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HWRSD: Common Core changes minimal

Date: 10/17/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM – No sweeping changes are coming to the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) as a result of the newly implemented Common Core Standards, according to Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea.

O’Shea, along with Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Timothy Connor and members of the leadership teams from various schools throughout the district, made a presentation to a small group of residents inside Minnechaug Regional High School’s auditorium outlining the direction of instruction in the schools on Oct. 15. They explained that HWRSD, along with many Massachusetts school districts, were already well-positioned to address the new standards.

“Ninety to 95 percent of the standards were already in place in the then-existing Massachusetts educational framework,” O’Shea said, adding later that the majority of the state’s educational frameworks remained intact with revisions being made only to English language arts and math.

The superintendent also stressed that the new standards, adopted by Massachusetts in 2010 and required to be fully implemented in the schools for the first time this year, did not remove the district’s ability to govern itself in terms of the curriculum it offers.

“The Common Core represents a set of standards, not a curriculum, and identifies what a student should be able to do by the time they graduate Minnechaug,” he said. “They don’t identify specifically what we teach in terms of specific content … We still enjoy the expertise of our own teachers and advanced curriculum is still a local responsibility.”

The superintendent went on to say that he understood some of the misgivings regarding the Common Core and his staff has approached it with “a healthy level of skepticism.”

School Committee Chair Peter Salerno stressed that the conversation regarding the curriculum under the Common Core would continue.

“This is not the last meeting we are going to have,”?he said. “We are going to have an ongoing dialogue on this issue.”

Resident Tara Kozub, citing statements made by former state Senate President Tom Birmingham, who oversaw the Education Reform Act of 1993, voiced concerns with the quality of education that would be offered under the Common Core Standards and that it would create a “race to the middle.”

O’Shea said HWRSD “can, will and should exceed expectations” set by the standards.

“Common Core is not designed to be exhaustive or a restrictive list,” he continued.

Using Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing as an example, Connor said the district has always aimed to achieve beyond what the state has set as standards. This year, for instance, 100 percent of 10th grade students passed the math portion of the test with 98 percent scoring proficient or advanced, he said, however, the district has not allowed that to become its ceiling.

“While we certainly take the time to celebrate those successes and evaluating that data, we are constantly looking beyond that,” he said.

Peter Dufresne, principal of Thornton W. Burgess Middle School, explained that with the district’s differentiated learning model, educators could focus on achievement of all students.

“There was a time when we would teach to the middle, hoping the struggling students would be able to catch up and the exceptional students would be challenged enough. Those days are over,” he said. “With differentiated instruction, or tiered instruction, we teach to all students at the same time.”

Addressing the ways in which the schools measure progress, Connor explained that in addition to the MCAS testing, the district periodically uses universal screening tools to provide “short, timely assessments” of its students throughout the school year. He added that the schools’ have also implements District Determined Measures through which educators’ instructional practices are reviewed.

He added that there was the possibility that the district would be compelled by the state to move away from MCAS testing to a new assessment, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) testing, but it has not yet been adopted in Massachusetts.

Residents questioned the usefulness of the PARCC assessments, one stating that Florida, who utilizes it, was planning on discontinuing its use. Concerns about the cost borne by taxpayers were also raised.

O’Shea said he felt Massachusetts was better positioned than other states, such as Florida, in terms of making the transition, because of the Commonwealth’s previously existing high standards. He said he couldn’t pinpoint a cost for the change in assessment.

As an example of some of the changes in curriculum under the new standards, at the elementary level, schools have adopted a new mathematics curriculum, Green Meadows School Principal Deb Thompson said. The enVision system, which aligns with the Common Core, has allowed for streamlining of instruction, she said.

“Before we had two classrooms using two different curriculums and we really wanted to be more focused,” she said.

Resident David Sanders, along with other members of the community, raised concerns about “data mining” and the collection of various non-educational records through assessments.

Other concerns regarding the violation of privacy included the use of brain imaging, eye scans, and the collection of other biometric data.

O’Shea said personal privacy remained paramount. He added he had not heard anything about that kind of testing and he had not received any direction, nor read any directive to compel the district to engage in those practices.

“The day that happens is the day I start looking for another career,” O’Shea said.