by Sara Neufeld, The Hechinger Report
In the beginning, Pennsylvania was going to be like most other states, following a new set of national education standards and administering new national standardized tests.
But a lot has happened since 2010, when the state signed on to participate in what’s known as Common Core, an initiative designed to make the United States more globally competitive by ensuring students’ ability to meet basic benchmarks.
A Democratic administration turned Republican, and Gov. Tom Corbett took seriously conservatives concerned about the federal government infringing on states’ rights. In March 2012, Pennsylvania officials released their own document, known as the Pennsylvania Core Standards, which they call a hybrid between the national Common Core and the state’s own guidelines.
How reliable are tests in measuring what really matters for 21st-century learning? And should high-stakes tests really be used as a punitive evaluation of teacher quality? With all the controversy surrounding standardized tests and cheating, it’s time for teachers, parents, districts and policymakers to consider alternatives.
South Philadelphia senior Marcus Johnson stands at the front of his classroom eager to give his presentation on mammals. But there are no poster board cutouts here, no sketches across a blackboard, no pages borrowed from an animal encyclopedia. Johnson, with his back to a class that has iMacs and iPads, works the keys on his laptop computer with the focus of an engineer in a computer lab. After a few clicks, he turns to face his peers, and the website he designed – which gives vivid images and rich content about the animals he loves so much – fills the interactive projector at the front of the room.
Zach Morales learned early that high school would go more smoothly if he kept certain things to himself.
But privately, the unassuming teen is proud of his passion for reading. So he hesitates for only a moment before opening the door to his small bedroom.
"I have a vast collection of books," says Morales, sweeping an arm towards shelves packed with horror novels, Harry Potter books, and biographies of professional wrestlers.
"Every book in this bookcase, I've actually read," he proclaims.
There were sighs of relief in Philadelphia schools this winter when District leaders announced they will no longer mandate the use of scripted curricula. This was the first clear reversal of a burgeoning trend to narrow what is taught and prioritize drill on the discrete skills measured by state exams.
If you've never heard of the Common Core standards, it's time to take note: They could have a big effect on what students will learn – and maybe also on the tests that measure their progress.
Mathematics teacher Brad Latimer has a raft of strategies to help his students learn challenging algebra and calculus.
On a recent day, he started with a “warmup” question, challenging his senior calculus students to create a formula for calculating the area of a trapezoid. “It’s perfectly possible,” Latimer assured them.
Marilynn Holmes has taught 1st grade at Isaac A. Sheppard Elementary in West Kensington since 1968. A native of a coal-mining "company town" near Pittsburgh and a graduate of what was then known as Cheyney State College, she's been a first-hand witness to 40 years of curriculum changes.
Holmes works at a school that has been targeted for closure due to its low enrollment and aging facilities, but she is quick to laugh about all the challenges she's faced. She worries less about the specifics of the District's curriculum than she does about its dwindling resources.
Here are the highlights of our conversation with Holmes, who talked about the changes she's seen and the advice she'd offer the next superintendent.