Tennessee Christian Preparatory School President Dr. Bill Balzano, Upper School Principal Audri Wood and Lower School Principal Kathi Douglas said Wednesday the impact will come through teacher evaluation processes and faculty in servicing, but the standards will have little effect on academics.
“We have no animosity toward it. We intend to take the best parts of it, but I will tell you we’re looking at it through the rearview mirror,” Dr. Balzano said.
“The things they talk about in language arts and math, we were doing a long time ago in terms of approaches to learning. We don’t see it as nearly problematic (as public schools), but it is problematic from a philosophic sense in that it brings more and more government into the educational process.”
Whether or not TCPS formally adopts Common Core, the national initiative is showing up in teacher training and evaluation and funding processes.
“Our teachers are aware of Common Core, because of the ramifications of evaluations. Most of our teachers are state certified, plus they are educators and they have educator friends elsewhere,” Wood said.
Dr. Balzano views the standards as the minimum level of instruction. TCPS students learn the basic concepts of math in kindergarten and build upon that base. By second grade, the children know repeated addition, which automatically goes into multiplication.
“They start interchanging the repeated addition and multiplication which is just another way to say the same thing. In multiplication, you start teaching them doubles — 2 X 2, 3 X 3, 4 X 4 and that automatically gets you into square roots,” Douglas said.
“It is not fully mastering the concept, but it is exposing to a concept to help them start processing and help them understand.”
Last year, Douglas began moving first-grade math into kindergarten and preschool-4 students now work on kindergarten math. Without pushing them, children are taught in progressive stages through memorization, singing, games and visual aids such as apples and oranges.
“We haven’t left out the basics,” Wood said. “They still count in the first grade everyday. We just keep adding things to help them and to expand their knowledge. Kids love to memorize, so we’re just trying to give them good things to memorize that will help them later. They memorize all of the addition and multiplication facts at an early age because they love to memorize. They love to sing and jump around. It’s natural to them. By the time they get to the third grade, some schools give them calculators. We don’t give our students calculators until the upper grades when they’re dealing with graphing calculators, but we don’t need them (any sooner) because they’ve got those facts in their heads and recall them pretty quickly.”
In her opinion, memorization is one methodology Common Core is trying to achieve.
“They’re trying to go back to that kind of universal idea that there are certain things you should memorize at each grade. If we could just get everyone in the United States memorizing at the same time, we’d be doing great,” she said.
The two principals believe TCPS is well ahead of the standards laid out in the Common Core initiative. Much of Tennessee Christian’s emphasis is on providing a cohesive and well-rounded education in grades K through 12, as opposed to having kindergarten through the fifth grades at one school. Middle school might have a different philosophical viewpoint and high school could have still another.
“We have the luxury of having some of these children from age 2 and all the way through graduation,” Wood said. “That aspect (continuity) is not a problem at all for us because we are doing a lot of ‘vertical teaming’.”
The teaching goals came from meetings with staff, parents and school leadership to answer the question of how to prepare kindergarten students for calculus when they reach the 12th grade.
Balzano said, “That’s the way we approach that. We then purchase the curriculum material and look for teachers who can get us there. That is something we’ve been able to be out front on and we’re about to start that process in science. We have a committee that’s meeting in science already and this year there will be a very strong emphasis on reading.”
Douglas said, “We’ve been able to back it up (knowledge requirements) to the grade before and say seniors need to know this and juniors need to know this and sophomores this. Teachers within the various disciplines, in Lower and Upper School, meet regularly; that’s vertical teaming. We’ve had the luxury of going kindergarten through 12th so we can say we truly are a college preparatory school in kindergarten because we really are getting them ready for college.”
“But,” Dr. Balzano said, “that’s because we have the luxury of selecting the students who come to our school so our teachers and principals have been out front on almost everything Common Core talks about.”
He said TCPS combines a very strong academic program comparable to any of the fine private schools in Chattanooga “with a very comfortable expression of faith in God and the integration of faith into subjects. If you want strong academic programming and good behavior, we control our students’ behavior pretty well, then we are the place for you. They don’t have the luxury in public schools of selecting and screening students for entrance. If you want the freedom to integrate faith on a daily basis and talk about scripture, then we’re the place for you.”
TCPS is an inter-denominational Christian institution.
Dr. Balzano said Common Core has some pluses concerning standardizing knowledge levels and curriculum and Wood thinks national standards sound good in theory.
“It’s like, why didn’t we think of this before instead of having different expectations of students in the various states and various cities,” she said. “Now there’s a universal standard we can all adhere to.”
“The downside is the cost of implementation, in-servicing, the cost of curriculum and there are a lot of people who philosophically feel like the government should not be setting a national standard, that education belongs to the local community,” Dr. Balzano said. “But, in terms of the pluses, I think they’re there.”
He said the problem would be whether the tests are unbiased. Currently, states have their own standardized tests, often threshold tests, and this prevents one state from knowing what the other was doing. That practice made comparing states very difficult.
“What this does now is allow a comparison, but now, politics, teacher unions, funding levels, urban problems and all kinds of other issues come into play if your kids do not perform at the “expected” level. What are we going to do to change that?” he said.
In theory, Dr. Balzano said the state tests should reflect the national learning objectives, though in practice, he is skeptical.
“If the kids in Detroit don’t perform at the same level and kids in Chicago, there is going to be mayhem as to how that is going to be corrected. I think it’s going to be a political issue. I think it’s going to be about funding. It’s going to get into racial inequality, suburbs versus inner city. The devil is in the details and it leads to taxes.”
For example, if Atlanta city schools perform poorly, will the focus be on additional funding? If Atlanta city schools need additional revenue will outlying counties around Atlanta be asked to subsidize city schools to ensure the same opportunities?
“I don’t know how all of that is going to work out, but I do know it is coming and it is going to be mayhem — and we are only into two subjects right now. By the time you get to all of the other subjects, maybe they will have worked out the kinks,” he said. “Where we are really blessed at TCPS — and I really do think we are blessed — is we’re sort of above that fray right now. Our kids are performing well enough that we don’t have to focus on that and because of the nature of independent schools.”
But, he sees pressure being placed on independent schools, particularly Christian schools, concerning admission standards.
In classrooms, Wood sees where the standards initiative could lead to nationally standardized textbooks. In that case, who chooses the publisher?
Using Psychology as an example, Dr. Balzano said TCPS uses the best Advanced Placement textbooks teachers and staff can find.
“Whatever the other states do, we wouldn’t restrict ourselves on a curricular basis to what the state says. We would go well beyond that because we see that as threshold material,” he said. “There will be a lot of public school teachers and administrators who will do the same thing.”
Advanced Placement is a national program offering college-level curriculum and examinations to high school students across the country. This is somewhat like a Common Core subject in its operation. This provides an example of the sort of problem Common Core will present the country in determining who will write the curriculum and the test book.
“There is a real brouhaha coming over the AP history course. Some of the material has 36 pages devoted to Islam, written from a friendly Islamic position and less than a page on Christianity and almost nothing on Judaism,” Dr. Balzano said. “Will that sort of thing happen in the development of Common Core curriculum?
“We do not restrict ourselves to what the state says, but it may put pressure on independent schools to do so,” he said, because textbooks will support the standards, so it will force change.”
“What Common Core may do is create a monolithic education system which I have philosophic issues with. For example it seems to presume all children at the same age are at the same stage of development, that is, it presumes all third graders should be about the same maturity,” Dr. Balzano said.
According to “The Common Core State Standards: History and Fact Sheet” published by the Tennessee Department of Education, the standards are meant to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”
The same standards will apply in all participating states. Until recently, 45 states and District of Columbia adopted academic the standards in English and math. However, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Utah withdrew, opting instead for cheaper state options, to reduce the number to 40. Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio are all wavering due to the cost of testing, fear of a federal takeover of state education systems and concern of how student information will be used, according to various Associated Press stories.