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To one teacher, proposed learning standards look familiar

Angie Muse, Hazelwood school district
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

After lawmakers decreed that Missouri drop the Common Core school standards and instead come up with a more local version, task forces worked for more than a year to come up with a new blueprint for what the state’s students should know.

But to Angie Muse, an instructional coach in the Hazelwood school district, the revised standards don’t change much, at least for the English courses she has been involved with for 20 years.

“It doesn’t look like a document that was a home-grown document,” Muse said about the standards that will be the subject of a public hearing in Jefferson City today.

“It seems to me as if a group of people took the Common Core state standards and did a little rewording, some minor changes. There are some standards that Missouri puts in that Common Core didn’t have. But the bulk of what I saw was very similar to what’s in Common Core. It doesn’t seem as if this group started from scratch.”

Work groups in English, math, science and social studies submitted the results of their meetings to the state board of education on Oct. 1. Today’s hearing is the third required by the law that mandated Missouri drop Common Core in favor of the standards devised by the work groups. The mandates under Common Core are still in place in more than 40 states nationwide, though other states besides Missouri have also moved away from using them.

Though the standards are designed to spell out what students should know, local districts retain power over the precise curriculum used in their classroom to reach those goals.

After Monday’s hearing, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will have a public comment period on the proposed standards from Nov. 2 to Dec. 2. Those who want can send thoughts to the department via email at 1490comments@dese.mo.gov. Academic researchers and the legislative Joint Committee on Education will also give feedback on the proposals.

Weighing all of that information, the state board of education is expected to receive an update on the process at its meeting in February, then vote on whether to adopt the standards in March. It is not clear whether the board will have to adopt standards from all four subject areas, for both elementary and secondary grades, as a whole, or whether each area for each grade level can be voted up or down separately.

Depending on action by the board, the new standards would be finalized and sent out to Missouri’s school districts. Work would also begin on creating standardized tests based on the new standards. Those tests are expected to be ready by the spring of 2018.

Welcome guidance

The shift in tests and the standards they are based on has been a factor in interpretation of results from the exams given throughout the state this past spring and in the annual report cards that use test scores as half of their measures of how well districts are performing.

Muse, whose career in Hazelwood has included teaching teachers as well as teaching students in English, says the standards provide guidance for classroom instruction.

“Teachers do a balancing act,” she said in an interview in her cluttered office adjacent to the library at Hazelwood North Middle School. “They do pay attention to standards, but how much they pay attention sometimes depends on the factors around them. In our district, for instance, when the Common Core state standards came out, there was a lot of training on the standards. Then curriculum was built around the standards, so teachers can’t help but have to pay attention.

“In that kind of a situation, obviously the standards are something they talk about and have been talking about in the last three to five years.”

Muse, who formerly was an officer in the statewide Missouri Association of Teachers of English, was asked to look at the proposed standards for English in the secondary grades. She said that if they become the new guiding principles for the state’s teachers, they won’t require too much of a shift in thinking.

“They are similar in many, many ways” to Common Core, Muse said.

teacher in classroom
Credit U.S. Department of Education

“They really are general statements of what kids should be able to do. There are a lot of ways to get there. This is not so prescriptive that it’s going to dictate what happens on a daily basis in a classroom. That’s where a curriculum can come in. Curriculum dictates more what we do in a classroom than these standards.”

Specifically, the English standards address four skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Muse said those are the correct areas for teachers and students to focus on, but the emphasis in each can change.

In reading, for example, she noted a recent trend that concentrates more on non-fiction, argumentative texts and less on fiction.

“I think that’s an interesting shift,” Muse said. “When I look at what politics looks like in our country, what public debates of any kind look like in our country, when I read comments on Facebook, or when I read comments on news stories, I certainly see the need for adults to be able to think through arguments – their own, or other people’s – and think about the evidence that people give or don’t give.

“It’s a really, really important skill, and before Common Core focused us on argument, it wasn’t happening in the schools in a broad way.”

One area that Common Core stressed that Muse appreciates is something called “close reading,” that emphasized “reading and re-reading and re-reading yet again an important passage in a text. A lot of teachers didn’t do that. So there were a lot of people talking about this thing called close reading. What does it look like?”

She also noted a new emphasis on making sure students know how to gather and interpret information not just from words but from graphics, statistics, sound bites and other media. In that area, she said, Common Core appears more substantive than the proposed changes.

“Looking at a book and looking at the movie version of it, and what are the differences, is not to me as rigorous as what the Common Core state standards laid down,” Muse said. “Students should be able to integrate information from a variety of media sources and articulate what is the message across all of these sources.”

Better or just different?

Changes in the Missouri standards could lose what was gained by the approaches that Common Core stressed, she said.

“If Missouri decided to go in a completely different direction,” Muse explained, “we’d be missing out on some of the rich discussion that is going on surrounding Common Core state standards and how to teach them…. Being different isn’t always good.”

She added that being an outlier in standards could put Missouri at a disadvantage when it comes to basics like textbooks.

"If people thought that the Common Core state standards were problematic in an instructional way, this document wouldn't look as similar as it does." -- Angie Muse, Hazelwood school district

“Across our country,” she said, “ textbook companies, major thinkers in the field of education, are writing, publishing, thinking, having meetings about the Common Core state standards. So if Missouri published a document that was completely different from the Common Core state standards, we would miss a lot of the national dialogue that’s happening right now.”

In general, Muse said, the changes mandated by Missouri law appear to be based more on ideology than on sound educational practice. And the similarities between Common Core and the proposed state standards undercut any contrary view.

“I absolutely believe that it was more of a political move,” she said. “If people thought that the Common Core state standards were problematic in an instructional way, this document wouldn’t look as similar as it does. But rewriting them, tweaking them, it looks like now we have standards that are our own. We’re not going to use Common Core standards, but we’ve created our own. I think that for many people, that’s a politically important thing.

“I’m not saying they copied it word for word. There are definitely some differences, but for the most part, they’re very similar documents.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.