Janesville full speed ahead on meeting Common Core Standards

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Nick Crow
December 7, 2014

JANESVILLE — Students in Amanda Werner's fourth-grade challenge math class at Madison Elementary School recently debated how to solve various math problems.

“This was part of a practice test for an upcoming math competition,” Werner said.

The students' math discussion is an example of how the Common Core functions in the classroom, Werner said.

“It took twice as long as I thought to get through it because everybody wanted to share their thinking,” Werner said. “They said, 'Well I did it this way. I did it that way,' and I guess that's kind of the Common Core at work.”

Werner said the new Common Core Standards is as much about the process of getting to an answer as the answer itself.

Common Core stresses math practice standards, processes and procedures, as well as math content standards and skills, she said.

“Process standards are not new, but they are stressed in CCSS (Common Core) more than before,” Werner said. “The combination of process and content standards … has lifted the level of math instruction to more often include higher-level processing in addition to carrying out calculations.”

Werner said her students were practicing a combination of process and content standards when completing the practice test.

“They start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution,” Werner said. “As a simple example, one problem on the test asked if two people were evenly splitting nine coins of various denominations, how much money would each person receive. One student calculated the amount of all the coins and divided by two. Another student took a one-for-me, one-for-you approach. A third physically drew the options.

 “We applaud all forms of thinking and then sometimes discuss which was the most efficient way to solve the problem,” she said. “I love when the kids explain approaches to a problem that I would have never conceived.”

The Common Core initiative has stirred controversy nationwide, but in Janesville the standards have been gradually implemented over the past four years, said Kim Ehrhardt, director of instructional services for the Janesville School District.

This year, the standards have been fully implemented, he said.

“Common Core should be embedded in what we do and not just something we do a week before a test,” Ehrhardt said. “It's a different and more rigorous concept of learning.”


Opponents of the Common Core Standards include Gov. Scott Walker. Last summer, Walker called for legislation repealing the standards, saying the people of Wisconsin should set standards.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said she would like to see Wisconsin replace the Common Core Standards with state specific standards.

“That will result in the highest possible academic outcomes for our students,” Loudenbeck said. “I look forward to hearing from stakeholders, parents, educational professionals and other legislators on how to best achieve this goal.”

Many people are concerned the Common Core is an example of the federal government over-reaching in its authority, she said.

“States should be taking the lead on the important issue of K-12 education standards, while empowering local school boards with the authority and flexibility to decide on the curriculum that best meets the needs of their students,” Loudenbeck said.

Werner said the belief that Common Core is a testing program or a required curriculum is false.

“It doesn't specify to a teacher how they must teach or what they must use to teach,” Werner said. “It is written in a way that says, 'This is our learning goal,' and it's up to districts, schools or even individual teachers to decide how they are going to meet that objective or goal.”


Ehrhardt said Common Core was developed to be a more precise set of standards that prepares students to compete globally.

“It causes kids to think,” Ehrhardt said. “It's a lot more than teaching for Trivial Pursuit or that sort of thing. You really have to apply knowledge, think about knowledge, draw conclusions, write a good argument and interpret the information. You really have to go at it much deeper than just filling in the right answer.”

Wisconsin adopted the Common Core Standards in June 2010. The state is one of 43 states, four territories and the District of Columbia that have adopted the standards set forth by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

To keep each school's progress on the same level, the district follows a plan called Equity in Education. This pacing plan was created to offer kids the same instruction at the same time at all schools.

Common Core Standards should create a level playing field locally, statewide and even nationally, Werner said.

“It always bothered me that these report cards were comparing us to other states or other nations, and I couldn't tell what we were basing these benchmarks on,” Werner said. “What I love about Common Core is that everyone across the nation has the same standards. That seems to me like a level playing field.”

Katie Jones, third-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary, said there has “definitely been a learning curve” in her classroom..

“The nice thing about CCSS (Common Core) is that it allows and expects integration of subject areas, which allows for more time to dig deeper into all subject areas,” Jones said.


Some Common Core critics believe the new standards are too rigorous and force teachers to spend too much time preparing for tests.

Ehrhardt said he has heard both concerns from teachers.

“Teachers that I've worked with, what some of them are concerned about is that they worry that it's perhaps too rigorous for kids,” Ehrhardt said. “Some kids already struggle, and with this, they will really struggle.

“My answer is to make sure the whole system really moves up,” he said. “Move forward with stronger expectations. I think our kids can handle that. I think we can expand and expect more from our kids.”

Ehrhardt said the district and its teachers should have a growth mindset. Evolving instruction and challenging students are the keys to success, he said.

“If you work hard at something and really dedicate your time and make an effort, you will succeed,” Ehrhardt said.

“It's no longer a one-size-fits-all era that we're in,” Werner said. “There are going to be students struggling, and we will do everything we can to accommodate them, but what we won't do is lower our standards. We look for growth. We're trying to close the gap. That is essentially what we are trying to do.”

Werner said problems with student achievement existed before the introduction of Common Core Standards. It is up to school districts to find ways to reach them, she said.

“The goal is to close the gap,” Werner said. “The problem of kids falling behind won't be solved overnight. It's not a Common Core issue but a methods issue. It's not about what you're supposed to be teaching them, it's how to reach them.

“I just worry that people think Common Core is a test,” she said. “It is just testing what we should be teaching in the classroom anyway.”

Franklin Middle School Principal Charlie Urness said he expects a dip in test scores this year until the district can determine a scoring baseline, which takes three years.

“A single data point does not give the reliability quotient necessary to tell us about trends in student achievement for students in Wisconsin and to compare data with other states,” Ehrhardt said. “The DPI believes that three years of data will allow us to start to draw some conclusions and make sense of what the data is telling us.”

Urness said he still expects to do better than the state average.

“We have to have our kids in Janesville competing with other kids in Wisconsin, other kids in other states and other kids in other countries,” Urness said.

Kathy Murray, academic learning coach at Franklin, said changes could create gaps. The key is to be prepared for them, she said.

“There's been a lot of time invested in Janesville and in this school to prepare kids for this so we're not just throwing this stuff at them,” Murray said. “There's been a lot of time devoted into this in this district and this school as well.”

Wisconsin spent more than $25 million preparing to meet the standards, Ehrhardt said. Janesville spent about $1 million in federal funds for professional development, educational resources, curriculum redesign and creation of assessments aligned to standards-based report cards aligned with Common Core.


 Repealing the standards would not be in the best interest of the district, Ehrhardt said.

“We're moving forward because the (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) is moving forward,” Ehrhardt said. “The state has not told us to do anything different.”

Ehrhardt said that although the Common Core is a national initiative, education is still a function of the state.

Therefore, a school board could elect to ignore the Common Core, but it wouldn't do well on the state and federal benchmarks if that happened, he said. Nor would the district receive as much federal funding.

“We just operate on what we're given,” Urness said. “We set politics aside. This is what we go by.”

Werner echoed the sentiment that too much Common Core work has been done to back away from it, now.

“I think it would be too bad to go to back to “this is what Wisconsin does” and “this is what other states use,” Werner said. “I really like the idea of national standards and we can all adjust to.”

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