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Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013 12:01 am

Officials calming fears over Common Core standards

State stresses educational benchmarks, not federal mandate

As schools across Illinois prepare to roll out new educational standards, officials are working to battle negative perceptions by the public.

The state’s new Common Core learning standards are benchmarks for what students should be able to do at each grade level. Leaders from business, labor and education spoke to a gathering of parents and teachers at Glenwood High School in Chatham Oct. 29, spending much of the evening addressing criticisms of the plan.

Susan Morrison, deputy superintendent and chief education officer for the Illinois State Board of Education, started off by explaining that – contrary to popular belief – Common Core is not a federal mandate.

“There’s a flurry of rumors out there that federal employees sat in Washington, D.C., and developed these standards, and then they forced us to use them,” Morrison said. “I just want to tell you that, having been at those very initial meetings myself, when Common Core was first being talked about, that just wasn’t the case.”

Morrison said the standards were developed by education experts from several states and voluntarily adopted by 47 states independently.  

Illinois already had learning standards in place, with the most recent set of standards dating from about 1995. However, Morrison described the previous standards as “our first attempt,” which soon became outdated as higher education and the job world became more demanding.

“It really was a culmination of what somebody on that committee thought it would be nice for kids to know and be able to do at particular grade spans,” Morrison said. “This (Common Core) is a very natural evolution of that standards conversation, a conversation now about what is it that our kids really need to know and be able to do to be prepared for what comes after the 12th grade, for college or careers.”

Cinda Klickna, president of the Illinois Education Association, said Common Core standards are less about telling students what to think and more about teaching them how to think. Klickna, a former teacher, taught at Southeast High School in Springfield.

“In my classroom, I expected students to think,” Klickna said. “I had a student say one time, ‘We don’t want to think. We just want to find the answer and turn it in.’ I said, ‘No, that is not how to learn.’ So Common Core is very much about higher-level learning.”

Despite the suspicion and criticism of the standards by parents and even some teachers, Klickna doesn’t see them as controversial.

“I think there’s just been a lot of misunderstanding,” she said. “When I ask people what they object to in the standards, I find out they’ve never read them. I just think there are rumors out there, and they have been propagated and passed along. We’re just trying to dispel those.”

Much of the criticism stems from a perceived focus on standardized testing, which Klickna admits does play a big role in Common Core. However, she says Common Core will update existing tests instead of adding more. She also contrasted the new standards with those created in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which imposes yearly increases in testing benchmarks and penalizes schools that don’t meet the benchmarks. Common Core test results are not tied to federal funding, although development of tests to meet the new standards does give states extra “points” when applying for federal grants.

Because Common Core also focuses on teacher evaluations through testing, critics worry that standardized testing will become a weapon against teachers. Klickna said that’s already the case under No Child Left Behind.

“I think that NCLB has created that,” she said. “I think with Common Core, we’re going to have to maintain insuring that the test doesn’t become the focus, as it has been. Instead, the growth of the student is really what’s looked at.

“There are a lot of ways to look at how a teacher is performing,” she continued. “It’s certainly not a score on a test on a certain day.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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