Naja Hawthorne is in seventh grade at rural Yazoo City Middle School in the Mississippi Delta. She started her most recent writing assignment with what she calls the fun part – reading a book.
“It’s just so adventurous” she says. “I love how Frodo gets the ring. He has to travel up the mountain, and throw it in the fire. He is heroic. He shows courage even though he is scared half the time.”
But after reading “The Lord of the Rings,” Hawthorne had a challenge ahead of her – a six-page paper discussing the novel’s plot and characters. It’s a classic, if lengthy, book report. But it’s also a simple writing task compared to what Mississippi seventh graders will be asked to master in the coming years. Soon, Hawthorne will have to use multiple texts and independent research to come up with her own analysis.
It’s a massive cognitive leap from simple story recall to critical thinking, and it’s happening because schools across the country are switching to new education standards called Common Core. But for Mississippi, and other states performing at the bottom in literacy and language, Common Core is an especially huge jump.
“All the years that I was in my teaching career was knowledge based, recall,” says Janna Bardwell. Bardwell is a twenty-year education veteran and an administrator at Yazoo City Schools. She says that leap from recall to critical thinking is going to be shaky: most kids will not make it across right away.
“Every time we look at a new curriculum I see anywhere – and I’m speaking from experience here – I see two to three years. As we move into Common Core, we’ve got synthesis, analysis and evaluation. We are definitely going to be at the upper end,” she says.
But Dr. Mariella Simons says it’s about time. As Associate Director of the Mississippi Writing and Thinking Institute, she has worked for years to improve writing instruction in Mississippi schools.
“Everybody’s always taught writing. Everybody’s always taught reading. But the emphasis placed on assessment, and the depth at which a student will be required to understand and will be able to communicate will be quite different,” Simons says.
This time Simons says the jump in standards is backed by tougher accountability: students’ end of year tests will now require writing, not just multiple choice.
“Then teachers and administrators are going to make certain their instruction gets the kids where they can score as highly as they can,” she says.
Which Simons says means better writing lessons and more assignments. Mississippi tested writing in the past, though not every grade level, and educators complain the tests were too easy.
Rigorous standards plus tough accountability - sounds like Mississippi has a plan to pull itself off the bottom. But Kathleen Yancy says not so fast. She’s an English Professor at Florida State University and she says Common Core may be hitting classrooms too quickly. Yancy says many students are likely to feel ill-equipped and get discouraged.
“If they jump into the curriculum at grade six - [and] have not had the curriculum six years prior – they would be at a particular disadvantage,” she says, adding that could result in an increase in the dropout rate.
“Common Core isn’t addressing that fundamental disparity in any way,” she says.
Yancy says some students will thrive. The thing is – those students are more likely to come from more affluent schools. Yancy says disadvantaged students will likely be left behind, exposing another layer of education inequity.