As central Illinois children get ready to head back to school next month, the environment they find in their classrooms continues to change. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker reports on the ongoing implementation of new learning standards.
The Common Core Standards 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 is the Superintendent of the Morton School District. She says one key difference from the way things had been done is common core learning standards encourage higher level thinking skills.
"Problem solving and critical thinking, as opposed to just recall and remembering of facts. 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. "
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's 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."
Embry Moore says 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."
Or in the case of math standards, Bloomington District 87 Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Cindy Helmers says 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. And do you know why to do it? What kind of practices are you going to use in order to solve a problem? "
Helmers says the comforting crutch parents have had...oh I got that in sixth grade will no longer be there. Some concepts will appear in second grade instead of fourth or fifth. Helmers says 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. 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. Helmers says English tests, for example.
"You are going to be asked questions where you have to find evidence in the passage in order to answer the question. It's not dependent any more on having that background knowledge or bringing that background knowledge to school with you."
Helmers says 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."
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, State Farm CEO Ed Rust Junior, certainly no liberal, dismissed the criticism saying it comes from people who don't 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 urges 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."
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 says he hopes the emphasis on negative results turns forward looking.
"Looking really truly at growth for individual students. 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 says, 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. 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 says the standards change the classroom ambience.
"There's more talking. 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 says teachers are getting excited. It does raise the bar for students. But, she says the students are responding.
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