As one of her last big acts as Anchorage school superintendent, Carol Comeau wants the school board to adopt national standards, a step likely to be controversial among teachers but one that she is convinced will improve learning.
Comeau and Anchorage School Board President Gretchen Guess told reporters Tuesday they are supporting the national curriculum standards in math and English as a concrete way to strengthen what's taught to Anchorage's 50,000 students.
The standards lay out detailed expectations of skills at each grade level -- a framework for curriculum that Anchorage school leaders say emphasizes critical thinking. The standards cut across subjects and emphasize literacy and writing in science, social students and technical classes.
"They really set a high bar," Comeau said.
For instance, second-graders should be able to describe a story's structure, or write a simple opinion piece. Middle school students should read challenging texts, such as a 1940 Winston Churchill address to Parliament called "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat." High school juniors should be able to dissect a novel like F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 "The Great Gatsby." In an example from the math standards, a fifth-grader would learn to add and subtract fractions with different denominators -- the bottom numbers.
Forty-five states are on board with what's called the Common Core State Standards Initiative. It was launched more than two years ago by state school leaders and the National Governors Association. It's not a federal government mandate.
Some teachers will enthusiastically embrace the national standards but others may find them challenging to implement in the classroom, Comeau said. The district expects some push back, as with any big change, she said. It intends to help individual schools and teachers cover the standards. No textbooks will include it all.
Alaska is one of five states that didn't sign on. The others are Texas, Minnesota, Virginia and Nebraska. The state Department of Education and Early Development has been working since early 2010 to develop new state standards, the first major overhaul in 17 years, according to Deputy Commissioner Les Morse.
In the view of Anchorage school leaders, the state standards are too low.
"That's been a frustration many of us have had," Comeau said. Reviews have found Alaska school standards fall below those of states like Virginia and Massachusetts, she said.
"When you compare us to those kinds of states, we don't rise very high," Comeau said. The national standards are more rigorous, she said.
Morse said he expects Alaska's new standards will be just as tough as the national Common Core standards. The state didn't want to adopt them because they take away local flexibility, he said.
"We don't take any issue with what Anchorage is doing," Morse said. "They are trying to make sure their students are ready to compete. Those decisions really are local."
Locally adopted standards just need to be equal to, or more rigorous, than the state standards, he said.
The proposal comes before the Anchorage School Board March 22.
If the board approves the new standards, Comeau said the approach will allow Anchorage to compare itself to similar districts in other states, such as Portland and Seattle.
As it is, "we really don't have a way to see how our students are stacking up," Comeau said. "And we know how important this is to the community."
Some Anchorage teachers already are using the Common Core standards, Comeau said. Some are using state standards. Some are using district standards.
There was no rush to put the new standards in place ahead of the arrival of Anchorage's new school superintendent, Jim Browder. He told the school board everyone just needed to follow the same standards but was supportive of the national approach, Guess said. Florida, where he's from, already adopted the Common Core. He starts in Anchorage in April; Comeau remains in charge until her retirement at the end of June.
While Anchorage won't immediately replace textbooks, publishers now are creating texts geared to the national standards. The district already is reevaluating Everyday Math, the controversial program it uses in grades kindergarten through eight, Comeau said.
Guess, the board president, said that with the state adopting new standards, "we were going to have to change anyway." So Anchorage decided to pick an approach it liked even better, she said.
"To me, this is really a game changer," Guess said.
Some differences could materialize in some Anchorage classrooms as soon as this fall.
"It's how teachers are trained," Comeau said. "It's how administrators are held accountable."
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.