As debate continues, Common Core curriculum supporters make their case

At right, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie offered his support for the Common Core as part of a panel with Assistant Superintendent Irene Parisi. –Ken Borsuk

At right, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie offered his support for the Common Core as part of a panel with Assistant Superintendent Irene Parisi. –Ken Borsuk

As the debate continues about the merits and effectiveness of the federally created guidelines for school curriculum more commonly known as the “Common Core,” those in favor of the program attempted to sell it to the district.

At a special presentation on Oct. 28 at Central Middle School, the Greenwich League of Women Voters and the Greenwich Alliance for Education presented a panel discussing the Common Core and how it was being implemented in Greenwich. Greenwich Superintendent of Schools Superintendent William McKersie and Assistant Superintendent Irene Parisi were part of that panel, along with Don Romoser, president of the Connecticut PTA, and two Greenwich public school teachers, Megan Roby from Greenwich High School and Kathleen Smith-Ramirez from North Mianus School. Right from the start the members of the panel made it clear they are all in favor of the Common Core and believe it can achieve great results in Greenwich.

But noting the skepticism that has developed around the guidelines, they said they wanted to show the facts. The Common Core has become a topic of much political debate, with some on the right opposing it because of what they see as federal mandates removing control of the classroom from local teachers and administrators and some on the left opposing it because of what they see as an over-reliance on standardized testing, putting too much stress on students while ignoring a broader curriculum and becoming burdensome on teachers.

Each member of the panel gave a presentation and then written questions were taken from the audience to be asked by Alliance Executive Director Julie Faryniarz. Mr. Romoser said it was important to stress that the Common Core was a set of standards, not a universal curriculum. He said the standards are supposed to say what you should learn when you leave high school but the question of how it’s learned is still left at the local level. Dr. McKersie spoke out as a passionate defender of the Common Core and also touched on that theme while saying it was “full speed ahead” with it in Greenwich.

“We view the Common Core as the floor, not the ceiling,” Dr. McKersie said. “This is the baseline. You bump your head against the ceiling. We don’t want our students bumping their heads. This is the base and we want our students to go as high as possible. We control the curriculum. The Common Core sets what students are supposed to be able to do and what they should accomplish in reading, writing and math, but it’s up to us in Greenwich to determine the curriculum. It’s up to us in Greenwich to determine lesson plans. It’s up to us in Greenwich to support teachers  to implement the Common Core correctly. This is the Connecticut Common Core set at the state level, but we control everything else.”

Ms. Parisi, the assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and professional learning for the district, did not minimize the impact of the Common Core. She called it “the most sweeping reform in Connecticut that has ever occurred” and said “there’s no single document that will have played a more influential role in what we do in our classrooms and in our schools.” Because of that, she said, it was critical to understand what the Common Core was.

“I believe that the Connecticut Core standards is a call to accelerate our students and improve their literacy achievement, whether we think they’re ready or not for it,” Ms. Parisi said. “The standards certainly don’t mean we have to add more to the curriculum or even implement Core initiatives. But what they do mean is that it’s not a new name for the old business, and it is my belief, having read these over and over again, that they demand we reignite our passion for teaching and that we have to think differently and create a movement and actually innovate in our classrooms.”

Dr. McKersie acknowledged that the Common Core was still a “hot topic,” though he offered hope that the debate was dying down.

“We’re in a political tussle, and anyone who’s been around public education for a long time knows that when you get into important topics, you get into political tussles,” Dr. McKersie said. “It’s democracy. That’s healthy. That’s normal. That’s a lot of what’s going on with Common Core right now. A set of political concerns are being played out through the Common Core, which is who really should make the decisions about what goes on for our children’s learning? Should it be at the state level? The national level? The federal level? What about philanthropy? You hear Bill Gates’ name mentioned a lot. … There are all kinds of issues about control, but what’s important is that at the heart of these standards, they are state of the art. They are based on some 35 years of work developing standards.”

Dr. McKersie told people in attendance that the standards were not developed just by lawyers, politicians and policy makers but “by a wide mix of people” with education experience. He said that while the standards differ from grade level to grade level, they are all built around a common idea, allowing for better communication between teachers.

“It gives a structure that we’ve not had in this country,” Dr. McKersie said. “They’re truly rigorous and they’re complicated, but they do allow teachers to make all kinds of choices about what they will teach or not teach.”

In regard to the debate over the Common Core, Dr. McKersie urged people to “pay attention to the opponents of the Common Core” because it was based on a “growing weariness of too much assessment, particularly among parents.” Dr. McKersie said the Common Core was separate from assessment, and they’d been mistakenly put together in people’s minds. He said he understood why there was that weariness with assessment and it had to be addressed by better pacing assessment for both students and teachers with the implementation of the standards in Connecticut.

“If people actually get into the Common Core and read and study it, a lot of those frustrations go away,” Dr. McKersie said.

In his comments, Mr. Romoser discussed the history of the Common Core, saying it was created in response to the United States’ slipping behind other countries in international education rankings over the last decades. He stated that it then grew out of the idea of having a more common standard throughout the nation from state to state, allowing for collaboration “across the whole educational system to get students ready for 21st-Century learning.”

Mr. Romoser cited the ACT standardized testing college readiness ranking in which of the only 29% Connecticut students who actually took the test, 14% were found not to be college-ready in English. For reading that number grew to 35%, and in math 31% were not ready for college-level math. The science numbers went up to 41% being unprepared for the college curriculum, and he gave that as a reason for pushing the new standards.

This has an economic impact, too, Mr. Romoser said, noting the unfilled jobs in Connecticut because companies can’t find qualified candidates and claiming findings that by 2018 there would be 162,000 unfilled jobs in the state alone for fields covering engineering and science. He said there were 2.8 unfilled science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs for every unemployed person in Connecticut and that simply preparing students better for those kinds of jobs would lower unemployment. Mr. Romoser said that further statistics also show that students are not being adequately prepared.

“Nationwide, 30% of high school graduates cannot pass the military entrance exam,” Mr. Romoser said. “This is not something the military can say yes or no to. If you don’t pass the entrance exam you can’t go into the military. It’s a big problem for our military when we’ve automatically disqualified 30% of students for academic reasons.”

Mr. Romoser also discussed the “highly mobile” nature of society today, saying one in six third graders had attended three schools or more. Because of that, a common set of standards, he claimed, could help reduce adjustment time and allow for better achievement and better preparation for the jobs that will be out there in the 21st Century. Mr. Romoser said the standards were created with the input of trade schools, community colleges, training programs, business and industry, and even the Department of Defense to see what they needed and expected a high school graduate to know when they sought job applicants, a statement that unintentionally touched a common criticism among Common Core critics from the left that the entire program was done with far too much corporate influence, taking away the ability of teachers to determine what is taught in the classroom.

“These standards are based on what children need to know as they move into adulthood to be successful and be career- and college-ready,” Mr. Romoser said. “That’s what the Common Core standards are all about.”

In implementing the common core standards, Dr. McKersie said, “teacher support is essential” and more had to be done to help teachers. While there has been debate and opposition among professional teachers throughout the country about the merits and implementation of the Common Core, the two teachers on the panel were fully in support of it.

Ms. Roby, who teaches ninth grade global studies, 11th grade AP United States government and AP comparative government, said she was speaking from the point of view of both a teacher in the classroom and someone who had helped write the department’s curriculum. She said the goal was for teachers to use the Common Core material and get students to think critically. Ms. Roby said she and her fellow teachers want to apply the skill set of the Common Core to the lesson plans they have developed.

“I think that there’s a misconception out there that we’re being told by the federal government or by these Common Core standards what my content should be in the classroom and what my lesson should be about,” Ms. Roby said. “That is not what the standards are about.”

Ms. Smith-Ramirez also discussed how she’s been able to use the guidelines at the K-5 level to create “real world connections” for the curriculum that’s being developed so students see there is a reason for learning it other than “it’s in the textbook.”

“The Common Core is not the curriculum,” Ms. Smith-Ramirez said. “The curriculum is still the curriculum and there’s still differentiation for every child.”

More information about the district’s role in the Common Core is available online at A video of the panel was recorded for broadcast on Channel 78 on local cable systems.

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