Millburn School Officials Address Issues Surrounding Common Core

Presidential scholar Amanda Prager addresses the Millburn Board of Education. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
Doug Cundey talks about the Common Core Standards at Monday's Millburn Board of Education meeting. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

MILLBURN, NJ - The Millburn Board of Education on Monday was presented with a discussion on the issues surrounding the New Jersey Common Core Content Standards and the federal Common Core guidelines.

Many groups and individuals have expressed opposition to the standards and to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing that is designed to measure the effectiveness of the standards and is scheduled to take place in New Jersey schools next March and May.

However, according to township Assistant Superintendent of Schools Christine Burton, there is a great deal of confusion and misconception about the standards.

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“The Common Core is a minimum set of standards, guidelines, goals, and not a curriculum,” she noted, adding that educational consultants such as herself were consulted as revisions in the standards were being made and that their views were reflected in those revisions.

The assistant superintendent also said the New Jersey Common Core Content Standards were adopted by the New Jersey Department of Education on June 23, 2010, taking the standards in mathmatics and language arts from the federal guidelines.

Primary areas of testing under the standards will focus on language arts and mathematics this year, with emphasis on teaching students in the language arts to support and defend any position they take in their writing and also to address arguments against any position taken. 

In mathematics, the emphasis is on problem solving and giving explanations as to how solutions are reached while establishing a foundation of learning that is built upon in future years.

Burton said the standards are set of minimum guidelines aimed at improving student performance and they do not establish specific curricula to implement the standards. Curriculum, she emphasized is the job of the local school districts.

She also said the emphasis no longer will be on the mere acquisition of skills, but students will be expected to apply these skills in finding solutions.

With PAARC tests, she added, student assessment will be performance tested and the tests will examine how the students apply concepts and skills.

She also said that, although township schools have been aligned to the Common Core Standards since 2012, “at no time have we lowered our standards to meet the Common Core.”

Addressing the challenges faced by Millburn in conducting PAARC testing, Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield said many of the devices used to conduct the online evaluations would have been purchased anyway to advance the use of technology in the classroom.

He added, however, that the testing will cause an “opportunity cost” because some of the devices normally used for classroom instruction would have to be allocated for the testing.

The superintendent noted the district already has upgraded its networks, so PAARC will not present a challenge in that area. However, some classroom functions will be displaced by use of these rooms for testing and the time of some staff members will be taken up by proctoring of the tests.

Although time spent on testing under PARCC will be double that spent on the current NJASK test, he added, data obtained from the new tests will be available more quickly so teachers will be able to apply it more rapidly in the classroom. He said testing, for example, in the third grade, would take a total of eight hours this year and up to 9.5 hours next year over the course of two months of testing.

The use of township classrooms for the testing, however, may cause some delayed openings.

While the online testing will require more use of skills such as keyboarding, Burton said, township students already are expected to learn those skills for their normal classroom work.

She also said PAARC testing will provide extra time for students with learning difficulties or other educational deficiencies to complete their tests.

Teacher evaluation based on student performance in the tests also is scheduled for next year, but may be delayed by the state due to legislation currently proposed. Some educators do not believe PAARC results are the most effective way of assessing teacher peformance, Crisfield said.

Responding to a question from board member John Westfall-Kwong, the superintendent said districts did not have a choice in implementing the new testing because it is a state mandate.

If a district were to reject use of the testing, outright, he added, it might endanger state aid.

Crisfield noted Millburn received about $3.2 million in state aid this year, and Burton noted the district also receives about $4 million in federal grants that could be tied into acceptance of PAARC testing.

Also, during public comments on the standards, one parent wanted to know whether Common Core and PAARC testing placed too much emphasis on language arts and mathematics when college admissions offices were, in fact, taking a more holistic approach to education.

The superintendent said there was some concern that students would be pulled out of subjects like music for “ratchet up” testing when, in fact, music and similar subjects provide students with valuable background.

Resident Marissa Christmas questioned whether the purchase of 1100 new devices in five years was justified to comply with the standards.

Frequent Common Core critic Doug Cundey asked the school body what effect Common Core would have on expensive property values in a community like Millburn when township students face the same standards as in a community like Union, where homes are less expensive.

He also said his group, Preserve Our Schools, would host a program featuring Joseph Ricca, superintendent of the Elmsford Union Free School District in Westchester County, NY, a critic of the standards, on Tuesday, May 13 at 7:30 pm in the Bauer Community Center in Taylor Park, Millburn.

Cundey also read a statement from the Chicago teachers’ union opposing the standards because, according to Cundey, the standards were devised by educational development firms and educational publishers, they created “inappropriate expections” for students and disrupted learning.

He also said he had spoken to a number of township teachers in an attempt to have them oppose Common Core.

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