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Pa. academic standards for public schools in limbo

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's opportunity to produce its version of national academic standards for public schools is stuck in bureaucratic limbo for the summer while lawmakers and members of the Education Department and state Board of Education try to iron out details.

The proposed Pennsylvania Common Core standards would set nationally standardized goals for each grade level that students need to meet to be promoted. In May, Gov. Tom Corbett postponed their implementation until the 2014-15 school year because lawmakers objected to the potential cost and to data collection by the federal government. Some critics worry about loss of control of curriculum.

The postponement means that Common Core State Standards adopted by lawmakers in 2010 under former Gov. Ed Rendell take effect on Monday. Those standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Changing Pennsylvania's version before putting it in place will “address some of the concerns that have been brought up,” said Fred Sembach, spokesman for Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon.

“Our concern isn't so much what the Common Core is about — because in some cases it isn't so much different from what our teachers are doing already — but it's how it's all going to come together,” said Gerard Oleksiak, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

“We've lost 20,000 educators in the past two years under the Corbett administration, so how are districts going to fund the professional development, the transition that's needed?” he asked. “... We want to make sure it is done right, not the slapdash manner that is happening right now.”

Transition under way

Business executives who support standardized curriculum say it's hard to find qualified candidates for jobs and that common education requirements would better prepare students for the workforce.

“Young people today are not prepared when they leave high school to enter the workforce,” said David Patti, president of the Pennsylvania Business Council.

Opponents worry the regulations signal overreach by the government. Some cite practical challenges of putting the curriculum into place.

“More demanding tests, that are based on perceived better curriculum from teachers who think they know what they are doing, may be wishful thinking,” said Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Higher academic standards won't help students unless teachers are taught to provide the information, Strauss said. Simply adopting standards without ensuring that teachers and materials are up to the task could hurt students, who would get low scores on final Keystone Exam tests, he said.

The Keystone Exam, begun this school year, is given to high school students to assess whether they meet standards to move to the next grade level. Students in third through eighth grades take a similar Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test to gauge readiness.

Strauss suggests that teachers be required to take achievement tests to assess whether they know and can properly teach the material.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education, said school districts began planning for the transition to Common Core standards more than two years ago and integrated most of the content into curriculum. The state's intermediate units and the Education Department's website offer training for educators to learn the academic standards, he said.

Patti, a Harrisburg resident, said he has worked with union apprenticeship programs that could not adequately train graduates because they lacked math skills and needed remedial classes.

“Let's at least have a base level,” he said. “If they want to go beyond that, that's great, but let's set the base high and make it uniform across the country.”

Skeptical lawmakers

The Pennsylvania Common Core standards were supposed to take effect instead of national standards, but they await resolution of arguments over control of curriculum, implementation costs and data collection by the government.

“We want to stop some of the intrusion by the federal government in our schools,” said Rep. Mike Reese, R-Donegal. “What goes into (the regulations) gets implemented in our schools. That's why this is so important.”

The government was not involved in developing Common Core State Standards, but through grant offers in its “Race to the Top” program it encouraged states to adopt the standards. Pennsylvania received $41.3 million in 2011 from the grant program.

Reese and other lawmakers say they are not rejecting the standards, but they want to commission studies and hold hearings to ensure the standards are the best thing for children.

“I'm waiting to see whether or not these Common Core standards will benefit the students and whether there is a touch of the federal government in them,” said Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County.

Because legislators generally recess for the summer, Eller said, hearings likely will not be held until fall, when educators hope to put in place the regulations.

“Gov. Corbett has asked the state Board of Education to review the proposed academic standards and to make any necessary modifications to ensure that they are reflective of the needs of Pennsylvania students,” Eller said.

Not all parents like the idea of common academic standards.

Cheryl Boise of Monroeville, whose two children graduated from Gateway School District, believes businesses and groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that pushed for Common Core intend to sell technology to school districts.

“There's a lot of money to be made from the technology part of this,” said Boise, who testified in May before the Senate Education Committee in Harrisburg.

A bit more rigorous

The Pennsylvania Common Core Standards contain many of the standards used in public schools, but they're formatted similarly to the national standards. That way, if a student relocates, his or her academic experience could easily translate to the standards of another state.

“It's really a matter of taking the alignment of the Common Core and mixing it with the current Pennsylvania standards,” said Chris Budano, an education services specialist with the PSEA.

Pennsylvania standards require testing in science and social studies at the end of the school year — a step beyond the national standards that fold those subjects into standards for language arts.

Budano said some concepts now taught to third-graders will become standards for second grade.

“They wanted to make sure there was still that level of rigor. If nothing else, it is increasing it,” Budano said.

Trib Total Media staff writer Kyle Lawson contributed to this report. Josh Fatzick is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.

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