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Controversial Standards Place More Emphasis on Students' Critical Thinking Skills

Lori Higgins, Detroit News

Education News: The common core state standards are placing more emphasis on critical thinking skills as well as studying informational text.

The idea that half a dollar is the same as 50 cents has been a staple of third-grade math curriculum in Michigan. So has learning how to solve division problems that include remainders.

But those things and more are changing in classrooms across the state -- in traditional public schools and charter schools and in the state's newest district, the Educational Achievement Authority of Michigan -- as teachers make sure their lessons line up with a new set of controversial standards adopted by Michigan and more than 40 other states. The standards are raising the ire of some Michigan Republicans who say they take control from local districts. They have prompted legislation that would end Michigan's involvement in the initiative.

A Look at The New Standards

These Common Core State Standards, which spell out what students need to know to graduate ready for college or careers, provide, for the first time, a common barometer of what students in the participating states should learn. Tests to be implemented in the 2014-15 school year will make it easier to compare students from state to state.

"We're not in the 19th Century anymore, where you live your life in your own community and everything you need to learn and know, your local school board can determine. We're in a global economy," said John Austin, president of the state Board of Education.

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And that global economy, Austin said, dictates that there be consistent, common expectations for all students.

Adoption of the standards means some math concepts are being introduced a grade or two earlier or later than usual. In English language arts, there will be more focus on informational text -- such as nonfiction writing and explanatory writing -- and on requiring students to interpret that text, as well as more emphasis on writing.

The standards will test students and teachers in ways they've rarely been tested. That's because there's a heavier emphasis on critical thinking, students having a deeper understanding of the material, and students being able to demonstrate that knowledge.

The standards are part of an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"It really ratchets up the bar and what we're expecting of our students at a national level. I think that's very positive," said Michael Yocum, executive director of learning services at Oakland Schools, the county's intermediate school district.

Kristi Schwartz, who teaches second- and third-graders at Bentley Elementary in Canton, said mobility makes having common standards sensible.

"Kids ... get holes in their learning if they're going from state to state and nothing is common," Schwartz said.

Arguments for, Against

But it's the commonality of the standards that is raising concerns among some Republicans who said they believe such standards strip control from local educators and parents to decide curriculum. They also said the national standards aren't likely to improve academic achievement, and that they represent a federal intrusion into local education matters, because the Obama administration has provided incentives for states to adopt a common set of standards.

Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, said as much when she testified before the state House Education Committee on May 2, urging members to end Michigan's involvement in the initiative. The foundation is urging states nationwide to get out of it.

On Sept. 12, state Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Auburn Hills, who sits on that committee, introduced a bill that would force the state Board of Education to rescind its 2010 adoption of the standards.

"If you have national standards, you're going to end up testing to the standards. You end up with a national curriculum," said McMillin, who said he believes curriculum issues should be decided at the local level.

Advocates for the standards said they only establish expectations, leaving local educators to determine curriculum.

McMillin's bill is part of a recent backlash against the standards that cost state board member Nancy Danhof, R-East Lansing, a chance to run for re-election. She was replaced on the Nov. 6 ballot -- at the state GOP convention this month -- by two conservative Republicans who used her support for the common standards to rally support for themselves. Two seats are open in the election.

Austin said the backlash has been disappointing. "They would rather turn back the clock to a simpler era, where local control of learning in school was the pattern, or the norm," he said.

William Schmidt, a university-distinguished professor at Michigan State University and a leading math education expert, said abandoning the common standards would be "the absolute worst thing" for the state.

"I absolutely believe we'd be relegating our children to a lesser education, and they and the state would pay the price," said Schmidt, who also is co-director of the Education Policy Center at MSU.

Changes in English

In English language arts, the common core standards emphasize informational texts. They also push for greater literacy in social studies, history and science. The idea is for students to become more familiar with the kind of texts they'll be confronted with in college and in the workplace, and to be able to read those texts critically and make inferences from them.

The push is based on research "establishing the need for college and career-ready students to be proficient in reading complex informational text independently in a variety of content areas," the standards document says.

"It's not that students aren't going to still read good literature," said Judy Pritchett, chief academic officer for the Macomb Intermediate School District, referring to narrative text. But teachers such as Schwartz are adding more nonfiction into their classroom libraries. And, Schwartz said, it's changing the way she makes decisions about which books to read to her second- and third-graders.

"I'm trying to make sure that 50% of the time, it's expository writing and 50% of the time, it's narrative writing," she said.

Changes in Math

Schmidt said the new math standards address a common problem with math expectations in the U.S. -- covering too much material with too little depth. The common core standards reduce the number of topics per grade level and require a deeper understanding of those that remain.

"Our new standards are very similar -- in content, in coherence and in rigor -- to what the top-achieving countries are doing," Schmidt said.

Students have to understand the big picture, said Valerie Mills, a math consultant with Oakland Schools.

"Research shows that students that have a conceptual understanding are able to retain the content longer and use it in more flexible ways," Mills said.

That will be key when Michigan and 25 other states debut the Smarter Balanced Assessment, an exam to be administered for the first time during the 2014-15 school year. It will be aligned with the common core standards.

The questions won't all be multiple choice, as most are on state exams in Michigan. The exam will include a number of questions that require short or long responses. There also will be performance tasks that will require students to complete an in-depth project that demonstrates their analytical and problem-solving skills.

Yocum said an example is a task that would be completed over two 90-minute sessions in which eighth-graders would have to develop a plan for building a park.

"They have to use a lot of mathematics, but they also have to have an ability to understand, interpret and make sense of text, charts, graphs, tables ... and then give a lengthy rationale for why they set up the park the way they did," Yocum said.

The test, which will be online, will replace the MEAP and Michigan Merit Exam in English language arts and math.

Teachers such as Emily Alderman are already preparing students for what to expect. Lessons are more active. So are discussions in the classroom. A lot of work has gone into preparing, she said. But it's worth it.

"The reward is kids are talking more about math. It's really rewarding to see them make the connections."

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or

More Details: Find more online

--More information about the Common Core State Standards Initiative

--Standards in mathematics and English language arts (in PDF format)

--Information about Michigan's adoption of the Common Core State Standards

--The text of a bill that would end Michigan's involvement in the initiative

More About Common Core Standards

What they are: According to a mission statement, the standards -- which cover mathematics and English language arts -- provide "a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them."

What they aren't: A national curriculum. The standards spell out what students should know. How they learn it is left up to local educators.

Who is behind them: The initiative was led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. To date, 45 states and three territories have fully adopted the standards. Texas, Virginia, Nebraska and Alaska have not adopted them. Minnesota has adopted only the English language arts standard.

Michigan's role: The standards were adopted in June 2010.

Cost to implement them: State officials say it's unknown. However, some districts are adopting new textbooks and materials.

Why they're controversial: The standards have been described as a state-led effort that was voluntary for states to participate in. But critics say they represent a federal intrusion into education, because even though the Obama administration was not involved in setting the standards, it has tied the adoption of a common set of college and career-ready standards to a federal grant program and to states' ability to receive waivers from some of the rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law. ___

(c)2012 the Detroit Free Press

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