By John Finnerty
State education officials told a House panel Monday that fears about changes to state educational standards are largely based on misconceptions about what the changes mean. Most lawmakers on the Education Committee seemed to buy the argument, but critics remain unconvinced.
Pennsylvania is in the midst of adopting Common Core standards, modeled on national standards developed under the leadership of the National Governors Association and Council of Chief School Officers, spurred by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The connection with the national Common Core standards has fueled controversy over whether the initiative will result in Pennsylvania schools losing control over what is taught in the classroom. To temper those fears, the state has added language to clarify that the standards will not interfere with school districts’ authority to set curriculum and purchase textbooks and will not include any provision to collect additional data about students, said Carolyn Dumaresq, executive deputy director of the Department of Education.
The Common Core push is intended to help ensure that students graduate from high school ready for work, college or the military. Critics argue that the state has not adequately explained how the change in standards will achieve that goal.
Republican Rep. Kathy Rapp of Warren County was the most skeptical lawmaker on the House Education Committee. After the hearing, Rapp, who worked as an advocate for special needs students before going into politics, said her experience has been that regardless of what state education officials say, things play out differently “in the trenches.”
She questioned the state’s plan for using online remediation as a tool to help students catch up once they have fallen behind on the standards.
Rapp said that parents have told her that their children have been parked in online remediation sessions without any teacher oversight. In response to Rapp’s question, Dumaresq said the state does not yet have any data about whether the online remediation is effective.
Most on the House Education Committee are satisfied with the state’s efforts and argued that halting use of the new standards would bedevil schools that have already invested time and energy in buying textbooks and training teachers.
Republican Rep. C. Adam Harris of Juniata County signed on as a cosponsor of a bill that would bar the state from rolling out the Common Core standards without the approval of the Legislature. Monday, Harris said he initially had reservations about the move toward the Common Core. But the more he’s learned about the effort, the more comfortable he has become with it.
After the Education Committee hearing, Harris said he was satisfied the state’s approach still provided sufficient local control.
Democratic Rep. Mark Longietti of Mercer County said that if McDonald’s can make a hamburger taste the same at all locations, it is unclear why people believe that schools across the country should not be expected to meet the same quality standards.
Superintendent Dr. C. Joyce Nicksick of the Wilmington Area School District in Lawrence County said she is not particularly opposed to Common Core. There are members of her local school board who are opposed to the new standards, she said.
Nicksick said she is more worried that the new standards are part of a raft of dramatic changes handed down by the state in a short period of time — including new teacher and principal evaluations, the Keystone Exams, and student projects for those who flunk the Keystone Exams.
Small, rural school districts are often not as wealthy as other districts, which will make it tougher to cope with the changes and adjust to the needs of their students quickly, Nicksick said.
“I don’t want to sound like we don’t want accountability,” Nicksick said. “I just wish we had a level playing field.”
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.