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Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 4/20/2014

COMMENTARY

Make Common Core better in Ohio; don’t scrap it

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR
Kushma Kushma
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Ohio is one of the 44 states whose public schools are basing their teaching on the educational standards called Common Core. But as the resistance — more political than pedagogical — to Common Core continues to heat up, so does the pressure on state officials to dump the national standards.

Let’s all calm down. Common Core has problems that need fixing, in our state and others. But as with Obamacare and welfare reform and other big recent shifts in public policy, the familiar prescription should apply: Mend it, don’t end it.

Ohio adopted Common Core in 2010. New, mostly online tests that reflect its standards are getting trial runs in school districts across the state before they are rolled out for keeps next school year. The standards summarize the knowledge and skills that American students need to gain in every grade, from kindergarten through senior year.

They are different from, and more rigorous than, the way most of us were taught. They emphasize depth of understanding and analysis over covering a lot of material superficially. They require students in, say, math class to think more critically and to explain how they solve problems, not merely to absorb (or not) rote instruction by the teacher.

The standards encourage students to read more widely and carefully in primary sources, rather than rely on boring, dumbed-down textbooks. They force students to write, not just fill in bubbles on a standardized test sheet.

They call for better testing that actually measures what students are learning. They incorporate the best teaching practices of other countries whose students perform better on international tests than ours do.

It’s hard to argue that Ohio schools don’t need tougher academic standards. A report this year by the Ohio Board of Regents concluded that 40 percent of Ohio high school graduates who enroll in the state’s public universities and colleges need remedial instruction.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently estimated that nearly two-thirds of Ohio fourth-graders — and four out of five low-income students — aren’t reading at grade level. Gov. John Kasich now guarantees that third-graders who don’t read well enough won’t get promoted.

“When I hear people say our standards are OK, well, that’s just not true,” says Richard Ross, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction. “Our standards aren’t OK. We need to elevate them.

“Ohio’s reading scores have not improved at all over the last decade,” Mr. Ross told me last week. “We owe our children more than that.”

But opponents of Common Core are determined to change the subject. Common Core has become, after Obamacare and Benghazi, another Republican blunt instrument for bashing the President. Somehow, conspiracy enthusiasts also portray Bill Gates as a bad guy in all this.

Tea Party types are tying Common Core to the Obama Administration, calling the standards a federal takeover of local schools. But the bipartisan National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers first pushed for the standards, and private employers endorsed them.

No state was required to adopt the standards. Mr. Ross notes that Ohio law requires each local district to develop its own curriculum, not merely to take a prepackaged model off the shelf.

Common Core is a key campaign issue in several legislative races in next month’s Ohio GOP primary. But the backlash against Common Care isn’t limited to the extreme right.

Some teacher unions worry that their members will be punished if students don’t test well under the standards. School officials say they’re having trouble finding textbooks that line up with Common Core. They argue for slowing things down.

A bill before the Ohio House would repeal the Common Core standards. The House has passed a measure that would delay the new tests; other proposals would limit use of the standards. None of this helps.

Certainly schools need time, flexibility, and support to align their instruction with the new standards. Teachers have to be trained adequately in how they work.

Until teachers, schools, and states can adjust fully and effectively to Common Core and the tests that are based on its standards, they shouldn’t be penalized if student scores lag a bit — maybe even for several years — during the transition. Testing needs to return to its original purpose: as a diagnostic tool, not an excuse for cutting off someone’s funding.

The Obama Administration has muddied the waters by linking some federal school aid to a state’s adoption of Common Core. And U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t advance the debate last year when he notoriously derided Common Core critics as “white suburban moms who all of a sudden [discover] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought.”

Criticism of Common Core shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed; if the standards can be improved, they should be. But that’s no reason not to proceed meanwhile.

Politicians in Indiana agreed last month to drop the Common Core standards there. Now the state is scrambling to develop new standards for next school year that are likely to be weaker than the ones they replace.

Ohio doesn’t need that. And it doesn’t need the General Assembly — especially this General Assembly — trying to interfere with what and how schools should teach. Common Core’s challenges, demands, and problems don’t provide an adequate excuse for getting rid of its basic standards.

“Ohio’s better off to have these standards,” Superintendent Ross says. “It won’t be a short-term fix, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all, but our expectations need to grow. We can’t afford to stay where we are.”

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1



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