thumb CommonCore Hollis Brookline and the Common Core

Have you heard about the Common Core?
It is a big topic in education these days!

The Common Core is a set of core educational standards in which students, by grade level, should be able to demonstrate competency. HB schools have been working diligently on the transition to Common Core standards, and they held a public meeting on January 30th at the High School auditorium to set a context for the changes, and to provide details on the proposed standards and the adaptive assessment test Hollis Brookline has chosen to use to replace the NECAP exams.

John Moody, Interim Superintendent of Schools for SAU41 and Cindy Matte, Assistant Superintendent, hosted the overview of the Common Core Educational Standards at the Hollis Brookline Coop Auditorium. They were joined by Assistant Principal Patti Flynn of Hollis Brookline Middle School who provided the overview of the English Language Arts component and Dot Ball, HBHS Mathematics Department Chair, who covered Math.


 Upon entering the auditorium, I was asked to sign a petition to stop the Common Core in Hollis. I explained that I came to learn more about the Common Core and was not yet in a position to say whether it needed to be stopped. As the evening went on, it became clear there were several members of the audience who came to speak against the program. This was also, a position I wanted to learn more about.

What the Common Core Is

The presenters explained that although people seem to be concerned about the Common Core curriculum, the reality is that Common Core does not specify a curriculum. The Common Core standards were defined by academics as a way of innovating US Public education to meet the needs of the 21st century. Four C's are at the heart of the Common Core: Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication and Computer Science.

Changes in emphasis include challenging students to apply critical thinking and collaboration to their problem-solving across subject-matter. This transition to 'thinking through why you're doing what you're doing' represents a departure from NECAP's 'teach-to-the-test and memorize-the-answer, then forget it', thinking. Assistant Superintendent Matte indicated that, as with the transition to NECAP, it might take as much as 3 years before test scores will begin to reflect student achievement - but she further noted this to be a normal transition period for major changes in standardized testing. For example, it took 3 years for test scores to recover after NECAP was implemented. So yes, new territory is scary, but the time-constant for change of this sort, is also predictable.

What the Common Core is Not

Some parents questioned whether the Common Core represented a dumbing down of US education. The presenters clarified that the standards represent a floor, or minimum baseline of competencies, not a ceiling. In Hollis for example, our Math teachers have been offering advanced grade-level courses for years and that will not change. Teachers continue to define lesson plans and determine the best methods for imparting desired knowledge and skills, which they stated are clearly defined in the Common Core.

In dispelling another popular myth, the slide show clarified that Common Core is not a Federally mandated program. NH's State Dept. of Education decided to adopt the Common Core standards and the Smarter Balance Assessment after an internal review. Each school district can decide whether to adopt the Common Core and The Smarter Balance Assessment. SAU41 determined the Smarter Balance Assessment to be a good choice for the online, adaptive testing and since it has been widely adopted, it helps create the desired, common baseline, similar to NECAP before it.

Opponents were distrustful of the designers of the Common Core; they indicated that they expected to have been consulted, pretty much at all junctures in the process. At times, I felt the administrators shrinking from the strong language of opponents wanting to reprimand them for their efforts to implement the new standards.

I kept listening for the arguments against Common Core. In one exchange, an audience member asked, 'So you're saying as a parent, I don't have the ability to opt my child out of the testing?" and there were indignant questions about "how is my child's personal data being collected/protected?" And my thought was, 'When did we ever have the ability to opt out of standardized school testing?' And the school is not collecting any more or less data than they ever did - so what is the outrage based on? There was a real inference that school administrators should not have any authority to conduct what is generally considered, business-as-usual, school business.

The Common Core and its adaptive computerized testing represents change. Change bothers us all to one degree or another. However, change is inevitable and our children deserve the best education our teachers can supply them. If there are issues that make implementing the Common Core Standards a losing proposition for our community, let's air them. However, I hope we can recognize innuendo-based arguments, like 'others aren't adopting it' or 'how can we know it will work?' for what they are: unproductive.

Let's continue a conversation with our educators to bring clarity around what to expect. But let's question the value of working to undo all that our state and local education professionals have accomplished in readying Hollis Brookline students to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Do we see a benefit to our schools in adopting a one-step forward, two steps back approach to updating our standards?

An Educator's View

I posed a question to the teachers about whether they thought Common Core would be good for HB students. Longtime HBHS Math Dept. Chair, Dot Ball replied, yes, I think it will be great. Ms. Ball explained earlier in the night, that unlike much of her prior teaching career, the Common Core standards require that she figure out how to make lessons relevant to the real world. She seemed very excited that it was a challenge for her as well as her students - but one that would make a positive impact on learning. I was persuaded that our educators have come up with a program they believe will help our kids better prepare for the careers of the 21st century.

The presentation went a long way toward answering my questions on what Common Core is, what it is intended to do, and how Hollis Brookline is handling the process.

I'd like to thank our teachers and administrators for their thoughtful presentation, their time and their patience. I hope the debate in our community stays positive and that the desired goal, that our children win, is an outcome upon which we all agree.