New Learning Standards Come With Common Core Initiative
By Charlie Schlenker, with additional reporting from Illinois Public Media
Classrooms across Illinois continue to change as a result of The Common Core State Standards
They have been under development for several years, spurred by the National Governor's Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. The new standards started with teachers and other experts going to other countries and looking at what their higher achieving students learn that U.S. kids do not.
Lindsey Hall, the superintendent of the Morton School District, said one key difference from the way things had been done is that the new learning standards encourage higher level thinking skills.
"Problem solving and critical thinking, as opposed to just recall and remembering of facts,” Hall said. “Topics are explored much more in depth, discussed more. There is more again of a problem solving approach. This is how we need kids to think so that they are ready to go to college and if they are not going to college out into the work world and technical training."
So far, 45 states have signed on to the standards. In central Illinois, the common core goals for math are already in some grades, though not all. English and language arts will be fully in place by the end of the next school year in Kindergarten through eighth grade.
The curriculum for science is still a couple years away, though the Olympia District will implement them this fall as a test case. That is because Olympia teacher Chris Embry Moore is part of the national task force developing the new science benchmarks.
"I'm not getting my kids ready to go to jeopardy and maybe win a bunch of money that maybe maybe they'd share with me," she explained.
Embry Moore said the standards are not just about content, but about science and engineering practices and the concepts that underpin them.
"It's about helping kids do science and then learn science in the process and then build those little dendrites on their neurons so they can build this framework so they can understand what it really means to conduct science," she added.
Bloomington District 87 Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Cindy Helmers said parents are going to hear different things from students as they do homework.
"More questions about how they're doing the problem, or what kind of strategies they are going to do, or can you explain it?” Helmers said. “ And do you know why to do it? What kind of practices are you going to use in order to solve a problem?"
Some concepts will appear in second grade instead of fourth or fifth. Helmers said there are fewer actual standards than there used to be, but they are deeper and come with more background knowledge.
"Just multiplying a fraction times a fraction was one thing,” she sad. “But understanding why would you multiply a fraction by a fraction and what could you do if you knew how to do that. Plus the real world! I mean how many times is something a whole number. It's usually a fractional part."
Moving away from a huge laundry list of standards is supposed to help children become prepared and contributing citizens, but how schools assess that preparation matters as much as anything.
"You are going to be asked questions where you have to find evidence in the passage in order to answer the question,” Helmers explained. “It's not dependent any more on having that background knowledge or bringing that background knowledge to school with you."
Helmers said this minimizes factors that have nothing to do with thinking, but everything to do with class, culture, and income levels.
"It totally is a real big step in the right direction of leveling that playing field," she said.
Common Core critics worry the movement is setting a national curriculum and eroding state independence.
Lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation opposing the standards, and the Republican National Committee passed a resolution calling the standards an "inappropriate overreach."
During a recent speech in Normal, Ill., State Farm CEO Ed Rust Jr. dismissed the criticism saying it comes from people who do not want to have the tough conversation about falling test scores compared to what they used to be.
"Don't do the core you know let's go back to the way it was and we look like we're doing very good, when in fact, we're not," Rust said.
Rust urged keeping what he calls world class benchmarks to acknowledge the reality of what students need to compete.
"We should never put them in a position where it finally clicks you know what my school didn't have that high an expectation...when they go through and apply for a job," he said.
Test scores are already dropping as new assessment measures come into play and as students who have started learning under the old curriculum are now assessed under the new standards.
Educators are also trying to change how students are measured, over time, not with just a set target as in the No Child Left Behind law. District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said he hopes the emphasis on negative results turns forward looking.
"Looking really truly at growth for individual students,” Reilly said. “We are looking at how they grow from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. And if we are able to measure that in a way that demonstrates that, it's a much fairer way to judge whether or not we are doing well."
Educators say Common Core addresses another huge problem in education --- student mobility.
Just retired Olympia Superintendent Brad Hutchison said particularly in the case of low income students who may switch districts multiple times a year, learning continuity has been a lost cause till now.
"With having 45 states with a same standard, curriculum is going to be personalized to the region,” Hutchison said. “But as that student moves across state lines or regions of our country, they're going to be shooting for the same target. And that to me is exciting. It's logical. It's the right thing to do for kids. It's the proper thing, we should have, I wish we would have been doing it earlier."
As for what students find in the classrooms under the new model, it will be less of desks in neat rows and more of the teacher flitting from group to group in several spaces around the room.
Morton District Superintendent Lindsey Hall said the standards change the classroom ambience.
"There's more talking,” Hall said. “There's more Hey I found the answer this way. And a kid saying oh but I did it this way and comparing and why does this work? And why won't this work? So I think there is more discussion that is focused around learning."
Hall says some of this new kind of instruction was happening already. Other teachers will need to change.
But, as Common Core becomes commonplace in central Illinois, Hall said teachers are getting excited. It does raise the bar for students. But, she said the students are responding.
Trevor Nadrozny, the director of curriculum for the Champaign Public School District, said those Common Core standards are gradually being rolled out across the area. Nadrozny said he has trained teachers on the new material. Now, he said schools need to educate parents to expect tougher class work, more challenging tests, and -- in the short term -- lower student scores.
“The main we’ve been saying is look the same things you’d expect in 6th grade are now in 5th grade,” Nadrozny said. “It’s not that your child isn’t doing well, it’s that the standards have gotten more difficult. So it’s going to be more challenging.”
Nadrozny described the response from Champaign public school teachers as generally positive, but he said there are exceptions.
Cathy Mannen is a reading specialist in Champaign, and president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers. She said common core is great in principle, but she worries the program is being rushed into schools too soon.
“To me I would compare it to pharmaceuticals putting a prescription out there that hasn’t been field tested, for example,” Mannen said. “Teachers need time. They need time to look over the standards themselves. They need time to look over how the standards aling or don’t align with the curriculum that’s in place.”
Schools and teachers across the state must implement common core this fall. Statewide testing under the new standards rolls out next year.