The (Common) Core of the Matter 

Idaho counts down the days to its biggest change yet to public education

Boise District School Superintendent Don Coberly is flanked by Stephanie Youngerman (left), supervisor of language arts for the district, and Cathy Sorger (right), mathematics curriculum coordinator.

Patrick Sweeney

Boise District School Superintendent Don Coberly is flanked by Stephanie Youngerman (left), supervisor of language arts for the district, and Cathy Sorger (right), mathematics curriculum coordinator.

In less than a month, Idaho teachers will do more than just welcome approximately 250,000 students back to school; educators will also be tasked with opening the book on far-reaching new standards which will dramatically change the way Gem State students learn.

Dubbed Idaho Core Standards by the Idaho State Department of Education, the department insists the new Common Core rules come with "extensive amounts of training and millions of dollars in state-funded efforts to ease administrators into this new program." Yet teachers will face this challenge without the help of new textbooks.

"They're not out there for the new standards," Education Department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath told Boise Weekly. "Publishers are scrambling to keep up."

McGrath said there's money available to help buy new textbooks; the problem is a matter of timing.

"Why would state administrators or district-level leaders invest in books that soon will be out of date?" she asked.

"We're in a kind of a bind with this," said Stephanie Youngerman, supervisor of language arts for the Boise School District--second only to Meridian as Idaho's largest district. "We could spend a lot of money on things that support Common Core, or we could have materials that don't support Common Core and have no money left. We've taken the more cautious approach."

Boise district officials, like their counterparts at the state, are waiting for textbook companies to catch up, Youngerman said.

Meanwhile, administrators and teachers have been charged with figuring out how to turn the new set of guidelines into classroom-ready lessons.

"We don't have things in place just yet," Youngerman said, "but we'll have things for teachers to use when school starts."

Specifically, teachers will lean on Common Core handouts to supplement existing textbooks. Additionally, the district is hosting regular meetings where teachers can discuss problems and ask questions. Administrators expect to conduct regular surveys asking teachers about their progress and outcomes.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and other Common Core advocates insist that the new standards are a response to complaints from more and more employers about Gem State graduates' lack of "real-world" problem-solving skills--and from colleges saying that incoming freshmen were ill-prepared for the level of learning that faced them in a university setting.

The new standards are aimed at fixing those problems by updating the way K-12 students learn mathematics and language arts--eschewing memorization in favor of broader, more analytical understanding of the subject matter. Instead of getting 30 math problems for homework, for example, a student might only get a few longer, more complex questions that involve real-life challenges requiring students to think through multiple steps, not simply apply a formula.

Students will not only have to solve problems, but they'll have to explain how they did so, said Cathy Sorger, mathematics curriculum coordinator for the Boise School District. "For example: 'How did you come to that answer?' And, 'Can you show how you got there?'"

In language arts, students will now have to incorporate a host of research and analysis to consider the larger context of stories, plays and poems they're reading.

Boise District Superintendent Don Coberly told BW that his schools will roll out Common Core with a measured pace; and, since the Idaho Standards Achievement Tests were administered to grades 3-10 during the past school year, there won't be a need to retest students in the coming year as the new standards are implemented.

"We don't need to be in a hurry," said Coberly. "We can move through the implementation of the curriculum and take our time with testing."

But there is cause for concern among some of those who work one-on-one with students. Not having appropriate textbooks--or at least reference materials that are suited to the new curriculum--could prove troublesome, said Tony Pori, owner and operator of Boise-based tutoring company The Math Advantage.

"Having to adapt, say, a third of a textbook and having to adapt nearly the entire thing are quite different," Pori said, referring to the task that lies ahead of many teachers. "It's going to be hard to do that."

Common Core standards were developed by a coalition of state governments in a process that began in 2007, when Luna began meeting with other state education chiefs regarding the overhaul effort. In June 2010, he began hosting regional public meetings throughout Idaho to talk about the Common Core concept. By November 2010, the Idaho State Board of Education adopted the standards and the 2011 Idaho Legislature gave final approval to adopt the so-called Idaho Core for math and language arts.

Through much of 2012, the Idaho Department of Education decided to focus on bringing administrators--who help manage more than 700 of Idaho's public schools--up to speed. This summer, state education officials say they're keying in on teachers; trying to help them adapt Idaho Core standards to the classroom.

Youngerman said English and language arts teachers will be expected to encourage students to support more concepts and ideas about literature.

"For example, during a certain time period, not only would you be studying the authors of that time, but also looking at the poetry and theater that goes along with that," Youngerman said. "This [Idaho Core] is much more integrated."

To gauge its success--or lack thereof--new testing will follow. Some teachers and administrators say parents should be aware that it will take their children some time to adjust. Others are more blunt, saying some students will clearly find the new method more challenging. In either case, administrators are warning that students' scores will likely take a dive initially.

Sample test questions, which have been developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a 29-state group of administrators--including from Idaho--are available online through smarterbalanced.org/pilot-test or by linking through the Idaho Department of Education's website sde.idaho.gov.

One question, posed to third- through fifth-grade students, asks which equation is true or false:

37 X 4 = 1,480/10

215 X 39 = 2,487/3

4,086 X 7 = 32,202

9,130 X 86 = 785,180

Another question asks high-school language arts students to choose the most precise meaning of the word "disgorging": a) scattering randomly, b) throwing out quickly, c) spreading out widely or d) casting forth violently.

There are dozens of other samples on the website, but the biggest test of all will come in about 18 months, when the Idaho Department of Education sees the first results of what will be the biggest change to public education in anyone's memory.

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