By Mike Marsee
Like many teachers, Rhonda Orttenburger gets too many emails. But one email from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) practically jumped out of her inbox.
The email invited Orttenburger, a 5th-grade language arts teacher at Kit Carson Elementary School in Madison County, to participate in the Kentucky Core Academic Standards (KCAS) Challenge, which offers teachers and others the opportunity to provide feedback on the English/language arts and mathematics standards. Similar emails went to every other teacher in the state.
Orttenburger welcomed the chance to weigh in on the standards and to help make sure teachers’ voices are heard.
“I think that teachers should always participate in surveys or questions that are asked about our profession, because too often we’re not listened to as much as we think we should be,” she said. “Anytime I get a chance, I try to answer surveys to make sure my voice is heard.”
The KCAS Challenge is part of KDE’s regular review of the standards, which were adopted in 2010 and first taught and tested in the 2011-12 school year.
“The goal for the challenge is two-fold,” KDE Communications Director and project lead Rebecca Blessing said. “First, we want people who are unfamiliar with the standards to know what they actually say. Second, we want to gather actionable feedback from teachers and others to use as the basis for how we may be able to make Kentucky’s academic standards even better.”
Orttenburger, a veteran of 25 years in teaching, is among the stakeholders who have provided input on one or more of the standards, which are searchable by subject, grade and keyword in the anonymous online survey. She said taking the KCAS Challenge was easy, and she hopes many more of her colleagues will weigh in between now and April 30, when the survey ends.
“I want to know how other teachers in Kentucky feel about the standards,” she said. “I know that all over the nation there’s this tension about them.”
Blessing said KDE also wants to know what teachers think about the standards.
“Teachers are a critical part of the challenge. They’ve been working with the standards, and are really Kentucky’s experts on them,” she said. “It is important that we hear from them whether they support the standards or want to see some tweaks made.”
Amy Clancy, who teaches 8th-grade writing at Walton-Verona Middle School in Boone County (Walton-Verona Independent), said she’s all for the standards and that’s why she was drawn to the KCAS Challenge.
“Personally, I don’t have a problem with the standards, and I feel pretty positive about them overall. There are a few things here or there that are sometimes a little difficult for 8th-graders to grasp, but the longer I have taught it and the more resources I get and am able to practice with it, the more I see kids are able to do those things.”
Orttenburger said she was studying the standards even before they were adopted, and there are some things she likes about them and some things she dislikes.
She said re-teaching can be necessary because teachers often focus on the standards for their grade level and don’t take into account whether students have been taught enough in previous grade levels to prepare them for that work.
“Teachers look at their standards and they look at their year, and they don’t understand the past,” she said.
Blessing said concern about student learning gaps is real and that students who didn’t start with the more rigorous standards in kindergarten may still be struggling to catch up. The experts say those gaps should narrow as more students are taught the standards from the beginning, she said.
Nancy Broyles, who teaches freshman science at Paducah Tilghman High School (Paducah Independent), thinks the Kentucky standards “are too ambitious” at early grade levels.
“Students are not given the time to perfect the basic skills needed to process the more advanced skills,” Broyles said. “Students often struggle with multiplication facts or rearranging equations, even using a ruler, when we should be focusing on critical thinking skills. More time spent on the basics early on would save time in the later years and make our students more proficient later,” she said.
Clancy thinks the standards at her grade level are challenging and mostly appropriate, but are not always easy to implement.
“There are some standards that are difficult to teach due to lack of resources,” she said. “I am not opposed to them. I mean, we have to have guidelines to teach by.”
The challenge is open not only to teachers but also to other stakeholders such as parents, students, higher education professionals and others.
Some people fall into more than one category. Laura Durcholz teaches 6th-grade mathematics at Daviess County Middle School and has two children, a 4th-grader and a 9th-grader, and she took the challenge with her roles as both an educator and a parent in mind. “I want to make sure that I’m not just aware as a teacher of things that are going on, but also as a parent,” Durcholz said.
Broyles said having taught in three public and private school systems in two states and seeing wide differences in what is taught has helped her see the need for standards.
“I think the standards are a tremendous leap forward in making sure our students are all getting an equal education,” Broyles said. “Having standards and holding schools accountable for teaching those standards ensures that no matter the economic or racial makeup or prestige a school has, the same thing is being taught to every child.”
The KCAS Challenge allows people to express their opinions in more than one way. Participants can offer a quick “thumbs-up” on one or more individual standards; those who want to see a standard changed may click the “thumbs-down” icon and provide a change in wording or grade level, and those who believe a new standard should be created may suggest that.
Once the challenge has concluded, all of the comments and feedback will be evaluated by a team of educators, which will make recommendations on any changes to the Kentucky Board of Education, most likely this fall.
Broyles said she would encourage other teachers to take part in the survey.
“I’d definitely tell them to do it. It is worth their time,” she said. “I think they understand it is something very important and that the Department of Education is going to take our input very seriously.”
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