This week, as most metro-area students head back to class, there's a fair amount of uncertainty for Missouri teachers who aren't sure what changes, if any, are coming to the Common Core academic standards they've been using for the past four years.
Elected officials have until October to name their picks for committees to review the state's academic standards. And depending on those committees' feedback, Missouri could have all-new standards in two years.
Or, schools could be given very similar expectations to the Common Core.
At Summer Academy, a three-day workshop for North Kansas City teachers, they seem to be banking on the latter. Here, education consultant Matt Glover is reading from an article about Komodo dragons.
It's a little gross.
"And they think nothing of eating their own kind. See what’s going down in the circle, below right?" reads Glover, as a few of the elementary teachers in the audience make faces. "Say goodbye to what’s left of a poor dragon, disappearing into that other dragon’s mouth.”
But Glover, who's been brought in to help these teachers make their students better writers, is trying to make a point.
“This may be one of those articles you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I will never use this with my fourth graders, it’s disgusting, they’ll never want it.’ Right?" says Glover. "Others of you are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have this article, this will absolutely engage my fourth grade students.’ There’s lots of things to be thinking about when you’re building a stack of text.”
This emphasis on teacher choice – that is, letting them make their own decisions about how to run their classrooms – is key as state education officials discuss whether nationally crafted academic standards have a place in Missouri schools.
Parents didn't question Common Core until lawmakers intervened
For the past few years, the state’s focus has been on new standards and assessments – the Common Core.
"It’s a higher level of rigor for students and seeing how we can challenge to produce on that higher level, that’s been our goal,” says NKC Director of Curriculum and Professional Development Rochel Daniels.
Right now North Kansas City is talking about literacy. Literacy in English, literacy in the other classes, too. The idea is central to the Common Core, which the state has rebranded the Missouri Learning Standards.
When the standards were adopted four years ago, Daniels says they weren’t controversial. North Kansas City changed textbooks, sent home new homework, and yet didn’t get a lot of feedback from parents. But this spring, when state lawmakers took up the issue in Jefferson City, the calls started coming in.
“They’ve had just questions about who developed these standards, why are they being accepted or denied by varying states,” says Daniels.
Missouri schools will continue to use Common Core standards, test
Missouri is one of about a half-dozen states where Common Core challenges have become law. Usually, it's teachers who are left scrambling – elsewhere, they've been asked to teach two sets of standards, or go a different direction on state tests.
But even though he signed off on lawmakers’ plan to assemble committees to review the state’s academic standards, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon says keeping Common Core, for now, is the right decision.
“I think it’s really important that Common Core will stay in effect as those committees are out there doing their work, and the funding for the testing, to make sure that we’re getting the numbers we need in a cost-effective way, are also out there,” he says.
Nixon’s approach is very different approach than Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal or Indiana’s Mike Pence, conservative governors whose rejection of the Common Core appeals to their base. Nixon even wants to keep the national Smarter Balanced test.
“When I say cost-effective, I think these consortiums like that are easier than states going simply by themselves,” Nixon adds.
Parents will get a say in what standards Missouri uses next
So if Missouri schools are keeping the Common Core standards, and keeping a Common Core test, what actually changes?
Come October, the governor, top lawmakers and state education officials will nominate parents and teachers to a panel tasked with reviewing the state’s standards, a process that's a little different than the state has done in the past.
"You know, we haven’t had parents actually come in before and study these standards," says Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter.
Potter says it will be up to teachers on the panels to convince parents – some of whom may be opposed to the Common Core on principle – that they’re the right foundation for Missouri kids.
“We’re hoping for the best," says Potter. "We’re hoping once we bring those parents together with our educators, they’ll be able to say, ‘Well, here’s what works in my classroom, what works, what doesn’t work.’”
Because at the end of the day, says Potter, standards are pretty high level stuff. It’s about setting expectations for kids at each grade level, not telling teachers exactly what to teach.
So it's sort of like the komodo dragon article – what works in some classrooms might not work as well in others.
Back in North Kansas City, Daniels, the curriculum director, says she’s already hearing from teachers who are worried about how the review might impact them.
“I’d say that overall with the standards, we anticipate they will look very similar to Common Core in many ways,” says Daniels.
And even if the state goes a different direction, Daniels says the good ideas in the Common Core aren’t going away.