During the school board campaign for Regional School Unit 14, then-candidate Eric Colby said he fielded many questions from parents confused about how the newly adopted Common Core State Standards would affect their children’s education both in the Windham-Raymond school district and beyond.

Colby, who won election to the board last week along with Jennifer Fleck, isn’t the only one hearing questions and concerns. So is Windham High School Principal Chris Howell. The Lakes Region Weekly recently discussed how the new standards are being adopted in RSU 14 with the principal, who served previously as the district’s curriculum coordinator.

Q: There are many new curriculum guidelines being applied to Maine students. Can you explain what they are and how they work?

A: There are two major pieces of legislation that are having an impact on the landscape of Maine schools. The first is the introduction of a proficiency-based diploma for all Maine high schools for the class of 2018. The second piece of legislation was the adoption by Maine of the Common Core State Standards that outline what a student should know and be able to do in math, English language arts, and literacy standards in science and social studies. Maine is one of 45 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards.

Q: Some are concerned about how students will be graded. Are letter grades going to be a thing of the past?

A: The legislation that adopted the Common Core State Standards and the legislation that created a proficiency-based diploma do not specify whether feedback should be given to students through letter grades, number grades, or a report card based on standards. For the proficiency-based diploma, many schools have chosen to move forward with a dual system where students receive grades in their classes as well as feedback on class standards or graduation standards. The Maine Department of Education has left the decision about how feedback is given to the local districts to decide.

Q: Is there confusion about the new standards among parents, students, and teachers? What are you hearing for questions and can you provide answers here to some of the commonly asked ones?

A: I am rarely asked questions about Common Core State Standards. Most teachers who teach the content outlined in the standards are familiar with the Common Core and are comfortable with the process for aligning their curriculum to the standards. Most of the questions that I have received over the past year have been concerned with the proficiency-based diploma. Many of the questions have come from parents in their concern that we will be moving directly to a standards-based diploma and what will be the impact to their student when they apply to college. I have two answers that I have been able to share.

First, Windham High School is moving forward with a dual system for reporting. The first part of our reporting system will populate the traditional transcript of courses and course grades. The second part of our system will include a report of how students are achieving on the standards that have been outlined for graduation. The combination of the two reports will give colleges, universities and potential employers a true picture of the skills that a student has.

The second answer that I share with parents involves a pledge that has been signed by many of the colleges and universities in New England. This pledge states that these schools will accept transcripts that may be different from the traditional transcript and that a student who submits a non-traditional transcript will be considered for admission.

Q: How is the implementation process going for these new standards? Are report cards going to look different for example? Can you give us other tangible changes?

A: The standards outlined in the Maine Learning Results are taught through the courses that we offer at Windham High School. For the foreseeable future, we will be providing feedback through traditional grades for courses. Students and parents may begin to see some changes to the report card in the near future as we work to separate grading for work habits from the traditional grade that we report to families. The reporting of work habits and the guiding principles could be appearing on the report card as separate feedback in the very near future.

The other place where changes will become evident will be on student transcripts. In addition to the reporting of course grades on the transcript, we will be adding feedback on the progress of students toward meeting graduation standards. As mentioned earlier, this dual system of reporting will serve to give a full and complete picture of a student’s experiences and accomplishments during (his or her) high school career.

Q: In your view, are these new standards needed? Was something wrong with the previous methods?

A: The development and adoption of the Common Core State Standards was driven by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Up to the development of these standards, states were responsible for the expense of developing and implementing their own standards. The hope of this process was that states could share in the expenses for professional development. Furthermore, it was hoped that this system would lead to the development of curriculum that could be developed and shared across multiple states. It is difficult to say whether or not there was something wrong with the previous standards for Maine as Maine had some of the highest and most challenging standards for students.

Q: How are teachers responding to the new methods? They’ve had to adapt to several different curriculum paradigms since No Child Left Behind came out about a decade ago.

A: Teachers in Windham and Raymond are working extremely hard to ensure that their curriculum is aligned to the standards that have been adopted in law and to ensure that students are meeting the standards in their classrooms. As part of their instruction, teachers are making sure that students are aware of the learning targets for their curriculum and what students need to demonstrate in order to meet a standard. The result of this work is a curriculum that is more transparent than it has ever been.

Q: Speaking of No Child Left Behind, 2014 was the year all students in the country were going to have to be meeting or exceeding adequate yearly progress. How is that going in Windham? What, if anything, happens if that progress isn’t “adequate” enough?

A: The 2014 deadline outlined in (No Child Left Behind) was an arbitrary deadline set over 10 years ago. The 2014 deadline states that 100 percent of students must be proficient in reading and math in grades 3 to 8 and in grade 11. The Obama administration created a provision in the law where states could apply for a waiver to the 2014 deadline as long as they created a system where schools were required to show progress toward all of their students showing proficiency. Maine applied for and was granted a waiver this past year. It is unclear as to what the impact will be on schools in Maine with this waiver. What we can be sure of is that Maine will continue to identify the lowest performing schools in the state. Schools in this category will receive targeted funds to help with school improvement funds.

Q: State officials said in 2008 that the creation of RSUs in Maine was supposed to cut down on central office staff. Is that happening with so many curriculum changes, which presumably need central oversight, taking place as of late?

A: The economic downturn that has impacted every school budget in Maine has had as great an impact on central office staff as consolidation did in 2008. The reduction of positions through consolidation and budget cuts has shifted the responsibility of much of this work in districts from a centralized level to school buildings. For districts that are able to afford centralized support, the role of curriculum director is essential to ensure that there is coordination of curriculum, instruction and assessment from one grade level or building to the next. This coordination is absolutely essential as we work to have students meet high standards to earn their diploma.

Q: Is this curriculum change to Common Core going to cost taxpayers more?

A: It is difficult to say whether or not the implementation of Common Core will cost states or local taxpayers any more money. While there have been expenses related to the time that is required to align curriculum, it is anticipated that these costs will be mitigated by the savings associated with curriculum development and assessment. It is anticipated that a common assessment for school accountability will be ready for the spring of 2015.

Q: Anything else you want parents, students and taxpayers to know about the curriculum changes?

A: The adoption of Common Core is the first step in the adoption of standards that were developed by multiple states. The Next Generation of Science standards have been developed and vetted for science, and it is anticipated that social studies will go through a multi-state process in the very near future. It is only a matter of time before each of the eight content areas (has its) own version of a curriculum that has been developed through the work of multiple states.

Principal Chris Howell

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