Story Lab

Story Lab: The Common Core

The Common Core State Standards are poised to remake public education from Maine to California. While the initiative once enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, in 2013 it began facing significant political pushback. As of June 2014, the number of states that fully adopted the standards has dropped from 45 to 42, with the governors of Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina signing legislation to pull out. Several others are considering similar moves. More states have backed out of the student assessment groups associated with the standards, committing to big-dollar contracts with other large testing companies.

At the same time, the common standards initiative represents the most ambitious effort in recent history to boost student learning in the United States. To help navigate through your own reporting, the following EWA Story Lab offers important signposts to consider, practical advice from veteran journalists, and a blueprint of story ideas to get you started. The Story Lab was developed with input from Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader of The Hechinger Report, along with freelance education journalists Sarah Carr, Barbara Kantrowitz, Sara Neufeld, and Pat Wingert. The Story Lab was written by EWA Public Editor Emily Richmond.

1. Do your homework. There’s a wealth of background material available to help you get up to speed on the Common Core. EWA has a series of briefing memos available – created to support The Hechinger Report’s recent project examining the new standards in seven states. EWA’s Topics page on Common Core also offers a range of reporting resources on the topic. Know the major changes the standards call for, such as more informational texts in all subjects and the middle-school algebra shift. Be aware of the changes for subjects like history and science, such as expecting middle school students to know the difference between primary and secondary sources in a text, as well as in core areas like mathematics and English language arts. The stronger your grasp is of the fundamentals, the easier it will be to explain it to your readers. At the same time, the Common Core is a massive initiative and tackling it can be daunting. Focusing on a particular grade level or subject area can make a story much more manageable.

2. Find the voices. If you think Common Core is daunting to report, consider how it comes across to readers who aren’t steeped in the policy. Using real people – and their real experiences – is a logical way to humanize your reporting. “After you understand the broad parameters of the story you want to tell, look for good characters who can illustrate the main points through their experiences,” says education journalist Barbara Kantrowitz, who wrote about the Common Core in Tennessee for the Hechinger project. “That makes the story much more accessible.” THR’s Jackie Mader says she was “surprised by how positive most teachers were. It was hard to get them to talk about challenges.” That’s why it helps for reporters to be up to speed about the necessity for additional professional development or classroom supplies, and specific changes in the standards. The more you know, the more fruitful your interviews will be. Mader says her best questions included: “What did you used to teach that you now will not teach because of the shift in standards? What new concepts or skills are you teaching? What are students doing differently in their responses and activities?” When interviewing teachers, be sure to look for a mix of experience and grade levels. And keep in mind that the perspective of the principals, instructional coaches, and professional development leaders also can be valuable.

3. Be specific. The Common Core isn’t a theoretical concept – it’s already influencing how teachers teach and students learn. “Whenever possible try to get concrete examples from teachers of how Common Core is changing their classroom,” says The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butrymowicz. “Sit in on a lesson and then afterward ask them to explain how they would have taught it two years ago.” For Butrymowicz, the biggest surprise out of her reporting in Kentucky was “how open people were about telling me when there weren’t huge changes.” In states that had standards that were lower than the Common Core’s expectations, ask teachers what they need to do to prepare students whose earlier schooling may not have laid the foundation for the more rigorous content. On the student side, education writer Sara Neufeld, who covered Pennsylvania for the Hechinger project, says the impact of the new assessments on high school students deserves more attention. In states linking the Common Core to exit exams, there will be “serious implications,” Neufeld says. States may have to consider offering exemptions from the exams or giving students an alternative means of demonstrating competency. Otherwise, “many students will be denied diplomas because the tests linked to the standards are much harder than the ones they are replacing,” Neufeld says.

4. Focus on facts. The din around Common Core, particularly among political groups who see it as a federal intrusion into local education matters, can be deafening. Pay attention to which groups are mounting local opposition, where they’re getting their funding, and the specifics of their concerns. At the same time, while it’s important to acknowledge the critics of the new standards, it’s also important to dispel misconceptions about the initiatives origins, scope, and intent. In the short term the political controversy might capture the headlines, says Sarah Carr, who wrote about Louisiana and Florida for the Hechinger project. But in the long term, the Common Core is going to be much more significant for its impact on classroom practices, Carr says. When looking at implementation, keep in mind that the concerns will vary from school to school, district to district, and state to state. There will be rural campuses where district officials believe teachers have the necessary training to be successful with the new standards but are struggling to add the necessary classroom technology for the coming assessments. There are also urban high school teachers worried that their students’ performance will suffer due to their lack of familiarity with computers, a result of so few of their families owning one.

5. Do some digging. Education journalist Pat Wingert, who wrote about California for The Hechinger Report project, recommends you track down the administrator assigned to coordinate the district’s Common Core activities. “Finding that person was the key to getting the best overview of what was supposed to be happening in each place,” Wingert recalls. “But I also found it helpful to do reality checks on the ground. Individual teachers did not always see the rollout as following the district’s master plan, and their list of ‘challenges’ didn’t necessarily match the district’s.” Wingert notes that while some states are able to tap new funding sources for Common Core, others are constrained to their current, and often shrinking, budgets. “It’ll be interesting to see what costs get trimmed to make this transition happen,” Wingert observes. Adopting the Common Core requires substantial resources.  In many cases, private companies are obtaining lucrative contracts to provide everything from classroom technology to professional development. Public records requests can be time-consuming but the payoff can be tremendous. The Hechinger Report’s Jackie Mader says the contracts she obtained for testing companies in Colorado “were a gold mine.” EWA offers a Reporters Guide to Obtaining Public Records, online at bit.ly/EWAopr, and online resources such as MuckRock (https://www.muckrock.com/) can help you draft your request.

Story Ideas to Steal

Get in the Room: While the Common Core refers to standards, and not curriculum, the new expectations are certainly influencing how teachers teach and students learn. Consider dedicating time to observing teachers in the classroom, and then having them walk you through what’s changed in their instruction under the new standards. Are they doing anything differently in terms of assigning in-class activities or homework? Has their communication with parents changed? Are teachers noticing any difference in students’ level of engagement or understanding of the material?

Beyond the Three ‘Rs’: While much of the Common Core focus has understandably been on reading, writing, and mathematics, the new standards will also affect subjects like history and science. How are teachers in the subjects not covered by Common Core adjusting to new demands that they now be actively involved in literacy instruction? What training are teachers receiving in this area, which is uncharted territory for many of them?

Goodbye Textbooks? Patrick Murphy of the University of San Francisco, in a recent report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, looked at ways that the Common Core could translate into sizeable savings for districts that opt to drop traditional textbooks and in-person professional development in favor of less costly online materials and training. However, some districts are required to provide textbooks to students, even if they are no longer aligned to the new material. What changes are coming to local classrooms? Which companies stand to profit as the new vendors?

Training the Teachers: How are schools of education responding to the new Common Core standards, and ensuring their graduates are ready? What is changing in the required courses? Are local districts and teacher-preparation programs working together to ensure expectations are aligned? Consider shadowing a student teacher who is preparing Common Core-aligned lessons, and find out what’s new or different in the requirements and the approach.

Assessing the Assessments: Many states will be using Common Core-linked exams developed by one of two multistate consortia: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and Smarter Balanced. Both have sample questions online that are worth a look. How will those new assessments be phased into local schools? Are campuses ready for the technological requirements? Based on fallout seen in other states with early rollout – e.g., Kentucky and Tennessee – are districts preparing the public for the expected low proficiency rates among students who are the first to be measured using the new assessments? Are teacher evaluations being revamped – or delayed – as a result of the new exams?

Common Core and Parents: What’s the level of understanding and support among families for the Common Core? Has the local school district devoted resources to looping them in? Are any schools using the transition to push for greater family involvement in student learning, such as through parent “academies”? Consider an overview story or “Frequently Asked Questions” piece that addresses both the legitimate concerns and dispels myths surrounding the new standards.

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Emily Richmond, EWA’s Public Editor, is a valuable resource for journalists who need reporting advice, new sources, editing support or fresh angles on the beat. To schedule a call or to get help via email, write her at erichmond@ewa.org. If you have an urgent need on a tight deadline, contact her by phone at 702-370-0017. This service is free and confidential.

The Education Writers Association is dedicated to improving the quality and quantity of education coverage to create a better-informed society. As the national professional organization of members of the media who specialize in education, EWA has worked for more than 65 years to help journalists get the story right. Today, EWA members benefit from its high-quality training, information, and customized support.