District calls for Common Core Standards support

Stutzman: Bill to ditch standards is ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’

By Sarah Pridgeon


With the Legislature considering a bill that could see the Wyoming Common Core Standards ditched completely, Superintendent Byron Stutzman and Curriculum Director Teresa Brown are concerned about the local impact. The standards are just what our schools need, they say, and a lot of work has already gone into implementing them.

House Bill 97 modifies the process of adopting the standards and establishes an advisory council. It also prohibits participation in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which creates tests to measure a student’s progress according to the Common Core Standards.

But evaluation of the Common Core Standards has already taken place, says Stutzman – four years ago. Though he was in Idaho at the time, he believes the process was not much different here.

“We’ve done this process of vetting out the standards already. We had the open meetings, we had discussion about a Common Core state standard and, in Idaho, it was at the teacher level,” he says.

“I understand that people need to understand what has happened, but do we need to do it again?”

The standards are an improvement on what the schools were working with before, he says, and have been developed with plenty of assistance from teachers in the classroom.

“There has been a lot of input from stakeholders, mainly educators, and that’s why I think they’re such a good set of standards to go by,” he nods.

Brown stresses that the standards have not been developed by anonymous faces on the other side of the nation, but by our own Crook County educators. It’s a “very organic” process, she says.

“We have teachers who were on the committee to review these standards and we have two teachers right now developing questions to assess our students – it’s our people doing it,” Brown goes on.

“The reality [if they do get rid of the standards] is that we waste the human and physical resources we’ve already expended for the last two years.”

For Stutzman, the frustration lies in the amount of time and effort that Wyoming educators have spent to get the standards right.

“It may not be perfect, but we will continue to work to get it right – let’s don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he says.

“These two young teachers, who are strong academically and energetic, are working hard to make this right – to make it perfect and the best thing for our students.”

Stutzman and Brown believe that much of the backlash against the Common Core Standards stems from misconceptions. The standards are worth the effort of implementation, they say.

“This has been a two-year implementation and will continue to be implemented. My hope is that, if [the Legislature] do go down that pathway of changing the standards, they will allow the school boards to adopt their own,” says Stutzman.

“We’ve put so much time and effort into this district, getting the rigor put in place, that I would strongly suggest we continue with that same set of standards.”

One of the most common misconceptions, says Stutzman, is that the Wyoming Common Core Standards are federally mandated. They were in fact created by a group of 42 state superintendents of education with the help of educational professionals all the way up from the classroom.

“It was a coalition of superintendents taking direction from principals and teachers,” he explains. “How we teach it doesn’t have to be the same, the standards are a level of ability, knowledge or competency.”

Idaho immediately changed the name, he adds, and is now calling them the Idaho State Standards. This helped to negate the impression of federal oversight.

Nor do the Common Core Standards remove local control over what is taught to our kids and how, Stutzman says. To illustrate, he explains that the Common Core Standards are a lot like the high jump.

“[It’s like saying that] at third grade everybody must jump six feet – well, I can guarantee you that most third graders aren’t going to make that bar and it’s maybe one in a million who can. That’s an unrealistic standard for that grade level,” he says.

“They have taken the time to set those standards at the level that they should be. Your average student should be able to do this coursework.”

With the standards in place, it is the responsibility of the county to decide how to implement them.

“How we teach it in Crook County is up to us – the curriculum we use, the techniques we use and the instruction is up to us at the local level,” Stutzman says. “We’re not going to change the way we teach. What we will change is the level of rigor in how we teach.”

Brown is also adamant that educators and school districts have not experienced any loss of local control in selecting the materials and strategies to implement the standards.

“Although we have consistent targets, we have the autonomy to make decisions at a local level regarding the materials and strategies that best meet the needs of our students and are consistent with Wyoming’s values and traditions,” she says.

“We are able to choose from the many available resources while remaining true to our Wyoming roots.”

Some opponents of the Common Core Standards have claimed that they dictate too strongly what must be taught and are not necessarily appropriate for children of different backgrounds. A child in Wyoming, for example, will not have the same background and experience as a child in New York City.

“The great thing is that the kids in New York City will be able to read exactly as well as our kids. We would just teach ours differently, using the foundation of where our kids come from,” says Stutzman.

“Our students come to us with a certain foundation. If they come to us from an agricultural or mining family, they know certain things and a great teacher will utilize that to build on.”

The standards are bringing more relevance to the students, says Brown, rather than detracting from it.

“I had a question from one of our legislators on whether this is going to impede our elective classes – ag, business and so on,” she says. “Absolutely not, because it’s where the relevance comes to the learning.”

These elective classes are all now tied in to science, math, language arts and reading to create this connection, says Stutzman.

“It’s what we should have been doing with education all along – it’s what great teachers do,” he nods.

According to Brown, the Wyoming Common Core Standards overall are well-articulated and rigorous.

“As educators, we appreciate a challenging set of standards, which clearly set the targets for our students and teachers,” she says.

“In addition, we appreciate that they are grade specific, which helps our teachers to identify their specific responsibilities to their students.”

Another positive aspect is the consistency they bring throughout the nation, she says, which has seen Crook County’s students already connect with others across the country. At present, for example, one class is communicating via Skype with another class in Kansas that is studying the same material.

“This enables educators to communicate with common language and terminology as we network with other educators,” Brown says.

“It’s refreshing to be able to collaborate with teachers from around the nation as we adjust our instruction, materials and assessments to align with our new standards. We appreciate the opportunity to share with and borrow from other educators – it’s powerful to collaborate on such a large scale.”

Brown calls for the community to support the standards, particularly bearing in mind the considerable work that has already been done to align the district’s instruction, curricular materials and assessments to the new Wyoming Content and Performance Standards.

“We all share the goal of having Wyoming’s students be amongst the top in the nation and we believe that these standards will help us achieve that goal,” she says.

Stutzman, too, suggests that the Wyoming Common Core Standards deserve to be pursued.

“Teachers need to educate themselves on what this does for them. We all need to – I need to educate myself better on what the standards are, I don’t know them fully yet,” he says.

“We need to utilize our staff and help them implement the rigor that is there in the Common Core Standards. Just like the snowflakes falling out there, every kid is different – we need to be able to change education to fit the child, not change the child to fit education.”

If you are interested in reading more about the Wyoming Common Core Standards, brief guides to each grade level are available on the district website at crook1.com in the Curriculum section. Click the link underneath the heading “Four Page Parent’s Guide to Student Success” to view the documents.

“It talks about every grade level and what a kid will need by the end of it,” says Brown.

The guides also include advice for parents on communicating with teachers and ideas for home activities to help your child.

 Local control concerns still exist

Some educational stakeholders are concerned about the Common Core Standards being introduced to Wyoming’s school districts. As explained by Ted Davis, local home-schooler and concerned citizen, many believe that they remove local control over the education of children and have inherent problems.

Top of the list of concerns, he said, is that the standards will be implemented nationwide, but not all students learn or are taught the same way, at the same rate or with the same focus.

These standards, he says, will systematically force all learning down the same route through the same standardized tests, dictating up to 85 percent of the curriculum and reducing the freedom of teachers on what and how they teach.

Another strong concern is that the standards are aimed at “college and career readiness,” rather than at life skills in general. The purpose of education, said Davis, is not to narrow down the information that kids choose to pursue in the future and, for example, discard an understanding of literature for the sake of being able to read software instruction manuals.

Davis also explained that organizations such as Wyoming Liberty are opposed to the standards because they remove freedom of thought from both parents and students, reducing the influence of parents and limiting the material covered in order to standardize it across the nation.

The Common Core Standards have been accepted in 45 states, which at first glance seems to imply they must be of value, said Davis. On deeper inspection, however, these states may have been forced to accept the standards to keep receiving federal funding from such programs as Race to the Top and the description of Common Core as “state standards” is an illusion that masks the reality of “federal standards,” which many citizens would have been less willing to accept.

Finally, Davis pointed to the results of PAWS testing in Natrona County last year, where the Common Core curriculum had already begun to be implemented. These results showed a significant drop; if the new standards really are better, he asked, should the results not have blown those from previous years out of the water?

“These standards are constantly described as ‘rigorous and relevant’,” he said. “But what is it that’s rigorous about them?”