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Common Core standards necessary to challenge students

Published: Friday, Oct. 4, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The Common Core standards that are hitting the news recently are not new to educators.

In fact, most of the educators in McHenry County and across the country have been preparing for their implementation since 2010. Curriculums are being adjusted to the consistent, rigorous standards that will be the benchmark for nearly all students in the U.S.

Why do we need a new set of standards? The Illinois State Standards under which I started teaching were failing most of our students. The Illinois standards essentially told what facts to teach. They did not provide students with the skills they needed to be ready for a career and/or college.

Consequently, many students weren’t (aren’t?) equipped for some of their high school classes. These students are less likely to graduate from high school as they quickly get behind in high school credits. Many students going to college have to take remedial math or English classes since their training is not adequate to succeed in college courses. This is costly to parents and taxpayers. Yet most significantly, these shortcomings in our current standards leave so many of our youth discouraged, without the prospect of a successful future.

So when did this all start and why? The National (State) Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers, leaders and educators from across the country, came together and agreed that there was a crisis in education in America. Students were taught differently around the country and at various levels of difficulty or rigor. The new Common Core standards are five years in the making. The NGA and CSSO initiated the standards in 2009. Illinois and 44 other states adopted the standards in 2010.

Yes, students still need to know the times tables and how to write grammatically correct essays for different purposes: expository, persuasive, etc. But, more importantly, students need to learn how to think critically and use what they learn. Students not only need to know how to write each type of essay, but when each type of writing is appropriate to use – persuasive writing is probably not fitting for a cookbook. Young people need to be able to compare ideas; read instructional, informational texts; and apply concepts, collaborate with classmates and solve problems. These are the skills that will serve them in a career, college and beyond. And, most importantly, this ingrains the habit of engaging with information/knowledge.

For a quick comparison of the Illinois and Common Core standards in similar subject areas for eighth grade, let’s look at Illinois State Standards Goal 1A3b Middle/Jr. High School: “Read with understanding and fluency, analyze the meaning of words and phrases in their context.” In other words, the student needs to determine the meaning of a word based upon the sentence or paragraph in which it is used.

The Common Core English Language Arts standards CCSS ELA – Literacy RL 8.4 require eighth-grade students to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in text, including figurative and connotative meanings, analyze the impact of a specific word chosen on meaning and tone including analogies and illusions to another text.”

The Common Core expects students to not only determine word meaning from how it is used within the text, but also to identify how the word is used and why the author may have chosen to use the word. Finally, the student needs to understand the “tone” set through the use of the particular word. This understanding of how and why words are chosen in writing will help the student better understand the intricacies of writing and improve his/her understanding and writing technique.

The Common Core standards start with the endgame: What skills must students have upon completion of high school? These are referred to as “anchor standards.” Then each grade level is broken into a set of concepts, the concepts increase in difficulty and expand each year. The Common Core defines what a student should be able to do by the end of each year.

The standards require a deeper thought process, which then can be connected to other situations in their learning and their life, rather than a cursory scan of subject matter where the student may not acquire the ability to connect the knowledge beyond the chapter tests.

As with the previous educational standards, students will be measured on their progress with the Common Core. It is their progress and every student is different, each child learns at his/her rate. Multiple measures are important as a single computerized test is barely a snapshot of what a student has learned. The teacher is likely to be the best source as to how a student is progressing. Given the complexity of the issue, I’ll leave “assessments” for another article.

For the sake of all students, we need to go forward with the Common Core state standards. Illinois students need a new approach to learning that is more engaging and more challenging.

Our students need to come away from high school with a set of skills that will make them competitive in the workplace, college and the world.

• Leslie Schermerhorn is regional superintendent of McHenry County schools.

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