How MPS Is Improving Instruction
Common Core Standards are changing schools here and statewide, but Tea Party Republicans object.
Across the country, schools are adopting what are called the Common Core State Standards, hoping to standardize learning in schools, improve student achievement, and align curriculum with the kinds of skills measured by the ACT and other tests. Sounds sensible, but the standards have increasingly become a red flag for Republicans.
As recently as January 2012, a state task force headed up by Governor Scott Walker and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers saluted the Common Core as “a set of rigorous new standards that are benchmarked against the standards of high performing countries” and “create a common set of expectations for children across the country.”
“Wisconsin was among the first of 48 states and territories to adopt the Common Core State Standards,” the task force approvingly noted. That was back in 2010, and Milwaukee Public Schools quickly jumped aboard, beginning a three-year effort to overhaul its curriculum. The state Department of Public Instruction, the task force noted, is updating state standards for all schools to “to ensure… alignment with the Common Core State Standards” and “fidelity of implementation. “
Needless to say, that creates a huge problem for Scott Walker, who hopes to enter the 2016 Republican presidential primary as the favored conservative. That might explain why he declined to discuss the issue with the Journal Sentinel in May and with Hertel this week. The standards he was just celebrating in January are now seen as the mark of the devil.
Republican legislators amended the state budget in May to require a review of the Common Core standards and a study of the costs associated with them. It seems like locking the barn after the horse has gone: state schools have been gradually implementing these standards since 2010.
The standards are tougher and more specific compared to the “incredibly general” state standards of the past, DPI specialist Emilie Amundson told Hertel. In essence they are intended to put more emphasis on conceptual learning and critical thinking: less about facts (what year was the Battle of Gettysburg?) and more about higher learning (what were the causes of the Civil War?).
MPS began adopting the language arts standards in the 2010 school year and the math standards in the 2011-2012 year. Ultimately the textbooks may be closely aligned with the new curriculum, but for now the old textbooks are used, not necessarily in chronological order, to build learning in the manner prescribed by the standards.
Have all teachers fully implemented the standards? “It varies dramatically from school to school,” says Milwaukee School Board member Terry Falk. “It’s easy to find schools that haven’t.”
But Tina Flood, MPS Chief Academic Officers, says the system’s internal test, the MAP or Measures of Academic Progress test, is showing improvements by students on average. She also says there are “early indicators” that the new curriculum may be improving the performance of MPS students on the ACT test. “It does inspire more critical thinking,” she says of the Common Core standards.
It was Falk who back in 2007 introduced a resolution to require all MPS juniors to take the ACT test. If the resolution is passed, “we are going to see more kids going to college, and we are going to see more kids staying in college,” Falk predicted. Ultimately, the resolution was adopted and MPS now devotes a school day to testing all juniors; in the past students took the test on their own.
The percent of MPS students taking the test has risen from 48 percent in 2009 to 89 percent in 2013. Statewide, just 71 percent of students take the test. As to Falk’s prediction, MPS data also shows the percent of MPS graduates pursuing a post-secondary education has risen by 8 percent in that time.
Of course, under Superintendent Gregory Thornton, MPS has taken other steps to encourage graduates to enroll in a vocational or four-year college. MPS has created two College Access offices on 27th and Fond du Lac and on 27th and Morgan which are open daily all summer and evenings and weekends during the school year. Each is staffed by a licensed high school counselor and aides who provide information and help to students and families.
Thornton has also pushed the system to enhance its efforts to help students gain scholarships. Scholarship money going to students grew from $18 million in 2012 to $24 million in 2013.
Finally, Thornton has pushed to bring back art, music and phy ed courses, which had been jettisoned by MPS (and many other school systems) in the push to emphasize basic skills. There is abundant research that art and music instruction has spillover benefits, helping students excel in other courses.
All of these changes seem sensible to me, but it remains to be seen what their impact will be.
Statewide, the adoption of the Common Core standards came about the same time as a plan that will require all juniors state-wide to take the ACT test. That may result in the state’s high ranking on the test to decline. This year, Wisconsin tied with Iowa for the second-highest composite ACT score, but there were 20 states where a higher percentage of students took the test. And the more students who take the test, the lower the average score. In states like Illinois, which greatly increased the percent of student test takers, the average score went down.
Of course some of those states were for first time giving the test to all students in high-poverty, lower achieving big city schools. Wisconsin, because MPS has already made this change, may not decline as dramatically in its ranking.
Whatever the results, it seems likely some Republican legislators may be pushing to overhaul the state’s curriculum standards yet again. Small wonder some teachers resist these changes when they come.
Come Celebrate our Birthday
Urban Milwaukee will celebrate its fifth anniversary this Friday, August 30th, on the rooftop of the Milwaukee Athletic Club, starting at 6 p.m. All of our readers are invited. I’ll be there, along with Dave and Jeramey and many of our contributors, and we’d love to see you. It’s free but you must RSVP here.