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MTA Today: Common Core 'A Really Big Reset'

Sarah Jette Sarah Marie Jette, a fourth-grade teacher at the Thompson Elementary School in Arlington, has incorporated the state's new Common Core-based Curriculum Frameworks into her teaching.

Sarah Marie Jette’s fourth-grade Arlington classroom looked like a poster for the Common Core State Standards.

During a reporter’s visit in late October, Jette’s students were busily working on iPads in the beautiful new Thompson Elementary School building, examining 19th-century photographs of children putting in long hours in the dangerous Lowell textile mills.

Nine-year-old Audrey Loeb explained, “When I first found out about this project I thought it was going to be really hard. I never did a big project like this before. But we just did it step by step, and it was easy.

“We have to find out information from a lot of different places and sort it into something,” Audrey continued. “We started out collecting photos on the iPads of people working in the mills. We had to notice what people were doing, what objects they used and what activities were going on. We wrote some sentences about what we saw.

“We also got written materials,” she added, pulling up a scan of an article from 1842. “We have to say if it was a firsthand or secondhand document, what kind of document it is, what year it was, who created it, whom it was written for and what it says. We wrote down two facts about the documents. We also watched a video that showed how the mills worked and how people who worked there weren’t getting their fair share of the money.”

Once they had collected all of their materials, the students would use the Explain Everything application to create a booklet that they could print or share online.

Off to one side in Jette’s room sat a loom that was bought with privately raised funds to supplement the project. Students have taken turns on the loom to get a feel for weaving.

Linda Hanson Arlington Education Association President Linda Hanson talks to student Jeannine Al Attal about her Lowell Mills project.

Linda Hanson, co-coordinator of K-5 literacy for Arlington, said the Lowell mills project is an ideal example of the Common Core in action.

“It’s been 20 years since the Massachusetts frameworks were established, so this is a really big reset,” said Hanson, who is also president of the Arlington Education Association. The Common Core State Standards — adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia — were incorporated into the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks in 2011. “We need to move carefully,” Hanson said. “It’s kind of like turning a barge. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Hanson said that the Common Core English language arts standards call for all students to do the kind of “higher-order thinking” that students who take Advanced Placement courses are expected to do.

“Common Core is about getting them to read more complex texts independently,” she said. “They need to handle getting information from multiple and diverse sources, to analyze them quickly and come up with an essay that uses the textual evidence to write a persuasive argument. Just summarizing what you’ve read is not enough.”

Jette, a sixth-year teacher, said it has been a challenge incorporating the new standards into her teaching while also figuring out how to use iPads in an effective way.

“Although it’s a lot of work,” she said, “I’m enjoying having fewer things to cover, but digging deeper. If you’re racing through things, it’s the hands-on exploring you miss.”

District initiatives have helped. Over the summer, Jette took part in professional development sessions on the ELA standards and learned about the increased focus on nonfiction reading and writing and the use of multiple sources.

She has also changed how she teaches math, covering fewer topics but each one in more depth. The district has adopted an updated mathematics curriculum, but her school’s math coach has had to create lessons to make sure all the new standards are addressed.

Peter Mili, a retired high school math teacher from Cambridge who serves on the National Education Association’s Common Core Working Group, said he is a fan of the new math standards.

“A lot of topics are getting a deeper look, and the new standards are reducing the amount of repetition,” he said.

Mili did express some concerns about how fast things are moving, however.

“I’m not sure there has been a sufficient phase-in period for implementing the new frameworks,” he said, adding that he has heard anecdotally that some of the requirements in the early elementary grades may prove to be too difficult.

That concern has been voiced nationally by several associations representing early childhood educators. If field testing shows that some of the standards are not age-appropriate, Mili said, “the jury is still out whether the system will be flexible enough to change.”

Another concern has been a lack of curricular materials that address all of the new standards. In some districts, teachers have been primarily responsible for finding appropriate materials.

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“My understanding is that they believe that given a set of paragraphs that are called ‘standards,’ the expectation is that everyone will come out with the same learning and the same knowledge and will be able to pass the same tests and go to college and reach all the goals that Race to the Top is hoping for,” said Susan Gilman, a teacher at the Brayton Elementary School in North Adams. “My frustration is with the lack of materials to go with that.”

In a survey of educators conducted jointly by the MTA and Teach Plus this fall, only a little more than half of the teachers surveyed said they were prepared to teach the Common Core. Support for the Common Core was also divided, but was significantly higher among those who had received training in the standards.

Despite the frustrations expressed by some educators, Massachusetts is considered by many to be the state most likely to succeed at implementing the Common Core, in part because many of the standards were based on the former Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

In addition, Massachusetts is a higher-income state whose students perform the best in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. If Common Core doesn’t work well here, it is unlikely to succeed in states with fewer resources and lower levels of educational attainment.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests have already begun to incorporate items that reflect the new standards, but the real measure will come if and when the state fully adopts a new assessment being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

PARCC is a consortium of 18 states plus the District of Columbia that is developing a system to measure mastery of the Common Core. Another 25 states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands are backing a different assessment developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

PARCC is being field tested in Massachusetts and most other PARCC states this spring. PARCC has two required parts, a Performance Based Assessment administered in March and April and an End of Year Assessment administered in May and June. Sample items can be found at www.parcconline.org.

Approximately 15 percent of students in 1,300 schools and 340 districts in Massachusetts will take different parts of the test this spring. Students who take the longer PBA section will not have to take the MCAS as well.

This field test is designed to help the test makers create appropriate items and to work out issues with test administration. PARCC is designed as an online tool to assess the kinds of higher-order thinking that Hanson, of Arlington, talked about. Like Jette’s Lowell mills project, some test items will include audio or video segments along with written texts.

“It’s a 21st-century assessment,” said Jeff Nellhaus, a former education official from Massachusetts who is now heading up development of PARCC for Achieve, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that convenes leaders from across states to tackle common challenges.

Nellhaus acknowledged that many schools do not have enough computers and Internet bandwidth to allow all students to take the test online.

“We recognize that not everyone’s going to be ready in the 2014-2015 school year to administer the test online, so we’re going to have paper versions as well,” he said. “By the third year we’re hoping that the vast majority of schools will be able to do this online.”

Nellhaus said that the field test will help the developers determine whether students perform better on the paper or online version and start setting performance levels.

Asked about how quickly PARCC results will be useful for purposes of school and district accountability and educator evaluations, Nellhaus said those are decisions that have to be made state by state.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to vote in the late fall of 2015 on whether to replace the MCAS with PARCC. The BESE voted on Nov. 19 to implement the following transition schedule:

  • Spring 2014: Field test PARCC.
  • Spring 2015: Districts choose whether to administer PARCC or MCAS. Students will take one test or the other, but not both.
  • Spring 2016: If adopted, PARCC is administered to students in grades three to eight statewide. The Grade 10 MCAS test will be used as a graduation requirement at least through the class of 2018.

While policymakers and education advocates are already grappling with the implications of changing the state’s entire assessment system, most classroom teachers are like Arlington’s Jette, who is working double-time to teach the new standards and comply with a multitude of other mandates and initiatives.

She is glad her class will be field testing one of the PARCC assessments in the spring.

“That will be a good opportunity for us to get a sense of it,” Jette said. “But I’m not really thinking about PARCC yet. I have too much else to do.”