect in any excellent independent school.”
The school’s slow implementation has been key, said Kessler. When the standards were first approved by the state, the school’s teachers looked through the subjects and highlighted the points Common Core included that were missing in their own curriculum or were placed at a different grade level. Departmental meetings were spent realigning their own subject standards to those laid out by the state.
The benefit of being a private day school came in the school administration’s ability to pick and choose which aspects it wanted to adopt. This was especially beneficial to the school’s need to include a Jewish curriculum in addition to the secular aspects. But Kessler said she and her staff found that a lot of the new standards meshed nearly seamlessly with the Jewish education their students were already receiving.
“The reality is that a lot of the other standards can help strengthen the Jewish aspects,” said Kessler. “When you talk about the language arts standards, the writing standards — they really talk about the writing across the curriculum — well students do a fair amount of writing for Jewish Studies and do some extraordinary critical thinking and problem solving when they’re working on texts, so its application actually works beautifully in Jewish Studies, and Hebrew as a second language — in second language acquisition — is also terrific.”
Kessler dismisses one of the major concerns vocal opponents of the standards have had — that the guidelines ask too much of children at too young an age.
“When our students are debating, say, Cain and Abel, all of this has to do with higher level,” she said. “You’re analyzing the characters, you’re getting into moral issues, right and wrong, and Jewish history and all that that provides actually aligns beautifully with the core.”
At Aleph Bet Jewish Day School in Annapolis, the school administrators and teachers are silently launching their own adoption of the Common Core.
Nan Jarashow, head of the school, said the school has focused primarily on the standards for math and writing, the two areas where she said it made most sense to the administration to incorporate the changes. This is the first year of Aleph Bet’s incorporation of the state standards, and Jarashow said the school plans to reflect on how it went after the school year ends next month.
“Because we’re not taking it lock-stock-and-barrel we’ve done it mostly internally,” she said of the school’s decision to not boast about its adaption of Common Core like some schools. “We haven’t made a big deal about it.”
While she is waiting for the year-end assessment to find out a more detailed description of how the first year went, Jarashow is confident that the decision to try utilizing Common Core was a good one.
Said Jarashow: “If there is some sort of national standard, we ought to at least know what it is and take that into account as we work on curriculum or instruction.”