September 18, 2014
By Michael J. Petrilli and Michael Brickman
Every new school year starts with great excitement and anticipation for students, teachers, and parents alike. This year will carry special significance throughout much of the country, including Illinois, as schools complete the transition to the Common Core learning standards.
This coming spring, students statewide will for the first time take the PARCC test, a next-generation exam aligned to the new, tougher standards. This marks a critical milestone for the Common Core, but more important, for the decades-long journey to improve America’s schools.
More than 30 years ago, a prominent commission declared the United States to be “a nation at risk” because of the “rising tide of mediocrity” sweeping our education system. Since then, policymakers and educators have put in place a series of reforms; some of these have worked better than others, but our progress is undeniable. Our lowest-performing, low-income, and minority children have seen major gains since the 1990s, especially in math, and especially in elementary and middle school, in part because of the move toward standards, testing, and accountability. Our K-12 educators and those who lead them should be proud.
Unfortunately, this progress has not reached nearly far enough. Students at the middle and top of the performance spectrum have mostly flat-lined in recent decades. And in the past few years, even our lowest-performing students have been plateauing. That’s why, in 2010, dozens of states, Illinois included, elected to take the next step on the reform journey by adopting more rigorous, college-and-career-ready standards for their public schools. Rather than hold schools accountable just for getting students over a low bar, indicating minimal literacy and numeracy, Illinois now expects its schools to help all of their pupils make progress toward challenging standards connected with student success — meaning a clear path after high school to college or a good paying job.
Educators throughout the Land of Lincoln have spent the past four years preparing for the new standards by developing local curricula, adopting new textbooks, and prepping themselves to teach challenging material. It’s been a struggle, though, because the tests connected to the standards will only go live in early 2015. These exams are expected to provide a more honest picture of student achievement, which inevitably means that fewer students will be deemed “proficient.”
Yet, just as Illinois is about to reap the rewards of this long planting season and gain some mileage in the journey toward higher expectations, some want to backpedal. This effort is led by the Chicago Teachers Union, which reversed its earlier support for these new standards.
Much of the backlash is based on bad information or faulty arguments. Opponents say that the Common Core standards are a nationally mandated curriculum even though they are (a) not national (some states like Virginia and Texas have chosen different standards); (b) not a mandate (some states like Pennsylvania in 2010 and Indiana in 2014 chose to make some changes); and (c) not a curriculum (state standards, whether Common Core or otherwise, define the outcomes to which we aspire while locally determined curriculum helps teachers figure out how to get there). Others make claims about supposed “data mining” or political indoctrination in the classroom — which may represent legitimate concerns but have nothing to do with the Common Core. Still others cite a confusing worksheet or bad textbook, misconstruing a flawed attempt to meet high goals with the goals themselves.
Legislators and state officials across the country have looked closely at such claims, allegations and anxieties regarding the Common Core, and have found little to fear. In Illinois, the state has provided resources to districts in order to ease the transition. More than 40 states are moving ahead today with the Common Core, despite the fuss and furor.
We hope that is the outcome in Illinois. Its educators and students have worked too hard, for too long, to climb the mountain to higher expectations to turn around just as the summit comes into view.
Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank. Michael Brickman is Fordham’s national policy director.