STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Schools working to implement Common Core despite political controversy

Frankie Riley and Emily Rau can tell you all about their own school's educational philosophy, but don't know much about the common core. Their school has has little trouble implementing the standards thus far.
Sarah Alvarez

A brief update on exactly where the state stands with the Common Core State Standards to refresh our collective memory is probably in order.

Michigan’s Board of Education has adopted the educational standards designed for students across the country. But last spring the legislature,concerned primarily, although not exclusivelyabout local control, made it impossible for the state to spend any money implementing the Common Core. At the time, Governor Snyder essentially said policy makers would revisit the issue in the Fall.

Well, it’s Fall. 

'The standards are now starting to catch up'

Schools all over Michigan are back in session and integrating the standards into their classrooms, eager to get students ready to be tested on the new standards possibly as early as 2015.  As for the politics, state lawmakers are likely to revisit the standards tomorrow.

At Owosso Middle School in Shiawassee County, the transition to the Common Core has been relatively smooth.  When I visited students were working together in small groups, using books, ipads and conversation to figure out what in the Constitution is most important to them. One seventh grader picked the often overlooked 16th Amendment, which gives the federal government the power to tax. 

As unconventional as that choice may seem, it is in line with what is going on here at Owosso. The school wants students to think critically, above and beyond memorizing amendments. Owosso’s is an International Baccalaureate, or IB school. The educational philosophy is really important to teachers here. Seventh graders I spoke to knew about the program and liked it. 

But when I asked these same students if they knew about the Common Core, they said they had "heard of it," but that it had not been explained to them. 

Well, let me try. The Common Core sets out concepts kids should master in Math and Language Arts every school year from kindergarten through the end of high school. An example of a middle school standards is to be able to tell the difference, when you’re reading, between a fact, an opinion, and a reasonable assumption. 

In Owosso, this aligns pretty closely to what the teachers had been doing under IB. That is perhaps why Owosso Middle School Principal Rich Collins isn’t too worried about the new standards or even the new Smarter Balanced test.

"The standards are now starting to catch up with what we've always believed," he says. "So, it's just been a natural fit."

That has been a relief to Collins, because the district has already invested 10 years and a fair amount of cash implementing their existing teaching model. And even though the district does an impressive job at stretching funds and going after available grants, it is rural and almost 70% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. It is therefore a relief not to have more additional expenses associated with the Common Core.

Implementation takes money

It is a somewhat different story in the next town over. Morriceis about 20 minutes away, but with just more than 600 students in the district compared with more than 3,000 in Owosso , it is more cash strapped.  In Morrice, High School principal William Heath does double duty as district Superintendent.

Morrice has been working to implement the Common Core for about two years, and did not already have a curriculum that hewed closely to it. Even so, teachers eating brown bag lunches around a table in the teachers’ lounge all said they really liked the Common Core. But it is likely to cost money to fully implement it in their classrooms.

"If you have, let's say a science unit on weather, originally it was taught in fourth grade and now it's moving to first grade," fifth grade teacher Tammy Smith explained, "Those first graders aren't going to be able to read the materials at the fourth grade level. So, you're going to have to find the resources to bring it down to their level."

Knowing the financial reality in the district, teachers put together a modest wish list of ideas to implement Common Core on a shoestring. They asked for example, for a couple of subscriptions to educational websites. Superintendent Heath said he's doing his best to provide the items on the list. He also said what they would all really like is a new textbook series, but a $10,000 price tag puts it out of reach.

In that sense, sixth grade teacher Karen Kennedy says the recent controversy in the state legislature over Common Core has been a distraction for teachers. "I would have been really annoyed if they would have thrown it out altogether," she says, "because we had already put so much work into it. But now that it seems to have settled down I try to ignore the politics."

And the politics may be cooling off a little. But even if lawmakers allow state funds to be spent on implementing the standards, that money will probably be earmarked for technical assistance. It won’t, for example, help teachers in Morrice get new materials. Given that, Morrice Superintendent Heath's plan is to try to give the teachers who have already been trying to find ways to implement the standards a few more opportunities to learn and grow.

In every district, it is in large part teachers on whom the success of the Common Core depends.

Correction: An earlier version of this story transposed the last names of the girls in the photograph.