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Under Discussion in Brazil, Curriculum Base Faces Obstacles in the USA

05/22/2017 - 18h05

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FABIO TAKAHASHI

The current scenario in Brazilian education is very similar to what the situation was like in the United States back in 2010. That year, then-President Barack Obama, billionaire Bill Gates, and teaching associations and unions bet on an unprecedented and rigorous national curriculum standard aimed at placing the country's students among the best in the world in international learning assessments.

Obama invested about US $1 billion in the idea. The founder of Microsoft contributed US $200 million. States governed by Democrats and Republicans voluntarily incorporated the policy.

Seven years following the launch, the success envisioned has not yet become reality-and they are doubts if this will ever be the case. The situation serves as a warning for Brazil, which is prepared to adopt the National Common Curriculum Base (BNCC).

In nations with smaller populations, such as Australia, Singapore, and Portugal, curriculum standards have been successful. For many researchers, however, it is more appropriate to compare Brazil with the United States. Both are continental and federative (meaning states have autonomy) countries that also have regional educational inequalities.

The American document, known as the Common Core, establishes a set of skills that students should have at each grade level, from pre-school to high school. At least in theory, standardizing education allows for greater collaboration among states and facilitates comparisons among them.

These objectives are similar to those in Brazil. Last past month, the government of Brazilian President Michel Temer (PMDB) launched its curriculum standards, with full support of the states, municipalities, and private foundations. At the ceremony, managers from the administration of former President Dilma Rousseff (PT) were present, in a display of non-partisan support.

Discussed since 2014 during the PT (Workers Party) government, the Brazilian proposal encompasses pre-school through high school. It will include both public and private schools, and a population of 40 million students (The US has 55 million students).

In determining what each student must know for each grade level, the document will be required to reference new teaching materials and teaching training. States and municipalities will develop their own plans (the curriculum itself) to teach what is determined by the National Base.

Such a re- organization was what the US also hoped for with the Common Core, starting in 2010. Today, however, optimism has been transformed into skepticism. Of the 45 states that adopted the Common Core, 9 have ceased using it. Popular approval of the measure, which was 90% in 2012, is now at 50%, according with a national poll from Education Next magazine. Among teachers, the support has fallen from 80% to 40% during that same time period.

OBSTACLES

What happened between 2010 and 2017?
Errors in implementation and political disputes were the answers most frequently heard during the last seven months of reporting, which included school visits and consulting of academic studies, researchers, authorities, directors and teachers in different American states such as New York, Kentucky, Washington, California and New Jersey.

"The Common Core was well designed. It is compatible with the best curriculum standards in the world, but this is not enough. This should be seen by the Brazilians as a strong warning sign," said the German Andreas Schleicher in an interview with Folha. He is director of PISA, the main international student assessment body.

Overseeing this test since its start 20 years ago, Schleicher is one of the best- known experts in educational systems in the world. "Without good implementation, a good curricular base can just become words on paper." Implementation is the step that Brazil is about to take.

The USA did not improve its performance on the most recent PISA test, which was done in 2015. Some states have used the Common Core for two or three years, but American students continued to score below average among developed countries in mathematics.

A resident of Long Island, a middle-class region of New York, Jeanette Deutermann,43, recalls the initial phases of the Common Core. In 2012, her son started to have stomachaches. He cried when going to school, a public one. A doctor said that it might be stress. "But how? Stress in an eight-year-old boy?" recalls the mother.

Still without a clue about what was happening, the housewife talked with his teachers. She discovered that the curriculum had changed due to the Common Core. The means of teaching was different. The boy did not understand the classes and the mother could not help him, as she did not know the new method.
Additionally students were submitted to a new test, the results of which played a role in teacher evaluations. "The school became focused on what would take place in these tests,"said Jeanette. There were even special classes just for preparation.
Evaluating teachers and schools had a proposition: to try to guarantee that the new curriculum was in fact adopted in the classrooms.

This concern made sense. In 1979, Larry Cuban, today a professor emeritus of the School of Education at Stanford University, compared curricular reforms to a hurricane at sea: there is an enormous churn on the surface, but the deep waters remain nearly unaltered.

According to Cuban, politicians, specialist and authorities are on the surface while the classrooms are submerged. And implementing the Common Core in a hurried way, taking advantage of the initial excitement, could create a shakeup in deep waters.

John King, Commissioner of Education in New York during the implementation of the Common Core, says that the tests were also important to reveal advances and difficulties in the school systems.

BOYCOTT Jeanette, the mother of the boy who suffered from stress, disagrees with the authority. In 2012, she started to share criticism of the Common Core and to advocate for a boycott of the exams. The movement grew. In her region, 65% of students stopped taking the test in 2016. In the state of New York as a whole, this number was nearly 20%.

The Governor of New York, the Democrat Andrew Cuomo, feeling pressure mounting, created a group to analyze the process. In 2015 the commission concluded: "even though done so for noble reasons, the new curriculum was implemented in a hurry and in an inappropriate way." The report stated that the teachers experienced delays in receiving appropriate instructions.

The tests themselves were the most visible face of the complaints, but the content itself of the Common Core also created controversy. The Common Core did not just transfer content from one grade to another, in a means standardize grade progression among states, but also changed the manner of teaching.

In math, the teachers expected more than just correct answers. They wanted students to be able to explain how they arrived at the results and encouraged the search for different solutions for the problems.

The objective was to develop rational thinking, and not rote learning. The method, in theory, is designed to generate a greater capacity to handle complex questions over the student's lifetime.

The new pedagogy, however, demanded more classroom time for problems, which diminished the time spent on content. The idea was to trade quantity for quality, in a reaction to the image of American curriculum in academic circles: a lake 1 mile long and 1 inch deep.

If the changes were major, the resistance was no less. Parents said that students wasted time with useless discussions and that the school made simple operations difficult.
In May 2014, in an interview on the David Letterman Show, one of the most prestigious talk shows on American TV, the comedian Louis CK made fun of his daughters' homework. "It's something like this-Bill has three goldfish. He bought two more. How many dogs are there in London?"

ENTIRELY NEW
In terms of English instruction, the new standard increased the importance of nonfiction texts (reports, speeches) and reduced the weight of fiction (poetry, novels). The teachers developed complex questions that demanded research and reflection. It would be a way to prepare students to handle the enormous huge volume of information found on the Internet.

Kentucky was the first state to adopt the new curriculum standards, in 2009, even before the official launch of the measure in the USA.

"When the Common Core started the feeling was: "what is this? Everything is different," said teacher Jessica Doughty, 36, who teaches third-grade students in a public school system in Daviess, in western Kentucky. The county (an administrative division that includes more than one city), performs at about the state average, and the state occupies an intermediate position in the US in terms of performance.

In that initial moment, the teaching materials did not help the teachers. Despite arriving with labels saying "aligned with the Common Core" the materials, for the most part, repeated the old curriculum.

Only in 2016 did Jessica receive the appropriate books. Prior to that, she did participate in new standards training, but for the most part she learned based on her own studies.

As part of this report, this reporter sat in on her class one morning last winter, held in a classroom with temperature control, and new furniture, video system and projector. The 29 students were divided into seven groups that day. Some occupied tables and chairs and others remained seated or lying down on the carpet, others sat on large rubber balls.
The groups need to respond to the same question, "why did men explore the sea?" Each one of the teams selected a work, which could be prose, like the history of the explorer Jacque Cousteau, or poetry.
The children had to fill out a questionnaire with three sections: one for a response, one for evidence that supported the response and another for sentences that would confirm the chosen rationale. Everything was related to the texts that were read by students. There were no questions such as "what was your opinion?"

Corrections would be made later, because it was time for math class. In one of the tasks, the students completed two columns. One went from 2 to 20, by twos (2,4,6,8) and the other 4 to 40, by fours. They had to do this in three minutes. A stopwatch was projected onto the screen. Managing time is important for planning, the teacher explained later on.

To the side of each number, the students had to indicate multiplications that resulted in this answer. Beside the number 4, for example, they wrote 2×2. Then they had to connect equal numbers in the two columns. Therefore, they learned that 2×2 is equal to 4, which is equal to 4×1, which is also equal to 4. Therefore 2×2 = 4×1.

After completing the exercise, it was time to relax. The teacher put on music with a fast beat for the students, who danced and sang along. But there was no loss of focus: The "Six Times Table Song " has as its refrain "I think that I found a way to count by six/12, 18, 24, 30 and 36"

A music could also be heard from the next-door classroom, a third-grade, too. Almost in synchronicity, the two classes have the same lessons. "Prior to the Common Core probably the two classes would have had different content in their classrooms. Today I exchange ideas with my colleagues and we create classes together, "said the teacher.

DIVERGENCES

It's still uncertain if the methodology is working in the state. Soon after adopting the curricular standard, the results in the state evaluations worsened. The percentage of students considered proficient in reading fell from 70% to 47% in 2012.

In one year, there were changes not only in the curriculum but also in the test itself. Prior to the release of data from 2012, the state's Secretary of Education already conducted a campaign to prepare the public for the drop in scores. The results did improve afterward, reaching 55% in 2015 but still remain below the level prior to the Common Core.

Folha consulted multiple academic papers and experts, in order to discover if the new standards have been going right in the United States. In January, Morgan Polikoff, from the University of Southern California wrote that this is "the million-dollar question". After reviewing the available academic work, he did not arrive at a conclusion. Other research would be necessary, he wrote.

If only considering the results of standardized tests, then the situation is negative.
Tom Loveless, former professor at Harvard University and now at the Brookings institute, compared states that quickly implemented the Common Core with those that took longer to do so, with those that did not adopt the new standards. No groups stood out. On average, there was a drop in math in all groups. In reading skills, all had a slight increase.
The creators of the standard have stated that they expected initial difficulty, as it is not easy to adapt to many changes. However, they did not venture to say when positive results may emerge.

In the absence of definitive studies, there are diverging opinions even within the state themselves. In Kentucky, where teachers praise the new standards, Republican governor Matt Bevin was elected in 2015, saying that he would eliminate the program–a promise that has not yet been fulfilled.
On the other hand, in New York, one of the states with a school community more resistant to the curriculum standard, the reporter visited schools that defended the Common Core. One of them was Cornerstone Academy, a public school in the Bronx. This is one of the poorest regions of the city, and one that has shown the greatest positive evolution in the school system.

There, the Common Core is seen as an important tool. The mathematics teacher Tareq Zohny, 40, says that the sequence of content is well-defined, which facilitates exchange of information among teachers. This year, he increased time for fractions and proportions in his sixth-grade classroom because the seventh-grade teacher said that students had difficulty with this content. To compensate, the teachers reduced workload in statistics in the sixth-grade and passed on additional work in this area for the following year.

A former accountant and a teacher for nine years, Tareq says that he will be able to meet just 35 of the 42 content units outlined for the year. "Many students arrive in sixth-grade with third-grade knowledge and it is necessary to improve. The good thing is that with the new curriculum, I know exactly where the problem starts. It's easier to correct."

Within the Donald Trump government there is also no consensus. The president says that he will "get rid" of the Common Core. He says that the decisions about what should be taught need to be made regionally.

The Common Core was created through initiative by the states, but is linked to the Obama administration after he used federal resources to drive the initiative. When his personal involvement became evident and criticism mounted, part of the Republicans called for removal of the measure.

This was the case in Indiana, where the then- governor is the current vice present United States, Mike Pence. This is the first state to stop using the new curriculum, and in 2014. A portion of teachers unions also abandoned ship, complaining about the project's implementation.

In Trump administration, however, there is also Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State. In 2013, then an executive for the oil giant Exxon Mobil, he threatened to remove his business from states that did not adopt the Common Core.
Like Bill Gates, Tillerson considers curriculum standards an important tool to improve the quality of labor and college freshmen. The two businessmen emphasize the need to have a clear way to measure advances among states and to reveal their problems.

Trump cannot do away with the Common Core by himself. But he can encourage state school systems to develop their own expectations for learning. As of the moment, there has been no presidential plan on this topic released.

"This instability makes many teachers think about forgoing the new standards, "said Jana Silbeck Francis, Assistant Superintendent of Education at the Daviess (Kentucky) schools."With all of this noise, many think it is another reform that will come to nothing."

BRAZIL

The American David Plank, a professor at the School of Education at Stanford University, has lived in Bahia, where he was a visiting assistant teacher at the federal university in the 1990s. He speaks Portuguese and is familiar with the Brazilian educational system. In February 2016, he presented to study called "Implementation of the National Common Curriculum Base: Lessons from the Common Core". One of his suggestions was to implement the BNCC in a gradual form. Nothing like the rush in New York.

The inspiration for Brazil, says Plank, may be California, which suspended the system evaluation for three years, to allow time for the new curriculum to be implemented. The state allocated US $4 billion for development of materials and teaching training, among other measures.

The teacher said that Brazil will have to face at least one difficulty not encountered in the USA. "There's not the money that the Common Core had. The Brazilian educational authority seems to know what needs to be done, but without sufficient resources, it is difficult. "

In the US, funding was used to develop tests aligned with the new curriculum, to buy materials, and to prepare teachers, or conduct experiments.

Even with assistance from federal and private coffers, just 39% percent of teachers said that they felt fully prepared to teach the new content, even six years after the launch of the Common Core, according a poll from Education Week magazine. Additionally 80% said they had not received quality training, and the same amount said that they did not have satisfactory materials.

Other characteristics of Brazil, however, may actually help matters. A federal law determines the adoption of the base, although there does not exist specific punishment for those who do not obey the rules. In the USA, the process is optional. States decide to adopt standardization or not, as well as the ways in which content should be taught.

The bold nature of the Common Core, in calling for a change in teaching practices, would not apply to the Brazilian case. In this aspect, the Brazil standard may be considered less ambitious and more realistic.

Shannon Glynn, director of the entity that oversees the organization of the Common Core in the USA offers a tip. "Based on our experience, I suggest that the teachers be involved as much as possible the process." For American educators and unions, the teachers did not participate sufficiently, which is responsible for the resistance.

In Brazil, members of teachers' unions were able to participate in a public consultation, which had 12 million contributions, held prior to the final definition of the document by the Ministry of Education. It's not clear, however, what their role will be going forward.

OPTIMISM

The former Secretary of Education of Rio, former director of education at the World Bank and current director of the Center for Innovation and Excellence in Educational Innovation at FGV RJ, Claudia Costin, a columnist at Folha, is optimistic. The political animosity the Common Core faced won't likely be repeated in Brazil, she says.

"There's a reasonable consensus about the need it for the base, people from different ideological positions agree, it's a legal requirement. However, there will certainly be difficulties in aligning teaching materials, changing teacher training. These are challenges that we've had for years, "she said.

The Ministry of Education has started to plan for the implementation. The entity has announced the creation of a group to study changes in teacher training and said that it would offer technical support for states and municipalities.

The expectation is that the base will be implemented within two years following the final approval of the document by the Minister of Education, Mendoça Filho. Before this, the National Board of Education will hold public hearings and will present suggestions until December. This timeline applies to pre-school and elementary school levels. High school will take longer.

Even if everything goes well with these two school levels, and the base is implemented in 2019, positive results should take a while to appear. During the document unveiling ceremony, the Executive Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Maria Helena Guimarães, said: "Education takes time. Results come in the medium and long-term."

In the U.S., seven years has not been time enough.

Reporting for this story was supported by a Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Translated by CHRISTINE PULEO

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