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Hespe Justifies Review of Common Core, Suggests Changes May Not Be Drastic

Tells state board that time has come to look at effectiveness of controversial standards, look for ways to improve on them

mark biedron
Mark Biedron, board president, talking to a member of the public after State Board of Education meeting.

A week after Gov. Chris Christie shook up the education establishment and announced he would no longer support the Common Core State Standards, New Jersey schools probably shouldn’t expect any big changes any time soon – or maybe at all.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday offered his most expansive public comments yet on Christie’s announcement, promising that the review of the Common Core standards would be a “highly deliberative” and inclusive process.

Speaking at the State Board of Education meeting, Hespe said the review could have had been expected anyway at the five-year mark of the Common Core. He said it will help bring improvements to the controversial standards.

He told the board he will have more details on the process within the month.

“Standards are living documents, not set in stone,” he said. “And now is a very good time to do this, to look at where we are going.”

Afterward, he said that while the process could be completed within the year, the Common Core remains the standards of record for now -- and certainly through the next school year – and that the end product may not be terribly different than what’s now in place.

“We’ll be at a different place,” Hespe said in an interview. “How much different? If history is a judge, it may not be that much, but it will be a different place.”

At another point, he said: “This is more of a renovation, not a tear-down.”

Hespe said he hopes the review will address some key gaps in the existing standards.

For instance, he said more attention has to be given to subjects other than math and language arts, which are the two academic areas covered by the Common Core. He added that the review will result in more attention being paid to technology skills as well.

Even within the Common Core standards, questions have been raised about the appropriateness of some specific areas, including universal requirements for Algebra II, or whether there should be more attention paid to so-called “soft skills” like collaboration and communication.

“Where is computer science?” Hespe asked. “Are we preparing students enough for STEM careers?”

The comments at the start of the State Board meeting came a little more than a year after the same board – most of them appointed by Christie – had reiterated its support for the Common Core even as controversy and debate started to heat up around the standards and their aligned tests, the PARCC exams.

This was no inconsequential forum, as the board will have to approve any new standards. And board members yesterday were measured in their comments, not disavowing the Common Core but also not objecting to the governor’s call for a review.

Several said they continued to support the national standards, but recognized the value of taking a new look at where there may be gaps, especially with the first results of the new PARCC testing coming due this summer.

Christie, in his disavowal of Common Core, said the state would be keeping ther PARCC, at least for now.

“I think this process is a valid one,” said Ronald Butcher, one of the board’s longest-sitting members. “This gives us an opportunity to look at the standards and collect data [from PARCC] on those standards.”

Butcher, for one, said this may be an opportunity for the state to put more emphasis on civics education.

Others explicitly said they continued to stand by the Common Core, including both current board President Mark Biedron and past president Arcelio Aponte, who led the board when it readopted the standards in early 2014.

“The board is pretty unified in this view,” Biedron said in an interview. “We believe in the pedagogy and theory behind the Common Core and PARCC, and the need to move from content-based instruction to the problem-solving, high-order skills. We still believe that.

“But at four years, going on five, it is a great time to review it,” he said. “Does it have holes? Sure.”

Asked specifically whether he agrees with the governor that the Common Core isn’t working, Biedron hesitated.

“I believe in the theory behind the Common Core,” he said. “I don’t believe in throwing out the whole Common Core and starting over. That won’t happen.”

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