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Q&A: Common Core a ‘Response’ to Growing Classroom Diversity

New America Media, Question & Answer By George White
Editor’s Note:  Connecticut, like Georgia and 43 other states,  will begin or has begun implementing the new Common Core State Standards for English-language arts and math. The new standards are designed to revamp the way schools instruct and assess students, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking, analysis, real-world applications and problem solving. There are questions, however, about whether the new standards will help close or widen the achievement gap for African American children. Connecticut could learn from Georgia State University professor Julie Washington,  a leading expert on black student literacy and serves on a Common Core advisory panel for Scholastic Inc., which produces  books for school districts. She says the new standards are a reflection of the country’s growing diversity, and that they will help raise expectations for all students. She spoke with NAM’s George White.What is Common Core and what should the black community know about these new standards?Common Core is a set of a teaching standards agreed to by most states. Some states need Common Core because they don’t have statewide standards. Georgia has statewide standards but we all want to see improvement in academic outcomes in our state and Common Core will help us achieve that because the Common Core curricula are rigorous and the classroom expectations are high.

In many ways, Common Core is a response to the increasing diversity in the country. Students are bringing a lot of different cultural experiences and differences to the classroom. The new standards – if they are adhered to – should benefit African-American children and all other students because classroom expectations will be raised and more transparent.

Why were the standards adopted? 

Common Core is being adopted because there is so much [state-to-state] variation in student performance, in teaching quality and in academic outcomes. Some of the disparities are related to teaching quality and some are related to curriculum content and different academic expectations.

Common Core is important for Georgia because the state has consistently ranked among the bottom ten states in academic performance. Georgia can be better than that! We want to be certain that when a child is educated in Georgia and moves away, parents will find that our curricular content and expectations are consistent with their new home state.

What will the changes in English language arts instruction mean for black student performance? 

The greatest disparity between white and black students has been in classes that rely on reading ability. There is a real learning curve because many low-income African-American students speak a cultural dialect that has features that differ from those that the school expects. The situation is similar to students who are learning English as a second language. This is not true for all African-American students but for those from impoverished backgrounds, this is often a concern.

In reading, 84 percent of African-American kids are at a basic level or below, and only 16 percent are proficient. Common Core will help address this problem because some of the language differences – for example, subject-verb agreement – are addressed in the standards. This is important because if a student uses a dialect and doesn’t learn to switch to the linguistic code of the classroom by the end of first grade, reading growth slows down. Students who make the shift from community language to standard English by second grade can usually keep pace.

How is this connected to your work with the Learning Disabilities Innovation Research Hub?

My colleagues (Dr. Mark Seidenberg from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Nicole Patton-Terry from Georgia State University) and I entered a 2012 competition for a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Our proposal focused on African-American kids and learning disabilities. African American children are overrepresented in special education generally, but have been underrepresented as recipients of learning disability assistance, because if your reading problem is believed to be based on linguistic difference, cultural difference or poverty, you don’t qualify as learning disabled.

Our goal is to figure out which students are doing well, which students have true learning disabilities and which students have reading problems due to issues related to poverty. Working in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools, we are involved in five elementary schools, where we are testing the reading, writing, language and cognitive skills of 750 students. The parents of these students agreed to the testing. When the testing studies are done, the next step is intervention to address the disabilities.

We have about 50 Georgia State students who are involved with the testing and also serve as volunteers who provide classroom assistance requested by teachers. For example, the volunteers might read to students or provide tutoring at a teachers’ request.

What are your thoughts on the parental factor in black academic achievement? 

Parental involvement has a demonstrated impact on academic achievement. Parents need to be informed about these new standards. I don’t know that the burden of parent involvement is any greater under Common Core because parental involvement is always important.

It’s about shared expectations. It’s important for parents to understand their school’s academic expectations so that they can support those standards at home. Often, low-income African-American parents don’t understand their power to insist on quality of education. Parents need to make their high expectations known to the school.

How do you respond to those who say Common Core is an example of government overreach in standardizing education? 

I think they are not fully informed. The federal government had nothing to do with this. Common Core is a states initiative coordinated by governors and the heads of state education departments. In this partisan environment, there are some who believe that everything that comes from Washington is bad. But this has nothing to do with federal government.

Overall, will the implementation of Common Core help close the achievement gap?

Theoretically, if we have high standards for everyone and adequate professional development for teachers, I believe Common Core will contribute to narrowing the achievement gap; but it will not eliminate it. It is not realistic to expect the Common Core to close a gap that is present at the time that kids enter schools.

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