Small crowd turns out for Common Core education

Jessica Torok, Math Content Specialist from Ulster BOCES, who spoke about K-2 Math during Onteora’s Common Core information night. (photo by Valerie Havas)

Jessica Torok, Math Content Specialist from Ulster BOCES, who spoke about K-2 Math during Onteora’s Common Core information night. (photo by Valerie Havas)

Fewer than 20 parents attended an informational session on the Federal Common Core Standards at the Onteora Middle/High School on the evening of December 4. It was not the crowd of people Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill was hoping for. However, for parents who attended, confused over the system and new ways their children learn, they managed to walk away voicing a clear message: Common Core curriculum — good; testing related to Common Core — bad.

The three-hour session, broken into four classroom groups, focused on new standards in Kindergarten-through-grade six. Though Common Core is trickling up into the High School, the plan is that lower grades act as a foundation that will naturally work itself through.


Assistant Superintendent Marki Clair-O’Rourke introduced a panel of four professionals from BOCES who have been helping teachers get up to speed on the new standards. With elementary principals and school officials assisting, two hours were broken into one-hour learning sessions for parents in Kindergarten-through-grade-two, and grades-three-through-six in English Language Arts (ELA), and Math.

The new type of math drew the loudest complaints from parents. BOCES math specialist Jessica Torok said, “One of the major themes of Common Core is to teach students to think independently.” No longer is the algorithm or basic memorizing of a math formula taught as the only way to learn numbers. Torok called the traditional way a “one size fits all” model where students cannot learn in different ways. Instead, she said, the Common Core opens up broader understanding on how numbers work. “One way shouldn’t be the only way,” said Torok.

English Language Arts casts a wider net on how to learn letters and sounds in earlier grades and a 50-50 percent study of fiction versus non-fiction is now required. Students read in small groups and figure out problems in language or content together through exploration similar to the reading workshop currently used in the district.

For parents, the ELA standards were easier to take-in. Non-fiction books will often focus on science and math content in order to cross over the subjects. Multi-sensory exploration including Project Based Learning has also offered a shift away from the teacher, talk-n-chalk approach. “Children are given access to this information,” said BOCES coordinator of school development, Marcella Jones. “All the children are given access — how they learn the information, when they learn, the rate they learn it at, what pace, all differs…The idea of the standard is to make certain all students are receiving access to the same information. Children in grade one, children in regular education, special education or ESL (English as Second Language) are not learning different things because they have a disability or language; they are given the exposure to the same standard.” The standard has equal distribution across the United States portrayed as a staircase with children advancing the same steps but in different ways. Curriculum is decided through the local community and Board of Education; however it must fall under Common Core guidelines.

According to the Federal Common Core website, 43 States have adopted the standards. Seven have not: Virginia, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Alaska, and Minnesota have only adopted the ELA standards, not the math.


Test misunderstandings

Once the workshops finished, the parents and participants convened to the auditorium for discussion. “I don’t know whether I drank the Kool-Aid but this has been a very positive experience for me,” parent Emma Wyman said. “I didn’t know very much about the Common Core standard so it’s been informative. So I really see this as a more progressive approach to learning. But how does that equate with the assessments and testing?” Other parents agreed that the standards introduce a positive change in modern education, but only if tests and teacher accountability (APPR) were eliminated.

McGill explained how things came about. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about the testing,” she said. “What we have not liked about the testing is that, as the curriculum was being developed, the assessments were being developed and that is not how you do it. You usually field test the curriculum, introduce the module…the assessment piece kind of comes along. But then we got the whole teachers’ APPR mixed in, and what it’s done was escalated everybody’s stress level.”

New York State devised a new way of testing students beginning at Grade-three requiring more depth into the subjects. New York has historically used State tests, but for other states these testing modules are new, first rolled out it the No Child Left Behind Act and fine-tuned through Common Core. Many States have pushed back on the tests describing them as Draconian.

McGill said the New York tests would not be officially aligned with the new standards until 2018. “It’s really messed us up because this was done in a very unprofessional way,” said McGill. “It’s not a way, as professionals, we would recommend doing something.” McGill said any parents who have problems helping their children with homework should contact their child’s teacher or go to the district website (, which offers online help.