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Education reform's next big thing: Common Core standards ramp up

Common Core standards are aimed at building students' critical thinking skills, and 46 states have adopted them. But critics say the methods are unproven and the education reform is moving too fast.

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In a recent poll of AFT members, Ms. Weingarten noted, 75 percent supported the standards, which she said should mean "less memorization, less racing through a course of study, and more searching for evidence and conceptual understanding."

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  • Geometry

    Graphic Geometry
    (RESEARCH: Amanda Paulson, SOURCE: Common Core State Standards)

But in too many cases, including New York, Weingarten said, tests that are aligned with the standards are being fast-tracked before the standards have even begun to be implemented – on material students have never learned. And too many high-stakes consequences are being tied to those tests, she said.

Officials, Weingarten said in her speech, are seeking "to make [the standards] count before they make them work."

Advocates of Common Core also emphasize how important it is to do the implementation well.

"I think there is a growing backlash against standards and accountability-driven reform. This is basically our last shot to get this right," says Kathleen Porter-Magee, senior director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank headquartered in Washington. "Speed should be secondary to thoughtfulness and deliberateness."

Here in Colorado, educators have been central to the transition to the new standards – and many are welcoming them.

The state brought more than 500 teachers together last fall to translate the standards into curriculum and materials that could be shared. This spring, the state is conducting workshops with more teachers around the state; over the summer, teachers will gather to further develop the materials, with special attention on how to improve instruction for particular groups, including special-education and gifted students and English-language learners. This is in addition to district-led efforts going on around the state.

Thompson School District, which includes Mountain View High School, is one of 13 districts working with the Colorado Legacy Foundation. Those districts are doing even more work around integrating new standards (which in Colorado include not just the Common Core ones, but also new state standards in social studies and science) and helping teachers develop curriculum. They've been holding multiple lesson studies like the one Ms. Smith was running, observed by teachers and administrators who later discuss what they saw, share ideas, and talk about what worked.

"It's no longer just about skills: It's about coherence, and how do these concepts flow from grade to grade and course to course, and about rigor," says Smith, who has been teaching math for seven years and welcomes the changes. "My concern is if [we can] accomplish what we need to accomplish in the short period we have, but then I say we don't have any choice."

Lessons like the one she was teaching about tiles, she says, are valuable since they emphasize process and understanding, rather than memorization of an equation.

"I didn't care what [students] gave me as the final answer," she says. "I wanted to see the math they gave me as the process.... My goal was to get them to back up their answer."

In a class downstairs, as part of the same lesson study, Tiffany Utoft is giving her Algebra II students the same problem. The change in the students' understanding and the sophistication of their responses compared with that of the Algebra I students – many develop complicated formulas to solve the problem – are striking.

"I just had an epiphany!" yells Lizzy Fanning, a sophomore with curly red hair, at one point.

The exercise, she says, is a good one since it's so tangible. "When you're learning math, everyone asks how could this apply in real life," Lizzy says. "If you were a carpenter, you could have to do what we're doing now."

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