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New US education standards call for overhaul

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - What do children learn in school?

They learn math, of course, and reading and language arts, as well as science and social studies and a slew of softer subjects.

But beyond that, the answer is murkier. It's also evolving.

This year, West Virginia will continue to implement its version of the federal Common Core state education standards. Those standards were developed by groups of educators with support from the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the nonprofit group Achieve.

So far, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, though many have tweaked them to meet their state's needs. West Virginia's version is called the Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives. States are allowed to add up to 15 percent of their own material to the national standards.

The state Department of Education hopes to have those standards implemented by the 2014-15 school year. Adoption began with kindergarten in 2011; grades have been added each year since.

That means a major overhaul in the classroom for most teachers.

"It really is tremendous in some instances," said Karen Nowviskie, director of elementary schools for Putnam County.

"Some things that a teacher has taught for years they have to let go of now, and that's hard sometimes. Some things they just have to look at differently."

Nowviskie was at a two-day Common Core training session for Putnam County teachers at Buffalo High School. That training - and similar sessions being held across the state all summer - brought the county's teachers together to learn the differences between West Virginia's old standards and the Common Core standards.

Revisions to education standards mean teachers will need to make revisions to individual lesson plans as well as, in some cases, the overarching principles behind teaching certain skills.

So far, Common Core mainly affects reading, language arts and math. In reading, the new standards place an increased emphasis on primary source texts - instead of reading about the Magna Carta, children may read the actual document. In math, the new standards do more to specify what students should learn at each grade level so there is continuity across the board.

Those differences are not insignificant. Some education experts have debated whether the new standards are actually that different from the old ones, but an independent study found that the standards West Virginia developed in tandem with Common Core are much more rigorous.

"Despite a few bright spots, the lack of clarity and specificity . . . impacts not only the document's readability but also, ultimately, the content and rigor of the standards themselves," the study read.

That review, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, rated West Virginia's old standards for reading and language arts with a grade of D. The new Common Core standards got a B-plus.

"West Virginia's standards are among the worst in the country," the report reads, saying that the new standards are "significantly superior to what the Mountain State has in place today."

The same review gave West Virginia's old math standards a B grade while the new standards got an A-minus.

In general, Common Core is trying to guide students toward careers after graduation.

The goal is to standardize benchmarks for students in schools across the state and country. Common Core spells out what students should know and when they should learn it across all grade levels.

"We know that in order to give our students a level playing field, we have to deepen their understanding and their knowledge," Nowviskie said. "It shouldn't matter what their zip code is; they should get an education just as good as anyone else does."

When the Common Core initiative was launched in 2009, it went largely unnoticed beyond the education community. But recently, it has sparked criticism from conservatives who see the effort to standardize as a push for nationalization of education.

A new group, West Virginians Against Common Core, has cropped up, led by state Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants. The group had an audience with the state Board of Education during its regular meeting last week. 

Boley said she takes issue with the top-down approach. Instead, she says, West Virginia should be focusing on homegrown solutions that are specific to its schoolchildren.

"I was truly disappointed when I saw that my granddaughter would be learning like this," Boley said.

State education officials have continued to defend Common Core and to tout the local involvement in tweaking the standards to fit West Virginia's needs.

"We believe that the West Virginia Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives are clear and straightforward," Gayle Manchin, vice president of the state Board of Education, said in a statement.

"These standards were developed by West Virginia teachers. The standards will equip students with the necessary skills to compete with their peers from across the globe."

And complaints about Common Core have mainly been in the political sphere. Educators say their conversations about the new standards have been largely positive.

"I haven't heard any complaints in any of the training sessions I've been to," said Rochelle Williams, a teacher at Poca Elementary School.

Williams has been to plenty of training sessions related to Common Core. She has been fully trained in the new standards and was at the recent training session at Buffalo High School as an instructor.

She said the teachers she has dealt with have been largely removed from the political debate, instead focusing on student learning and the shifts they need to make in their classrooms as they implement the new standards.

"I hear no negative things, nothing from inside the trenches," she said. "I think teachers are happy to do this for the kids, to try to help them build skills this way."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.

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