Common Core work not a waste for Horry County Schools, despite new legislation

Legislators rushed to change the hotly debated Common Core State Standards in South Carolina, but the move doesn’t derail their full implementation in the fall and may not produce substantial changes to standards beyond the 2014-15 school year.

Districts are being allowed to stay the course next year and not waste years of work spent transitioning to the standards, but the state did withdraw from the assessment consortium tied to Common Core. The standards will be evaluated by a team that can recommend changes to the Education Oversight Committee, which has legislative representation, and the S.C. Department of Education, and the goal is to have new state standards set by January, said Cindy Ambrose, chief academic officer for Horry County Schools.

“We have Common Core for a year,” Ambrose said, “but the legislation is pretty specific about what assessments have to have. No matter what the standards are, the assessments are going to be rigorous.”

The Common Core standards were developed by associations representing governors and state school chiefs as a way to set national standards for what students should know and be able to do when they graduate from any high school. Most states, including South Carolina, adopted the standards for English language arts and math, but opponents said states were coerced into adoption by the federal government.

Horry County Schools has been transitioning to Common Core since 2012, and district officials and teachers have stressed that standards are simply standards – they are not curriculum, which is developed locally by the district. Hundreds of teachers did curriculum work last summer and will work on common assessments across disciplines this summer to ensure consistency across the district.

“We don’t feel like we’ve lost anything,” Ambrose said. “We feel like we took steps in the right direction.”

Opponents to Common Core weren’t completely happy with the legislative compromise but hope the next state superintendent of education and other committees will make substantial changes to the standards.

“It was the best we could do other than outright repealing it,” said Camille Noonan with the Pee Dee chapter of S.C. Parents Involved in Education. “I still have some concerns about how the standards are going to be rewritten and hope they won’t just change a few words and call it new standards, which some states have done.”

Noonan said SCPIE, along with some education experts, thought the Common Core standards were “dumbed down” from previous S.C. standards, rather than being more rigorous. She said a big concern of hers is that Common Core doesn’t provide age-appropriate materials for students, making younger children anxious over information that is too advanced and giving racy reading materials, such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” to high school students.

“I know that children are already exposed to these things, but do we want to send them to school reading that instead of the classics?” Noonan said.

Bill Singleton also worked to repeal Common Core and said the new legislation just isn’t good enough. He said it doesn’t keep districts from using the standards, and educators are going to work to keep them in one form or another.

“From what I’m seeing, they’re going to do what they want to do,” Singleton said.

HCS Superintendent Cindy Elsberry said the district’s Common Core work has been valuable because it focused on rigor and techniques for teaching at a higher level. If Common Core had not been conceived, however, standards would still evolve toward higher-order thinking and the demonstration of skills in response to national calls to improve education and combat statistics indicating America’s status is declining globally.

“The mandate for change is there,” said Elsberry, who is in favor of having standards regularly reviewed. “In January 2015, the [new state] standards will be very, very similar, if not like what we have now. ... The content will be the same content. It’s more about how you teach it and how you assess it.”

Still, Singleton said he will continue to fight for education, even though he doesn’t have children or grandchildren in the school system.

“Somebody’s got kids in the schools who one day may be my representative, and I want them to know what a republic is,” he said.