Three county educators, 1 leader repeat CC support
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
Sep 02, 2014 | 993 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Group cites role of Common Core
Johnny McDaniel
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Local school and business officials recently expressed their continued support for Common Core, the set of state standards that dictates what is taught in Tennessee’s public schools.

Johnny McDaniel, director of Bradley County Schools, was the featured speaker at a recent meeting of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club, and he took that opportunity to give an update on the school system and how it has fared with the standards that were first implemented during the 2011-12 school year.

McDaniel said the school system currently has more than 10,500 students in all its schools and programs, which include pre-K and adult education.

The school system as a whole has seen steady growth over the past few years, he said, especially the segments of students who are adults earning GEDs and studying English as a second language. Still, he said students have continued to do well overall.

“Bradley County Schools is a great school system,” McDaniel said.

He said the school district’s test scores have consistently placed students in good standing when compared to other districts in Tennessee, though the scores have not been perfect.

McDaniel said he is proud of how some local students have achieved so far, but he said some students are not “where we want them to be.” He stressed the school system is looking for ways to improve the performance of all of its students.

Though he acknowledged Common Core state standards have been the subject of much scrutiny — some of it negative — he said the goal of the standards is to help all students perform academically at a certain minimum level.

Before he could get into the specifics of what Common Core has entailed, he introduced three speakers he brought with him to help explain how the standards work.

Nat Akiona, principal of North Lee Elementary School, explained he regularly hosts workshops for parents on the subject, and Common Core has been “a very hot topic.”

Akiona said he sees three major factors at play in education dictating how students learn — standards, curriculum and instruction.

Standards, like those of Common Core, represent the learning expectations in place for students, he said.

Comparing education to other fields like business, he pointed out “every single industry has some level of standards.” For example, the automotive industry has to be concerned about safety standards in the cars it makes.

Akiona said schools are responsible for making something as well — successful people.

“We are also preparing a product for distribution,” he said.

However, he said the challenge is that teachers have to foresee what students will need to know when they graduate.

Akiona asked his audience to consider the fact children who are in kindergarten this year will grow up to be part of the high school class of 2027 if they stay in school.

With all the changes to the world’s job markets technology has triggered so far, he predicted some of the jobs 2027’s high school graduates might want to pursue will be ones that haven’t been created yet.

Schools are educating students for unknown futures, and Akiona said having a good set of educational standards can keep schools on track.

That makes the curriculum “a tool to fulfill the standards,” he said.

Akiona said he likes to use an auto racing analogy when explaining the differences between standards, curriculum and instruction to parents.

Curriculum is the “car” used to navigate the standards, and a set of standards represents the “track” that dictates how students should progress.

That makes the teacher the “driver” — the one who works with the students to make sure they are learning what they need to know.

Just like driving styles, Akiona said teaching styles do differ from teacher to teacher. However, they should all be driving the same kinds of “cars” on the same “track.”

Akiona explained some of the differences students have seen in their work since Common Core has been put in place.

One of the biggest changes, he said, has been in the wording of assignments.

Instead of asking students to “identify” their answers to a question, they are sometimes asked to “write” their answers to explain their thought processes. Instead of an instruction to “provide” a possible answer, they are asked to “select” the best one.

“The new standards are very active,” Akiona said.

He said there is now a greater emphasis on discussions rather than lectures in a classroom setting, and students are asked to participate more, speak more and explain more.

Amber Caldwell, Bradley County’s math coordinator, said she wanted to speak to clear up “misconceptions” about Common Core math.

She said she has seen posts on websites like Facebook spreading what she billed as “rumors” about students not being taught traditional math concepts.

She argued the concepts are in fact still being taught — just in new ways.

“We still teach traditional algorithms,” Caldwell said, listing concepts like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Caldwell explained that math, along with all the other school subjects, has seen a shift in how student assignments are worded.

Students do not just have to know how to solve problems now; they have to know how to explain how they arrived at their answers and why that method worked.

“Our goal in mathematics now is for students to understand why things work,” Caldwell said.

She bragged on her 9-year-old son a bit while using him as an example. She said he is very good at math, but he reportedly cannot often explain how he arrives at his correct answers.

Caldwell said students need to know the rationales behind math concepts so they do not have to become reliant upon devices like calculators.

She said math is more than just a school subject; it is a potential job skill.

Caldwell said it was a concept she had to learn as a teenager, when the boss at her first job as a cashier realized she needed some help knowing how to count back change to customers when a calculator was not available.

“Those are strategies we are intentionally teaching your children,” Caldwell said.

Gary Farlow, chief executive officer of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, explained that being married to a teacher means he has had many different conversations about the relationship between education and business.

He said the topic of Common Core in education has been a controversial one in the years since it was first proposed and implemented. While Farlow said it has often been depicted as a negative thing coming from the federal government, he pointed out that it was a state-level decision to change Tennessee’s educational standards.

The chamber actually “endorses” the Common Core standards because of what they might mean for the relationship between education and business, Farlow said.

Recruiting companies from across the country and around the world to set up shop in Cleveland and Bradley County means also recruiting people who will live in the area and put their children in local schools, he said.

One fairly recent example of that happening was when the construction of the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant first began in Charleston. Some employees relocated from Germany and brought their families with them.

Farlow said some only planned to stay in the United States temporarily and were concerned with how students would continue to do upon their return to Germany in three or four years.

He said it would be difficult to judge how students were doing without a standard in place. Common Core, he said, can be seen as a way to make sure all schools are teaching the same concepts and staying competitive with schools worldwide.

“Education is a top priority for us at the Chamber of Commerce,” Farlow said. “We need to be able to measure our students against other students from around the world.” 

He also called McDaniel “an outstanding director” for his work while overseeing the implementation of the state standards in local schools.

Farlow said there is a need for a “trainable workforce” when a company relocates to a certain area, and McDaniel “understands that need.”

McDaniel thanked those who took their turns at the podium and said he organized the Rotary Club program because he wanted people to hear some positive views on Common Core.

He said both sides of the arguments are sometimes not presented in the news media, and he wanted to make sure people knew that many of the negative rumors about the state standards are not true.

McDaniel said the best sources on educational topics are people like Akiona and Caldwell who work in schools and know what the standards are like.

He also cautioned the club’s members to be skeptical about what they read online.

“It’s not always accurate,” McDaniel said.

While he cited criticisms of the Common Core state standards, McDaniel himself did not explain or argue against any specific attacks.