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(Un)Common Sense on the Common Core

Some on the political right see the CCSS as federal intrusion. Some on the political left may see these new standards as infringements on teacher autonomy. But many are just fed up by the botched implementation and lack of resources.
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As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) garner more attention, some of the difficulties and tensions around the flawed rollout and unfair potential consequences of this otherwise good initiative are coming into focus. Students, families, and educators are experiencing these issues firsthand.

Some see the issues associated with the rushed implementation of the CCSS as part-and-parcel with the disastrous school reforms we have experienced over the past two decades. I agree that we must end what Diane Ravitch calls the "reign of error" -- the damaging war on public education, the "race to the top" policies that punish kids and teachers while starving neighborhoods and schools of the resources they need to thrive.

Illinois is slated to roll out a new statewide assessment in 2014-15 that will measure student achievement on the CCSS.

We will not be ready.

We surveyed Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) members in March of this year. Only 14 percent of characterized knowledge and readiness for the new standards as "expert." And, right now, only 25 percent of Illinois students attend schools with the infrastructure in place to actually give the test on a computer (as it is intended). And there are consequences for both students and teachers based on this test.

Our national union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recently called on officials to "put the brakes on stakes," and the IFT joins in this demand. We believe that any consequences for students or teachers, deriving from this new assessment, be put on hold until we can address issues of resource sufficiency and equity.

If we cannot be allowed to prepare ourselves and our students fully for the new assessments, then the results shouldn't count.

No teacher or parent wants their students to have to take tests for which they have not been prepared.

That said, we cannot let good standards be the collateral damage of a testing regime run amok. Even though some want bad tests, too many tests, and teacher evaluations based on tests, that doesn't mean we cannot allow high standards to help all students to achieve.

To me, it's a civil rights issue. Why should only some students have access to a rich, demanding curriculum and the resources required to teach those standards well: for example, arts classes, and a concentration on critical thinking and problem solving, rather than rote memorization and slavish practice for standardized testing? Why should a student in Lake Forest have access to one kind of algebra, while a student in East St. Louis gets another? Does algebra vary based on a student's geography?

Should the value of the land where a family lives determine the quality of education their children receive?

Absolutely not.

All students deserve to be challenged to reach their highest potentials.

So, why are some teachers and parents opposed?

Some on the political right see the CCSS as federal intrusion. Some on the political left may see these new standards as infringements on teacher autonomy. But many are just fed up by the botched implementation and lack of resources, which reminds teachers of misguided school reform efforts of recent times and the horrific over-emphasis on testing. They tell excruciating stories of students derailed from real instruction to undergo test prep and direct instruction in severely under-resourced schools.

So what must we do? We must engage everyone involved in education to get this right, and for that we'll need time, and plenty of it. Teachers will need more time to collaborate and opportunities for professional development to engage in instructional strategies aligned to the CCSS. Students will need time to develop deep understanding of content, and parents will need time to understand what this means for student achievement.

CCSS was designed to establish broad performance standards for student achievement in the core academic disciplines of English Language Arts and Mathematics, with literacy standards for Science and Social Studies. These standards do not say anything about what teachers should do, but rather what students need to know. They allow educators to use their creativity and professional judgment to decide the most appropriate strategies and curricula for their students.

We cannot have school districts that think adapting curriculum means simply buying new textbooks or off-the-shelf instructional units sold by for-profit companies.

We know better.

Then, the assessments need to be thoughtfully aligned with the standards and curricula, and also developed by teachers.

This is not too much to ask.

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