Garrison: Coming to Terms with Common Core

Implementing standards and curriculum initiative

By Pamela Doan

The Paper recently spoke with Stephanie Impellittiere, principal at the Garrison Union Free School, and Mark Villanti, Haldane School District superintendent, to address the issues and concerns regarding the Common Core State Standards Initiative, implemented in 2009 as a federal government initiative to create standard curriculum and testing standards across the U.S. Villanti shares the Haldane perspective in an accompanying interview. Impellittiere’s comments have been paraphrased and abbreviated.

Stephanie Impellittiere (photo by P. Doan)
Stephanie Impellittiere
(photo by P. Doan)

The Paper: There’s been a heated level of public discussion about the Common Core across the state recently. What has been your experience?

Impellittiere: The Common Core in and of itself is not the problem. There are a lot of key pieces that are really awesome and that hasn’t gotten out there. It’s getting the students to think on higher levels and that’s a result of the Common Core. You can look at old curriculums and standards and there are positive shifts in English Language Arts and Math.

There is a lot of value in the Common Core. The implementation is the problem. Tied to the implementation piece is the issue of getting it done yesterday. We only had since last January to plan, prepare, implement and train the teachers. Six months.

The Paper: If the curriculum piece is the strength of the Common Core, what is all the criticism about?

Impellittiere: To me, the biggest bugaboo is the testing. In this district, we want to look at children as individuals and we don’t want to do everything rote, everyone doing the same thing on the same day at the same time. I can’t understand that part. Previously, we had a lot of informal review. I’m watching a child, the teacher is watching, there are informal assessments. Now, that’s not good enough. We have to have a lot of data and a lot of testing to show what the child is doing. Honestly, it’s the testing piece that has our teachers here beside themselves.

The Paper: What is it specifically about the testing that is challenging?

All of the children in grades three to eight take the ELA and Math assessment. We adopted the AIMSweb in ELA and Math and they take it three times a year. We had to teach the teachers how to administer, score, and input the test last year. This is just one test and it’s for grades K through eight. Grades three to eight take the state test.

Then the state decided there needed to be something else and they came up with a new idea for children in grades K through two, which are student-learning objectives. [Impellittiere produced another thick binder.] We had to teach them how to do it and consultants came in to do that last year. The teachers had to create learning plans, assessments and testing for each child. We use a formula to determine a goal for the child and it tracks whether or not the child is growing and achieving. This is all statistically calculated to create a score for the teacher at the end of the year based on their class’s progress.

The Paper: The testing is also now tied to a teacher’s evaluation. What has been the impact of that?

Impellittiere: The testing is going to prove the child knows what we say they know and it’s going to be used to evaluate how well the teacher is teaching. The professional plan that we had to submit to the state last year was the result of a committee’s work with teachers and the association. (Impellittiere holds up another four-inch-thick binder with the professional plans to demonstrate the volume of the work.) Now a portion of the teacher’s evaluation is based on the test scores.

There is a much more involved and time-consuming system of observations and evaluation. Last year we had to write the professional plan, adopt a new rubric, and we trained all the teachers in the numbers and the rubric. It takes me three to four hours just to write one of these up for each teacher. Before a lot of it was narrative, now I have to back it up with what I observed.

The Paper: How has implementing all these new systems impacted the school?

Impellittiere: This has put a real halt in the system. We can’t go to the next level with anything because we’re so inundated with this. To do this all in six months since last January has been monumental and that’s the piece that’s not fair. I’m not saying we spend 10 years figuring it out, but teaching is about children and learning and values and engagement and relationships, not numbers. It’s not a business. We’re a family here and do a lot of helping. The angst is coming from dealing with all these numbers and trying to take care of kids and parents at the same time. This data is just way too much.

The Paper: Would the Common Core be more effective as a curriculum standard if they hadn’t changed the test and the expectations on that?

Impellittiere: It all had to align. It isn’t just the difficulty of the state test, it’s all the other testing, as well, the AIMSweb Test and the student learning objectives. Nobody can even understand the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes and this is where you get the headache.

The Paper: Was there really such a difference in curriculum among schools that created such gaps or disparities? Like between Garrison and Haldane or Highlands?

Impellittiere: That’s hard for me to tell because I’m not in those districts, but I don’t think so. At Garrison we’re proud that we get to do all these other projects like use the school forest and the recent Veterans Day program. Other school districts aren’t doing those things and we still do. There’s a culture here that’s warm, friendly and inviting but when push comes to shove, we still have to have them do all this. This is the closest thing that someone could come to a private school, but it’s not and we have to follow all the rules.

The Paper: Are there any parts of the Common Core that you haven’t been able to implement yet?

Impellittiere: The biggest problem is wrapping ourselves around the shifts and the changes. We’re using math modules this year instead of textbooks because the books weren’t in alignment. The other issue is developmental. Some children can’t get it and can’t keep up with the speed. It builds daily and if a child is absent for two days, you get nervous. If you have a group of children who don’t understand, the pressure is that it’s day five, but we’re only on day three of the module.

There’s no think time, that’s the problem. The teachers are learning it and teaching it at the same time. We’re getting the information, we’re learning how to teach it, we’re administering it and we’re evaluating it all that same time and that’s just the Math.

The Paper: Is it easier for a first grader who is just starting out than for a fifth grader who has been learning and testing under a different system and now has to change?

Impellittiere: I think so, yes. The problem with the first grader is that I think the Common Core is asking for some things that they aren’t developmentally ready for.

The Paper: What’s the future like?

Impellittiere: Our teachers are really great people and they’re doing a great job, but this year they’re really taxed, I see it. I’m trying hard to support them and let them know to hang in there. The Common Core is not the problem. The problem is the implementation, the testing and how it’s tied to teacher evaluation.