By Teachers, For Teachers
In 2010, a who's who of American educators and politicians joined forces to spearhead a national initiative with wide appeal and few if any critics. It was called the Common Core.
The pols and educators agreed: Too many U.S. students breezed through weak state achievement tests (think Illinois' defunct ISAT), only to falter against tougher national and international assessments. Many students who reached college needed intensive tutoring.
The prescription: Create "a common set of high expectations for students across the country." State school superintendents, other education leaders and teachers nationwide would write tough national math and English standards.
For English, the Core standards suggest that students be exposed to "classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature and the writings of Shakespeare." The standards stress reading comprehension, clear writing and vocabulary growth. There is no required reading list.
For math, "Rather than racing to cover many topics in a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, the standards ask math teachers to significantly narrow and deepen the way time and energy are spent in the classroom," the Common Core website says. This means focusing on skills and problem-solving using addition and subtraction through grade 2, multiplication and division in grades 3 to 5, progressing to algebra in grade 8 and higher concepts through high school.
The CEO of the National Parent-Teacher Association endorsed Common Core. So did the American Federation of Teachers. The National Education Association. Several governors. A top exec at consulting giant Accenture. The CEO of Intel. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. The Carnegie Foundation. The National Center for Learning Disabilities. The National Association of State Boards of Education. The 2010 Teacher of the Year. ...
Eventually, 45 states embraced the Core. Over the last four years, however, that unified front has crumbled.
--First, some Republicans defected after the Obama administration embraced the Common Core as part of its 2009 Race to the Top education sweepstakes. The political calculus: Obama is for it so we're against it. GOP defectors said the standards, while not a government production, nevertheless carried a strong whiff of federal intrusion into local schooling.
Indiana, after embracing the Common Core, recently scrapped the standards in favor of those "written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers," Gov. Mike Pence said.
Iowa replaced the Common Core with "The Iowa Core." Florida lawmakers created Sunshine State standards that borrow heavily from the Core. Republican Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana want to establish their own standards. Other states, although not Illinois, are in various stages of revolt against the Common Core.
--Now some teachers unions have joined that chorus. The Chicago Teachers Union demands that Illinois ditch the standards. CTU President Karen Lewis calls the Core "an overreach of federal power into personal privacy as well as into state educational autonomy." She and other union critics say that the Core stifles "creativity in the classroom" -- and that tougher tests tied to the standards shouldn't be used to evaluate teachers.
Translated: Union leaders fear that more students will fail to clear the new statewide tests, and that their members will shoulder a huge share of the blame.
Reality: The Common Core does not dictate how teachers teach, or set a rigid curriculum for students. The curriculum remains firmly in the hands of teachers, principals and local school boards.
"The Common Core tells me what my students should master before they leave my classroom -- it is the destination," Pam Reilly, a second-grade teacher at Woodbury Elementary in Sandwich and the 2014 Illinois Teacher of the Year, tells us. "The journey of teaching to reach that destination is up to me." As it should be.
We've talked to other teachers who chafe at Core standards and complain that they're too vague. But in a February poll, more than 7 in 10 Chicago Public School teachers who responded said they believed Common Core would lead to more college success for their students. That was a resounding vote of confidence in the Core.
We agree that teachers need freedom to decide how best to reach their students. But that's a good reason to make sure teachers have the support they need to make the standards work, not to scrap them before they gain traction.
Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, one of the original Core backers in 2010, summarized the backlash: "There is a great deal of paranoia in the country today," he told The New York Times. "It's the two Ps, polarization and paranoia."
Lest the Core critics forget, there's a third P: Pupils. A single set of high national standards lets everyone -- teachers, principals and parents -- know where students stand and, more important, what all of us can do to help them succeed.