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The Drama of Common Core

Common-CoreNew set of school standards searches for success

Topock, an Arizona town on the far western edge of the state, doesn’t even have a stoplight. But its school district has scrambled to get the Internet capacity and computers necessary for the 2015 debut of the state’s latest standardized test.

The online exam will accompany the state’s new Common Core educational standards, designed to assure that what children learn in Topock is similar to what kids learn in Phoenix, New York or Boston. That coincides with the objectives of John Warren, superintendent of the Topock Elementary School District.

“When I became superintendent 10 years ago I immediately said to myself, ‘We are going to create a literacy-rich environment in this school, number one, and number two, we’re going to have technology coming out of our ears,’” Warren said.

He owes the readiness of Topock Elementary School District and its 141 students to a long-held philosophy that a firm grasp of technology is an equalizer in achieving success.

But Topock is an exception.

Most Arizona schools have trained teachers and integrated the new Common Core standards into the classroom. But many of the state’s public and charter schools won’t have the infrastructure to carry out the test, known as PARCC, or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

And while wiring all the state’s 219 school districts and 535 charter schools for the exam is a monumental challenge in itself, it’s not the only one. Common Core foes of all stripes, a frugal Legislature, legions of parents resistant to the change and skeptical teachers promise to roughen the transition to the most ambitious education reform in years.

To Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, however, it all comes down to the infrastructure.

“There’s a reason that Rome fell,” he said. “They wouldn’t tend to the aqueducts. This is an aqueduct sort of issue.”

Emphasizing critical thinking

Common Core, which must be implemented in schools throughout the state this school year, is a set of math and English-language arts standards devised to better prepare students for college and a career. The objective is to emphasize critical thinking more than learning by rote.

Education and business leaders had for years complained that too many students were entering college with only remedial skills and that too many job openings were left unfilled because of the lack of qualified applicants.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation bankrolled the development of the standards, which was carried out by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

States began adopting the standards in 2010 without any fanfare, but a groundswell of opposition began as legislators convened in 2013, mostly on the assertion that the standards were part of an Obama administration scheme to nationalize education.

Arizona’s State Board of Education approved the new standards in 2010.  Schools began the transition in 2011 with kindergartners and added grade levels every year. The standards were to be in place for all grades when the bell rang to open the 2013-2014 school year.

Students will be taking PARCC or some other assessment chosen by the State Board of Education, by the 2014-2015 school year. But as those days creep closer, nearly everyone in the education community concedes many schools won’t be ready, largely because of the demands setting up online testing.

“As a practical matter, not all school districts are ready to do this as a computerized test,” Huppenthal said.

He said many school districts would have to rely on paper and pencil versions of the test. That would not only cost more per student, but students would miss out on valuable computer-training skills.

A selling point of PARCC, or any computerized assessment, is that the results are immediate instead of lagging as they do with AIMS, the state’s current assessment.

Janice Palmer, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said there will be a disparity of confidence among school districts as to their readiness. Because of the impending deadline, some are going to have to be ready before feeling confident they can succeed.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Experts believe that many rural and isolated districts will lack the Internet capacity or the computers necessary for the online test. But relatively affluent districts have their challenges as well.

Cave Creek Superintendent Debbie Burdick said the district has been spending money to put Common Core into effect and the technology framework will be in place in 2014, but the district is robbing Peter to pay Paul to do it.

“We’re not up-keeping our buildings, but we’re doing this instead,” Burdick said.

Janet Sullivan, assistant superintendent for academic services for Washington Elementary School District, noted that her district is going to ask voters for some help. The district, which is not as affluent as some others in the Phoenix area, is holding an election Nov. 5 to ask for a $7.85 million yearly capital budget override for seven years to upgrade technology. Voters rejected a similar request in 2012 by 465 votes.

Students are using 2006 and 2007 vintage computers, meaning the district is not ready for a computerized test.

“We simply don’t have the computers to do that,” Sullivan said.

And while PARCC was developed by an alliance that included Arizona and is the preferred test of the Department of Education and State Board of Education, using it is still not a settled matter.

The State Board still has to seek bids from other vendors, and Huppenthal said some of them have been “coming on very powerfully” to get the contract.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said his priority will be figuring out how much a new test will cost.

“My focus is: what are we going to do to test the kids?” Tobin said.

Eileen Klein, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, is Arizona’s higher education representative on the PARCC alliance, told Huppenthal in an Aug. 8 letter that she is growing concerned about whether PARCC is the best option.

She is concerned about whether there will be enough schools participating in field testing so the state doesn’t have to design on the fly; whether the grading system might be too complex for parents to understand; and whether the results will be timely enough.

Klein also questions the timeliness of validity studies and who will pay for them and whether the quality of PARCC will be worth the cost, currently about $29 per student.

She said in the letter that the state also needs to clearly communicate to parents what the test means for admission to higher education so they aren’t misled into believing their students get a waiver of admission requirements because the test is labeled “college and career readiness.”

A change in teaching methods

Common Core, which has been adopted by 45 states, isn’t just a new set of standards.

“This is a massive redefinition of student learning,” said Andrew Morrill, president of Arizona Education Association and a high school English teacher for 17 years.

Charlene Mendoza, principal of Arizona College Prep Academy in Tucson, said one of the most significant challenges is helping parents to understand the change in the teaching methods.

“Especially at the high school level I have lots of parents who are expecting the algebra class their student is in to be very similar to the algebra class that they took 15, 20, 30 years ago because for them how can algebra change?” Mendoza said. “On one hand they have a point, math is math, but in terms of what we’re being asked to do with the math, the classrooms look very differently.”

Anti-Common Core websites lit up in mid-August when a video surfaced showing a teacher in a training session in Illinois say that emphasis will be placed on a student’s reasoning even if his answer to 3 times  4 is 11.

Mendoza said it is important for a teacher to understand a student’s reasoning to know where to intervene and correct.  But Common Core doesn’t suggest answers are not important or should be wrong, she added.

Mendoza said that under Common Core, students will be expected to apply their math skills to solve practical problems. And English-language arts instruction will do away with quizzes in exchange for open-ended questions that will require students to back up their assertions with evidence from their reading.

More time to prepare

The state has changed standards regularly, usually with only a year’s notice for schools to adjust curriculum to meet them. The last change occurred in 2008.

Suzan DePrez is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Mesa Unified School District, the largest district in the state with 63,000 students. She said teachers there began training for Common Core before its formal adoption because the district had representatives involved during development at the state and national level.

Most of the district’s 4,000 teachers have been trained.

DePrez said she thinks Common Core is “just another iteration of standards,” but the blessing has been that public schools have had more time to put them into effect.

“This is the first time in my 28 years in education this state has given us more than 12 months,” DePrez said. “They actually gave us a couple years to do it right, to do it better.”

But while teachers have busied themselves in training, many aren’t brimming with confidence and some are displeased with their districts.

The American Federation of Teachers released results of a survey of 800 members, which found that 53 percent of teachers either haven’t received training or have undergone inadequate training.

The March poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, also found that teachers overwhelmingly think their districts haven’t done enough to prepare for the standards.  That includes providing planning time, model lessons, making sure textbooks and curricula materials are in line with the standards and communicating with parents.

Morrill said a non-scientific poll of 700 delegates taken at the Arizona Education Association’s annual convention in April found teachers are concerned with the development of instructional materials and resources that take students to the level of the new standards.

“This is consistent with what teachers are saying all over the state and all over the country,” Morrill said.

He said teachers are still being trained and some districts are further along than others. Complicating matters is the state is only in the first year of implementation of Common Core and even though PARCC is generally assumed to be the test that will be used, that decision hasn’t been made yet.

“This is very much like changing the tires while the vehicle is moving,” Morrill said.

Spreading the word

Huppenthal has been traveling the state giving four talks a week as he spreads the word on Common Core.

He sighs and smiles when he says he has walked into a few firestorms and the resistance is coming from parents, not politicians.

A Gallup poll on education made public on Aug. 18 also gives Huppenthal concerns.

The poll found that 62 percent of Americans don’t even know what Common Core is, and most who know about it either don’t embrace or understand it.  Fifty-five percent of public school parents had never heard of Common Core.

Gallup surveyed 1,001 Americans age 18 and older. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Huppenthal said he senses from the response to his presentations that there is a significant resistance to the standards by a substantial percentage of the population and from both political parties. Part of the problem locally is that people don’t feel like the standards are Arizona’s.

“We’re going to have to do some sort of exorcism where we do something to take possession of these standards so Arizona feels like they’re our standards,” Huppenthal said.


District Profiles

-Josh Coddington


Washington Elementary School District

Assistant Superintendent for Academic Services: Janet Sullivan

Grades: K-8

Schools: 32

Students: 24,000

Areas Served: North central Phoenix, east Glendale

Although the Washington Elementary School District began introducing the Common Core teaching standards ahead of the state’s suggested schedule, full implementation at all grade levels has proved to be a bit of a moving target.

“Our in-house district assessments in reading and math have been updated to match the 2010 math and language arts standards, while at the same time, we are still held accountable to AIMS. And that probably is very difficult for teachers,” said Janet Sullivan, assistant superintendent for academic services at the K-8 district.

Money and staff size directed Sullivan and her staff of six to use the “trainer-of-trainers” mode. That simply means that Washington sent a small group of people from the district office to Arizona Department of Education Common Core training. Those people then trained “program coaches” to implement the teaching standards at each of the district’s 32 schools.

Sullivan’s Academic Services staff culled resources from ADE training, webinars and the Common Core website to prepare a training package for each program coach to bring to their school. “On my desktop, I have the links to both the PARCC and Common Core websites. I haunt them regularly to see what’s new and what they’re telling us,” Sullivan said.

PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Teachers came in over the summer to prepare a mathematics package for seventh and eighth graders.

“It gives (teachers) what the standard is, a suggestion of the number of days that might be required to teach that standard, identifying the essential questions, the suggested learning objectives, the vocabulary and any background knowledge,” Sullivan said. “We had them (teachers and staff) all over the building, in any nook or cranny, or space that we had revising documents and adding resources to them.”

Sullivan adds that the majority of training has occurred on early release Wednesdays and that teachers in general have responded very positively. “Our teachers were absolutely wonderful and very excited. They got right into those standards.”

According to the state’s timeline, Common Core is to be fully implemented for this school year. And Sullivan says her district, teacher training-wise, is ready. A big hurdle for her and other Arizona school districts comes in the 2014-2015 school year, when they are required to administer the PARCC test for the first time.

“We aren’t prepared technologically to implement PARCC. With the equipment we currently have, we could not get all the students tested in the time period that they’re saying it would need to be done. We simply don’t have the computers,” Sullivan said.

School districts can raise money through capital override elections to pay for things like technology upgrades for schools, but Washington’s last override election in November 2012 failed. That, coupled with nearly $56 million in capital funding that Sullivan said the state has withheld from the district between FY2008 and FY2013 has made acquiring the necessary computers and associated technology components difficult. The district is planning another override election for Nov. 5.


Arizona College Prep academy (charter)

Principal: Charlene Mendoza

Grades: 9-12

Schools: 1

Students: 120-140

Area Served: Tucson


As a small charter school without the ability to ask voters for bond overrides, Arizona College Prep Academy has to be judicious with its spending decisions. But like every other Arizona school, it still has to train its teachers to implement the state’s Common Core standards and eventually test students on them.

The school’s principal, Charlene Mendoza, says her 125-student school is fully implemented on the standards and is “moving toward being as prepared we can be” to administer the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. Despite general concerns over what exactly the test will cover, she says she’s optimistic about the shift in education methods the test could signify.

“I’m cautiously excited because I’ve never been particularly comfortable with a testing premise that says one question, one skill, the student knows it or not,” Mendoza said. “The examples I’ve seen of PARCC show that it will be more of a performance-based assessment where kids are asked a few things beyond just fill-in-the-bubble.”

Since Common Core shifts the style and methods of teaching in English language arts and mathematics, class designs have followed suit. Mendoza has been involved in allaying concerns the small school’s parents may have by holding informational meetings. “I have lots of parents expecting the algebra class their child is in to be similar to the algebra class they took 15, 20 or 30 years ago,” Mendoza said. “I have had parents who are educators quiz me significantly on what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and are their kids going to be ready?”

Three years ago, when the school first started teacher training, Mendoza couldn’t find much support information about Common Core. Now that the teaching principles have caught on across the county, she says her goal is to find quality Common Core materials to use.

To get the teachers ready, Mendoza early on got help from the Pima County School Superintendent’s Office, which ensured the school had access to training. The school also became a member of the Arizona Charter Schools Association Quality Schools Program, which sent out a person to train teachers on implementing Common Core at a charter.

The school’s main curricular costs have been in implementing a new integrated math program this year. But Mendoza says the school has been able to keep costs on the English side fairly low by utilizing non-fiction texts such as the New York Times and journals from the University of Arizona library. “As an educator, one of the things I appreciate about Common Core standards is that there is a focus on non-fiction texts as well as fiction texts,” she said.

Overall, Mendoza is excited about Common Core and what it means for education in Arizona. And since there are 47 other states implementing the same program, it creates a massive collaborative environment for sharing best practices.

“We look at this as way to engage in the type of teaching we’ve always wanted to be able to do,” Mendoza said. “Common Core has given us a chance to teach in the way we know students learn.”



Cave Creek Unified School District

Superintendent: Debbi Burdick

Grades: PreK-12

Schools: 7

Students: 5,600

Areas Served: Cave Creek, Carefree, Northeast Phoenix, North Scottsdale


With one wary eye cast down the road at PARCC testing, Cave Creek Unified School District tested its ability a couple of years ago to have a massive amount of students using its computer network all at the same time. And the result was a failure.

PARCC is the acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

“We had a pilot program two years ago and the first day we did it we crashed our system,” said Debbi Burdick, superintendent of the Cave Creek Unified School District.

So last summer, the district put in Wi-Fi, increased its bandwidth and upgraded its switches. “With carry-forward dollars that we have been protecting very judiciously, we decided last year to put the infrastructure in our district not only for the PARCC, but because we wanted our students to be able to bring their own devices in from home to use,” Burdick said.

She is quick to dismiss the notion that because of the generally high property values of the homes in the district, Cave Creek has plenty of money to spend. She says quite the opposite is true. She points to Arizona’s equalized school funding model and her district’s lack of successful override elections.

“We have about 6,000 parents and about 40,000 voters, so we have not been able to pass overrides so that we get additional monies for textbook adoptions or for technology,” she said. “So we actually probably have less money than most of the people you’ve talked to.”

The district began “scraping money together” to prepare its teachers for Common Core three years ago by updating its English language arts and math textbooks. The following year, the district began professional training, which consisted of a mix of paid days and volunteer days. Burdick adds that teacher training is always ongoing regardless of the teaching system.

She said teachers who have been with the district for three years are fully trained to teach the Common Core standards.  Those with the district for two years are likely to be trained, but those with one year of experience or less probably still need additional training.

Burdick thinks Arizona won’t be prepared to administer the PARCC test statewide starting during the 2014-2015 school year.

“I don’t believe that our state, especially some of our neediest communities, is going to be ready,” she said. “Are we 100 percent ready? No. But we are doing everything we can to be ready.”

The test is designed to be administered online, which is a main reason it costs so much. In recent meetings about PARCC testing preparedness, Burdick said she’s been told that a potential alternative for districts that aren’t technologically ready to give the test is to use paper and pencils, similar to the way the AIMS test is given. That solution is a non-starter with her.

“That’s not fair,” she said. “The other states are giving it online. I think that gives those kids an advantage and I think that will be harmful to the perception of Arizona.”



Mesa Unified School District (Mesa public schools)

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction: Suzan DePrez

Grades: PreK-12

Schools: 87

Students: 63,000

Area Served: City of Mesa


The state’s largest school district has been preparing to teach the Common Core standards in much the same way that smaller districts have — with several consecutive years of teacher training, millions of dollars in technology upgrades and parent education. However, despite a successful 2012 bond election, money is still tight.

The biggest challenge the 63,000-student district faces is securing a reliable stream of money to renew instructional resources, like textbooks, said Suzan DePrez, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Mesa Public Schools. And the costs are rising.

“Typically you review your curriculum and resources on about a six-year cycle,” said DePrez, who has been working in the education field for 28 years. “We have not had funding for capital purchases from the state for many years. We are using some resources that should have been refreshed years ago.”

DePrez noted that the district would be in this position regardless of Common Core or any other standards to which it is teaching. “We need to have sustainable funding so we can have access to the best resources for our kids — whatever that is — if it is a book, a digital resource, or something that is taught virtually — it isn’t free.”

She added that, although generally seen as a cheaper alternative to purchasing textbooks, digital resources aren’t always a better bet. “It’s not like a book that you pay for once and keep rebinding for 20 years. You sometimes have to pay annual licenses for digital resources.”

The district has relied mostly on federal money for teacher training, using the trainer-of-trainers model to save money by sending a small group out to bring back the lessons and teach others. DePrez said the district has taken steps to offer training “basically any which way you can think of” to make sure teachers are prepared. This is the district’s third year of preparation, which includes increased in-depth training overall and a refreshment of mathematics resources specifically.

Parent education on Common Core has taken the form of videos shown at open houses during the past two years, pamphlets handed out to parents, a website and information distributed through PTAs, DePrez said.

DePrez said the district can’t actually be prepared to give a new academic assessment test — like PARCC — because the state hasn’t adopted it as the assessment yet. “For me to say that we have everything in place to give whatever the next assessment is going to be, I would be remiss in doing that because I’m not sure I know what it is yet,” DePrez said. “There are assessments being developed by PARCC that states will have access to, but that doesn’t mean the state has to adopt a new assessment.”



Topock elementary School District

Superintendent: John Warren

Grades: PreK-8

Schools: 1

Students: 141

Area Served: Topock (western area of state)


The 141-student, rural, isolated Topock Elementary School District has been preparing for and implementing new and potentially expensive teaching methods and a computer-based assessment. The keys have been collaboration paired with some timely technology grants.

John Warren, the superintendent and principal, is the only district official interviewed for these stories to say that his district is technologically prepared to give the PARCC test today. His secret to preparedness rests in his dedication to getting technology in the hands of his students and securing grants of money and computers from two utility companies.

His specific focus on literacy and technology for his students, who he says are from a community with a 90 percent poverty rate, came from his own experience attending high-quality military schools growing up. “That opened up doors for me and the boys in my family. The equalizer was literacy and athletics for me. For today’s kids, it’s literacy and technology.”

He echoed the familiar sentiment that the biggest challenge in switching to Common Core is funding. Despite that, he said the school is implemented 100 percent. To achieve that, Warren used a mix of spirited lobbying and collaboration.

To prepare his teachers to teach the new standards, Warren wanted to participate in a Common Core training math program from the Rodel Foundation. However, when he first learned of the program a couple of years ago, it wasn’t offered in anywhere near Topock. So he took action.

“When I found out about the MAC-Ro Math program, I immediately went on the offensive,” Warren said. “I was able to — I don’t want to say strong-arm — but I was able to get them to open up the program outside of the Valley.”

In his continuing battle against the cost-prohibitive nature of implementing Common Core, Warren looked to his “sister district,” Congress Elementary School District, which he eventually partnered with to get a neuroscience- and computer-based math program at a steep discount.

“The program was cost prohibitive at $50,000 per school site,” he said. “Well, that certainly isn’t going to work in rural, isolated small-school Topock, Arizona.” The school’s superintendent wrote a grant including Topock, so the school ended up with a high-level mathematics program “at a 90 percent discount,” Warren said.

To round out his Common Core teacher training, Warren looked to what top districts were doing, and emulated them. For him, that was the Beyond Textbooks Program developed and used by Vail Unified School District near Tucson.

“The No. 1 academically ranked school district in Arizona last year was Vail. I’m guessing about 25 percent of districts have jumped on board with Beyond Textbooks. It has essentially taken the guesswork out,” Warren said.

The “guesswork” to which he is referring is combing through the programs offered to district officials like him that promise to get districts ready for Common Core.

Warren confidently reiterates that his district is prepared and he is doing everything within his ability to ready his students for success, but he knows he can’t “strong-arm” everything.

“Whatever politics or funding issues come up, we don’t have a lot of control over that. Here at the local level our focus is to educate children,” he said. “When the test comes around, they’ll be ready to go.”

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