BSD, LCSD officials prepare for Common Core implementation

Published 10:00pm Saturday, August 2, 2014

The summer months have come to an end for local students and school is gearing up for another year. Every year begins the same. Kids wake up early, eat breakfast, grab their back packs and head to school, but when students walk into their classrooms at 8 a.m. they will not be getting the same lessons as last year. Mississippi teachers will be switching to a Common Core based curriculum.

Common Core is a set of education standards for kindergarten through 12th grade that revolves around English language arts and mathematics. Mississippi has voluntarily adopted it for the public education systems. It sets clear expectations for students in reading, writing, speaking and listening, language and mathematics for students across the county.

“It will change some of the methods we use to teach,” said Ben Cox, superintendent of Brookhaven School District “It’s going to move the way we view learning, so that true learning will be when a student can analyze information to solve a problem.”

Schools across the state will be adopting the new standards. Forty-five other states are already using Common Core, which means that local students will have the same academic expectations, regardless of their location. Common core does not set a curriculum for teachers; it sets goals for school performance. The state-led effort was developed by teachers, experts and government officials from across the country.

“Now we are using similar sets of standards,” said Cox. “I really believe that we will have more resources which other states have already seen.”

Cox added local school districts will now be able to use national textbook and learning material already catered to Common Core standards.

Cox described the change in education as a black shawl. They will slowly be removing some of the black threads and replacing them with gold ones, but never corrupting the structural integrity of the shawl. After a long period time there will be a seamless black and gold shawl.

“We looked at the common core curriculum; we looked at what was currently being taught in the classrooms, and we filled in our own gaps,” said Stephanie Henderson, Brookhaven deputy superintendent. “We have these standards, and we know what the state has made priority, and we have those priorities, too, but we also see gaps that we can fill in for ourselves to make the standards even stronger for us.”

Henderson led the curriculum team for Brookhaven this year. The 25-member team represented K-12 in several subject areas. They met regularly throughout the year to develop the curriculum for the school district. They spoke with state department representatives, deconstructed the common core standards, developed pacing guides and looked at several different resources for curriculum development.

“There is nothing to be afraid of,” said Henderson. “We’ve always had standards in education.”

The Lincoln County School district is also redeveloping their curriculum to work toward reaching the new benchmarks. Teachers and staff are working to incorporate common core standards into the classrooms.

“The cards are down, we’ve got to play them, and we’re going to play them the best we can,” said Terry Brister, Lincoln County School District superintendent. “These are the new standards. They will help prepare us more and expect more out of our children. It will prepare them for the next level whether that is college or a career.”

The Mississippi Department of Education compares the switch to a road trip. Students from across the state are traveling to a meeting in Jackson in two days. To make it there on time, the students have to drive a certain distance each day. The amount traveled may be different but the end result is the arrival in Jackson.

Henderson elaborated on the comparison. She said before common core, students may have had to travel that distance but now they are asked to go a little further.

“We are going to take different routes to get there, some of the basics are the same,” said Henderson. “We still need fuel, we still need a good working vehicle. We need those good foundational things in the classroom. We still need good classroom management; we still need grouping and quality instruction. There are a lot of things that will still be the same; however how we get there may be different. Some of the scenery along the way may be different because we have a new destination now.”

There are however a few concerns about the Common Core standards that are shared by both Cox and Brister.

“It’s something that we don’t understand. There is an aspect of it that I don’t understand. There is an aspect of it that even Mrs. Henderson doesn’t understand because it is something brand new,” said Cox. “We can understand the standards, but until we actually get the state assessment, it’s hard to view those standards with 100 percent of the light we need shined on it.”

Since Cox has been in office, academic standards have changed four times and each time the tests change, the scores drop. He explained that curriculum does change based on test requirements, and since they do not know what the tests will look like, the first year will not be particularly high performing for the schools. The lower schools will not be a reflection of lower school performance, just unfamiliar testing.

“Some people get upset by that, but if it’s a good test and a test in which are things you should be taught, then there is nothing wrong with allowing a test to drive the curriculum,” said Cox.

Brister and Cox said when schools are ranked by standards such as common core, that many factors are not measured such as things learned inside and outside the classroom such as social skills, student improvements or general life lessons. The tests can not measure extracurricular, field trips, music and art or any other activities students succeed in through school.

“Sometimes our teachers and our communities do not get the credit visually for the things that are accomplished,” said Brister. “Our teachers and our community and our students achieve a whole lot more than perception gives them credit for.”

Brister’s concerns about common core apply to all education ranking systems of which Mississippi has continually fallen to the bottom. He said that it puts students on an uneven playing field when you generically label a schools overall performance instead of looking at progress made from year to year. He added that his teachers work extremely hard, but it is not always represented.

“The intentions of common core are great, but you can’t make a racehorse out of a thoroughbred in a year and probably never will,” said Brister referring to the perceived academic level of some Mississippi students. “What you want that racehorse horse that’s not a thoroughbred to do is improve. You may work a whole lot harder to get that horse running in the Kentucky Derby than what people really know and the horse came in last.”

In the midst of making the transition to Common Core, both school superintendents are still constrained by the lack of funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

The MAEP is a Mississippi law that was passed in 1997 that creates a formula which distributes fund equally across Mississippi so that every children is able to receive an adequate education. According to, the formula looks at average daily attendance, base cost for a school to run, at-risk component, local government contributions and has a guarantee that local school districts will receive at least eight percent more than what they did in 2002. This would fund employee salaries, instructional material and operating costs.

Unfortunately, the legislature has only fully funded MAEP twice in the past 17 years.

“I am so tired and frustrated with people always blaming education for failure in the state of Mississippi because there are so many good things going on in education today. But if we are failing so badly, why aren’t they (state politicians) doing something about it before now,” said Brister. “Education does play a vital role in the community, but it cannot play it by itself. It has to have commitment from the state of Mississippi to make sure it succeeds.”

“Not having the funds that other states have can be crippling,” said Cox. Cox said this year the Brookhaven School District will be under funded $1.5 million dollars this year. That money could have paid for 30 new teachers, 15 new classrooms or 75 top of the line computers.

This is a problem schools across the state are facing.

Cox and Brister said that funding is an important part of helping Mississippi schools.

Brister said in the long term, common core will not succeed without the MAEP. He said money has to come with accountability.

Even though there is still under-funding, both Lincoln County and Brookhaven school districts are behind the new Common Core standards with very few reservations. The schools will not change, and the basic concepts will be the same. The switch will be focused on preparing students to more easily apply the skills they have learned in school directly to colleges or careers.

“I personally have my very first child starting kindergarten this year,” said Henderson. “He will have nothing but common core, and as a parent I have no problem with that because what ever the expectation is in the classroom, I expect him to meet it. I’m not concerned with him being the valedictorian for Brookhaven High School; I’m concerned with him being successful in life. I don’t want him to feel like his education was second rate because he was educated in Mississippi versus someone educated in New York or California. As a parent, I am glad we have higher standards for our children.”