Since Connecticut adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010, teachers have been teaching the same curriculum at the same time, but they have been having very different experiences in the classroom.
CCSS, or Common Core, is a set of educational standards detailing a curriculum for English and mathematics for children in kindergarten through grade 12.
In more than a dozen interviews, Connecticut’s public school teachers indicated a range of both complaints and accolades for the controversial curriculum but a common observation emerged — the curriculum that was introduced to create consistency does not work equally for every child, every teacher or every district.
Teachers across the state indicated that Common Core is less effective for lower-income districts, children who are young for their grade, lower-performing children who do not qualify for special-education services and teachers who feel the rigidity of the curriculum has stifled their ability to be creative and incorporate play into the classroom.
Glastonbury Public Schools spend an average of $16,578 per student and the percentage of students who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch is 13% as compared to the state average of 42.1% for the 2018-19 school year, according to edsight.ct.gov.
“In Glastonbury we were really lucky because we already had such a strong curriculum, so when Common Core came in we were pleasantly surprised that we only had to make some minor changes,” said Michelle Rose, a veteran first grade teacher in Glastonbury.
Rose said that she thinks the Common Core standards are working well for most children in Connecticut because Connecticut as a state already had strong standards.
Jenifer Evans, a kindergarten teacher in Glastonbury, agrees that town’s transition to the Common Core was easy, but she attributes their success to socio-economic factors.
Evans’ own children attend public school in Tolland where the lack of support staff and paraprofessionals makes the one-on-one testing disruptive to class time. She highlighted the Common Core requirement of testing students by asking them to recite ABCs and count to 100 in a one-on-one setting.
“It’s ridiculous how many hours of instruction are lost because you have to listen to every kid say their ABCs or count to 100 — it takes forever,” Evans said.
Evans acknowledged that many kids are able to be successful with the curriculum, but it often depends on the child’s background.
“I have seen kids who are capable, but these are also kids who have really strong home life and good background experiences and whose summer is spent doing activities and going to the museum and stuff,” Evans said. “But I do worry about our fragile kids. Our low socio-economic, our English Language Learners.”
Linda Tomaiuolo is an elementary art teacher in New Britain public schools, who formerly taught kindergarten for the district. They spend $13,990 per student — 168th out of 169 municipalities — and 75.4% of students qualify for a reduced-price lunch. Tomaioulo said in her experience, the Common Core does not work for her district.
“Not to make a sweeping generalization, but when children start in more affluent towns like Glastonbury they know shapes and colors and numbers, they can count,” Tomaiuolo said. “They can sit and listen to a story. Many of our kids, they don’t even know how to write their own name or hold a pencil.”
Tomaiuolo said that the Common Core forces kids to do things they are not “developmentally ready to do” such as subtract with regrouping in first grade rather than in second grade where it used to be introduced before Common Core.
She said these developmentally inappropriate skills are a side effect of a curriculum developed without teacher input. Peter Yazbak, director of communications at the Connecticut Department of Education, said that educators were involved in the development of the Common Core.
“The CCSS were developed under the leadership of governors and chief state school officers with participation from 48 states,” Yazbak said in an email. “The process included the involvement of state departments of education, districts, teachers, community leaders, experts in a wide array of fields and professional educator organizations. The process relied on teachers and standards experts from across the country.”
Tomaiuolo attested that she works alongside some of the most hardworking educators she’s ever met, but still, some children are falling behind the rigorous expectations.
“People work so hard; they are there for so many hours,” Tomaiuolo said. “They are trying to modify and break down the curriculum into pieces that kids can comprehend but some of them are just not ready. They are not ready emotionally, academically. It’s hard too when you are teaching them things they are not ready for, they don’t understand it. We’re telling them they’re not smart when it’s really not their fault.”
Evans’ sister, Keri Evans is a teacher in East Hampton Public Schools, which spends $15,288 per student and 19.2% of students qualify for reduced-price or free lunch. Keri Evans’ husband, Kyle, is also a teacher in East Hampton and the two describe the district’s budget as “bare-bones.”
“This is my fifth year in kindergarten and every single year our para support has been cut more and more and more,” Keri Evans said. “Now we have twice a week for 30 minutes whereas Jen in Glastonbury has a full-time para in her room.”
Keri Evans also mentioned that her sister’s classes are smaller and have access to more resources.
“Most books in my library have been bought by myself, if you walk into Jen’s classroom in Glastonbury, every single book has a Naubuc School stamp on it,” Keri Evans said. “And some are still in the packaging. I’m like ‘These are so beautiful!’ There’s definitely a piece there if we had more support, if we had more bodies, if we had more resources, [Common Core] would be easier to implement for sure.”
Yazbak said the Common Core does not dictate how teachers have to teach the curriculum, but rather it serves as a ‘roadmap’ for what students of all backgrounds should have to know. Therefore, teachers in less affluent districts could still cover the curriculum, but it might be taught in a different way than teachers in more affluent districts teach it.
“The CCSS provide consistent learning goals for all students to graduate college, career and civic ready, regardless of which district in which they live,” Yazbak said in an email.
Children who are young for their grade
Connecticut is one of only four states in the nation in which children enrolled in kindergarten do not have to turn 5 years old until Jan. 1, so some children entering the classroom are significantly younger than their peers. When it was commonplace for kindergarten to be half-day, these 4-year-olds were able to flourish. With the introduction of Common Core and nearly universal full-day kindergarten, these 4-year-olds are expected to sit and focus for hours on end.
Jenifer Evans decided to hold her own son back until he turns 5 because as a teacher she has learned that the expectations of kindergarten are equivalent to the “new first grade.”
“They say kindergarten is the new first grade,” Evans said. “That’s so true with the expectations and the amount of time we expect these kiddos to be sitting and learning — it’s a lot for 4-year-olds.”
Corrine Scrivano has taught kindergarten in Portland for 18 years. She noted the importance of playtime as a way to develop skills that are not included in the Common Core curriculum.
“Play is so valuable,” Scrivano said. “That’s going to develop their social-emotional skills. You can have a bunch of really bright people but if they don’t know how to interact with the world, it will not benefit them in the long-run.”
Scrivano said now, the kids are expected to come in already ready, setting high expectations for some 4-year-olds.
“Kindergarten used to be about readiness — getting ready to read, getting ready for math. Learning your letters, learning your sounds,” Scrivano said. “Now kindergarten is about teaching kids to read. So it’s been a big jump. Some kids are not ready for that.”
Scrivano said she can often tell which kids are 4 without even looking at their birth date. While some 4-year-olds are ready, they tend to fall behind older students at a higher rate.
For children who aren’t able to keep up with the fast pace of the Common Core curriculum, going to school can be frustrating.
“You see behavior — kids really frustrated, parents really frustrated because they want to help their kid but if they’re not developmentally ready, they’re not developmentally ready,” said Laurie DiMauro, a retired kindergarten teacher from Portland Public Schools.
DiMauro explained that for some kindergarteners who aren’t ready to read yet, trying to keep up with their high-achieving peers can be discouraging.
“It just gets so hard for some kids,” DiMauro said. “They look at their neighbor and their neighbor appears to be reading, but they aren’t and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not able to do that,’ so I’m just going to throw my book, or make noise or walk around, because they’re bored. They just can’t do it.”
Long-time special education teachers like Sue Nolin said it is up to the teacher to make modifications to fit all children.
“Your job is to teach the children in your room,” Nolin said. “I hear the teachers complain, ‘Oh I got all the low learners in this class. They’re never going to be able to do what I’m asking them to do.’ Then you have to change what you’re asking them to do.”
Betsy Shelley taught in South Windsor Public Schools for 22 years before she retired. She said that while the Common Core may have incorporated more rigorous outcomes, the teachers she worked with made the modifications necessary to help each child succeed.
Despite teachers best efforts to modify the work, some children become frustrated with the curriculum and the little time it leaves for free-play. Often, these frustrations manifest in the form of behavior problems in the classroom.
Kyle Evans is a third grade teacher in East Hampton where he has seen an increase in the number of students “flagged for” — but not admitted to — special education.
“With the Common Core and the expectations of what the kids should or shouldn’t be able to do, it kind of is creating that gap between the ability ranges and that gap is part of the issue with the number of kids being flagged for possible testing,” Evans said.
Teachers who thrive on the creative aspects of their career
Laurie DiMauro’s 36-year career as a kindergarten teacher in Cromwell, Middletown East Haddam and finally Portland schools was marked by creativity.
“What kid doesn’t like to make chocolate lollipops?” DiMauro said. “In the meantime you’re working on the concept of liquid versus solid and heat and melting and all that sorts of lessons within that lesson.”
But DiMauro’s approach to education that included hatching baby chicks in her room, cooking food and exploring science ended when Common Core started.
“Common Core, the standards, all that stuff started to really take away from any creativity that a teacher could put into it,” DiMauro said.
DiMauro retired in 2016 and attested that she got out at the right time.
“I kind of had scheduled that was about when I wanted to retire anyway, but I am glad I did because the curriculum was changing also,” DiMauro said. “And coming in and not being able to be the kind of extremely creative teacher that I was, to be able to take a step back and not be able to do fun things with the kids?”
She said the Common Core curriculum method is leaving children unprepared for many real-life challenges.
“We are going to have kids grow up who don’t know how to share, don’t know how to stop at a stop sign and let someone else go first,” DiMauro said.
In New Britain, Tomaiuolo became an art teacher shortly after Common Core was introduced.
“I felt like when I was a classroom teacher in the beginning, I felt like I had the ability to do a lot more creative things with the curriculum but with the Common Core, it started to get more scripted and rigid,” Tomaiuolo said. “I couldn’t do as many creative projects like I did in the past so that is a big reason why I switched.”
Yazbak reiterated that the Common Core does not dictate the ways in which the curriculum has to be taught and said that play could be incorporated into the teaching of these standards.
“In a dramatic play center (such as a kitchen) students become engrossed in reading books/poems about foods (science), listening to their classmates “order” and writing orders for customers in which they are using a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing (ELA), serving food (counting and cardinality/Math), and creating a grocery list to “purchase” more food (more writing),” Yazbak said in an email.
Kim Jackson is a fifth grade teacher in West Hartford and she said many teachers have come to realize that there isn’t a standard way to teach a child as the Common Core prescribes.
“There’s no cookie-cutter way to teach a child and I think that was a huge problem when the Common Core came out,” Jackson said. “It was one-size-fits-all and pretty much any teacher worth their salt knows you can’t teach like that.”
Jackson said teachers in her district were vocal about these frustrations and with support from the board of education, teachers in West Hartford have been able to inject more creativity into their lessons.
“The pendulum has swung back toward the creative side,” Jackson said. “It’s not as loose as it used to be and I think that’s a good thing. You don’t have a program or something the teachers are going to follow. We are fortunate in our school system, we are given a budget to use in the fall and a budget to use in the spring. We know what we need to supplement the curriculum.”
Now, districts across Connecticut are trying to figure out ways to bring creativity and individuality back into learning while achieving the benchmarks of Common Core.
“Now we’re having to buy social-emotional curriculums because they’re in first and second grade and we’re realizing ‘Oh my god, they don’t know how to share,’ because we didn’t do that in kindergarten,” Stokowski said.
In New Britain, Tomaiuolo said they are introducing an “intentional play” program to encourage kids to learn the social and emotional skills associated with free playtime.
“I wish it wasn’t ‘intentional’,” Tomaiuolo said with a laugh.
Tomaiuolo said the concept of Common Core had potential, but the ways it has negatively affected her district make her wish it never existed.
“I think it is good that they are trying to set the same standards for the same kids all over the country but it should have been developed by educators and it should have been discussed more thoroughly before it was implemented,” Tomaiuolo said. “But the way it is now, I wish it had never been implemented.”