Eau Claire (WQOW) - Bury your nose in the book. That's how many of us learned in school.
The approach was simple and successful for a lot of kids, but not for all. That's one reason Wisconsin's education standards are undergoing a major overhaul. Wisconsin, along with 44 other states, adopted new benchmarks for math and language arts called the Common Core State Standards. That was three years ago and, in some cases, they are still being implemented today because they require a lot of teacher training, new curriculum... basically reworking a large part of the system as we know it. That is not an easy task and it's one battling a firestorm of criticism.
"The Fordham Foundation gave those Wisconsin standards a grade of 'F,'" said Dr. Billie Sparks, a retired UW-Eau Claire math professor. Dr. Sparks was talking about the state's old standards that only addressed content at grades 4, 8 and 12. That's it. Nothing in between.
Dr. Sparks was among six people on the team that reviewed Wisconsin's math standards for the Common Core. "(They are) vastly superior to what we had prior. This is college and career ready," said Sparks. Those new content standards define what students should understand in language arts and math at every level, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Dr. Sparks said the old school curriculum served him well as a child in Arkansas, but says it did not add up for everyone, which, he believes, underscores the need for Common Core. "There were factories, plants, mills in every town in this country that people went out to, got a job and worked their whole career. The Uniroyals have closed all over this country and now, those kids who sat beside me, that that curriculum did not serve well, need doors opened for continuing their education," said Sparks.
"The idea is about raising all boats, getting all kids to learn more," said Dr. Mary Ann Hardebeck, superintendent of the Eau Claire Area School District. Dr. Hardebeck says the Common Core is like a road map with graduation as the destination. "As you're building that road map for them, you're stopping along the way to see whether or not they've mastered certain standards," said Hardebeck.
"I think if you looked at the standards, you'd be like 'Wow, a 6th grader is able to do that? That is amazing,'" said DeLong Middle School Teacher Amy Traynor. Here's an example of a new 6th grade math content standard: To represent and analyze quantitative relationships between dependent and independent variables.
"That is rigor. When we start asking students not just to perform a task, but to truly make sense out of what they just did, that takes a kind of thought that previous standards have not had," said Sparks. How you get to that point in Traynor's classroom takes a load of work and a little Play-Doh. "It's neat to see the kids like, 'Oh! I get why that works,' or 'I see why that happens' and then when I ask them this week, 'Do you remember when we did the Play-Doh experiment? What is the volume of the sphere compared to the volume of the cylinder, they have something to go back to because they communicated with others, which is enhancing their learning," said Traynor.
In addition to the content standards in math, there are eight practice standards. Not the what, but the how: how to solve problems, many times through communication. Perseverance is number 1. Critiquing others is also on the list. "Not only critiquing, but doing it politely and respectfully. That's hard for kids to respectfully say, 'I don't think your answer is right and here's why.' Instead of saying, 'You're wrong,'" said Traynor. The practice standards are considered 21st century skills that will, one day, make students successful in the real world. Traynor is a good model for the practice. She's the reigning Middle School Teacher of the Year in Wisconsin.
"One of the standards of 6th grade is to divide a fraction by a fraction. Looking at it, you're like, 'That's easy. Teach them the algorithm, but then within the standard is... you need to be able to solve a problem using that and maybe even create your own problem," said Traynor. The problem that becomes a solution.
You can't talk about new educational standards without examining the final exam. It's called the Smarter Balanced Assessment which will replace what Wisconsin has had for years and years, the WKCE. "Rather than just bubbling in a test, they're being required to write, show their work, to manipulate information, to do problem solving. I think that may be a little bit different," said Hardebeck.
There are several unique things about the assessment. First, it's done online. "Now, what happens is... if you miss a question, the test goes in a different direction," said Hardebeck. That's because the answer determines the next question. If you get it right, more advanced questions may follow. "The first thing an instructor will do is look down at the document and they'll raise their eyebrows and then when they see sample assessment questions, the eyebrows go even a little higher," said Jim Schmitt, director of assessment & technology for the Eau Claire Area School District.
Two students sitting side by side could take two completely different exams. "We would then have a complete picture of what it is that you need to work on," said Hardebeck.
School districts across the state have been working on implementing the math and language arts standards for three years now. Grades have always been a measure of success. The same national think tank (Fordham Foundation or Fordham Institute) that gave Wisconsin's old standards an "F" also evaluated the Common Core and gave Wisconsin's math standards an "A-."
The big question remains, can the Common Core deliver results? Many people are not sold, including Governor Walker. He wonders whether Common Core is rigorous enough for Wisconsin students. He recently called for lawmakers to review the standards. Eau Claire's Own News 18 will examine that issue and more as a debate heats up. Join us for "Core Inspection" Wednesday night at 10 p.m.