In this photo taken Feb. 12, 2015, sixth grader Alex Greuey, 11, reads through a problem in the English Language Arts section of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test as he and his classmates practice for the Common Core State Standards Exams at Morgan Elementary School South in Stockport, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ty Wright)

This is the second in a continuing series of letters between two award-winning school principals, one who likes the Common Core State Standards and the other who doesn’t. The debate over the Common Core State Standards has become so polarized that it is hard to get people who disagree to have reasonable conversations about it. The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news Web site focused on inequality and innovation in education, is hosting a conversation between Carol Burris of New York and Jayne Ellspermann of Florida (in a format that Education Week once used with Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as the authors).  The Report’s editors as well as both principals have given me permission to republish each letter.

Burris has served as principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York since 2000. In 2010, she was recognized by the School Administrators Association of New York State as their Outstanding Educator of the Year, and in 2013, she was recognized as the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Ellspermann is principal of West Port High School in Ocala, Florida.  She has served as a principal in elementary, middle, and high schools for the past 24 years and is the 2015 Principal of the Year for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The first letter was written by Burris, a Core opponent, to Ellspermann, a Core supporter. Burris explains why she once liked the Core but changed her mind after New York State schools began to implement them several years ago. You can read her letter to Ellspermann here.

Here is the second letter, from Ellspermann to Burris. (It should be noted that Florida had embraced the Common Core State Standards initiative but later dropped out and devised its own standards, which are remarkably similar to the Core.)

Dear Carol,

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York you have described had to be challenging. So much pressure on good people already tasked with tremendous responsibility. I am grateful that our experience in Florida has been different.

Let me pick up on the example of the kindergarten math standard you highlighted in your letter: Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into ten ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition by a drawing or equation (e.g., 18=10+8); understand that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones.

To give the standard a field test, I followed up with my twin 6-year-old grandsons who attend a Florida public school. They did not hesitate to explain it to me.

First, they ran and retrieved Legos to show me what the standard described. They pointed out that this was a kindergarten math standard, but they use it in first grade with the math they do now. Quickly, Legos were hooked together to show the construction of tens and the single Legos were explained to be ones. They were able to show me that to compose the numbers you put the Legos together to show the difference between tens and ones. Once they had created the visual for me they showed me that you can write it out like a math problem (18=10+8). No crying, no stress; genuine excitement to show me what they knew. We did not stop there. They were able to show me how in first grade they have gone on to larger units and applied the same standard to more complex problems.

What could be the difference in how the standard was implemented in our two states? Is it the mindset of the children, parents, or educators, or perhaps the presentation to the students or preparation of the teachers?

My grandsons’ sheer joy of sharing what they learned and the patience they displayed when they explained this complex standard to me demonstrated, to draw on the work of Carol Dweck, a growth mindset. Their learning of the standard had been presented as an opportunity and a challenge, not a mandate with a fixed outcome. They saw it as a building block (literally) of their education.

The other thing that impressed me was my grandsons’ command of the academic vocabulary to demonstrate and explain the standard. They used the terminology in the standard without hesitation. Not knowing the preparation of the elementary teachers in New York, I wonder if some of the teachers whose students are struggling with these concepts do not have the background and experience in teaching elementary math in this manner.

The original standards presented a challenge and an opportunity for states to review and amend them to make the standards their own. In Florida, parents, teachers, students, and community members were given the chance to review, comment, and make recommendations on the standards. Florida’s Department of Education adjusted the original standards based on that input. We did not accept the standards as presented, but customized them to meet the needs of Florida’s students. The parent, teacher, and student voices in addition to those of the business community and the community at large added to the standards’ viability.

Florida has been extremely transparent in its rollout of the Florida Standards and the Florida Standards Assessments. We have a robust online curriculum planning tool that enables teachers to create a pacing guide and to share links to lessons and resources. There is also a portal that has resources for students, parents, and teachers to assist with the implementation of the new standards. Teachers appreciate the videos of other teachers sharing how they are teaching different standards. Teachers also have access to item specifications that describe how standards will be assessed and instructional tools. Students are benefiting from training tests to help them with the tools they will encounter on the new computer assessments that will be rolled out this spring. And parents have a front row seat as we prepare our students for the upcoming assessments through the parent section of the portal.

Our schools are very different. My school, West Port High School, is a rural comprehensive high school of about 2,600 students. It is racially diverse with a high poverty rate. We offer 20 AP courses and have an open enrollment policy encouraging students to take advantage of these rigorous courses. In addition, we offer our students the opportunity to take dual enrollment college courses on our campus. We have students who take advantage of a few dual enrollment college courses and earn an associate of arts degree prior to graduation from high school. Like your school, we serve our special needs students as well as our English Language Learners through an inclusion model in classes with the rest of the school population. Many of our students do not grasp their own potential and we see our challenge to help them exceed their own perceived potential.

Carol, your change from being an advocate of college and career ready standards to becoming a critic appears to be rooted in your sympathy for your teachers who see their children struggling at the elementary level. I am curious to know how these teachers have adjusted to the standards at the high school level. With much of your core curriculum being IB are your students assessed on the Common Core standards in addition to the IB standards and testing? Do your teachers teach the Common Core or IB?

March marks the beginning of “testing season” in Florida. I look forward to our conversation as we go through our first round of testing and see how our students and teachers fare as the reality of the Florida Standards Assessments comes into fruition.

Sincerely,

Jayne

Jayne Ellspermann, Principal

West Port High School