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'Core' Curriculum Puts Education Experts At Odds

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At 2 p.m., it's crunchtime for students who write for The Harbinger Online, the award-winning, student news site at Shawnee Mission East High just outside Kansas City, Kan. They've been investigating an initiative to develop common curriculum and test guidelines for states.

The young reporters have pored over countless documents about the Common Core State Standards and talked to Kansas state legislators who pushed for their adoption, trying to understand why they're necessary.

"I think it's because we've known for years that there's something wrong with our education system; that there's better ways to be doing what we're doing," says Duncan MacLachlan, the 17-year-old co-editor of the site.

Although, that's not readily apparent at his school. After all, 98 percent of Shawnee Mission East High graduates go on to college. But experts say high-achieving schools like this one are the exception, not the rule. Most students finish school without the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in college or the workplace.

The Common Core is an attempt to get all states to adopt the same, rigorous standards, beginning with English and math. But MacLachlan says its impact on learning in the classroom is unclear.

"Our coverage of that has been sparse because we don't know," he says.

Developing The Standards

David Coleman is considered to be the architect of the Common Core Standards.

"The most important thing to know is that it was actually teachers who had the most important voice in the development of the Common Core standards," he says.

He started working on the standards years ago, as one of the founders of the private consulting group Student Achievement Partners. Today, he's president of the College Board, which administers the SAT. Coleman credits 45 governors thus far for putting their political differences aside and moving to adopt Common Core.

"So you had states bringing their best work to the table, the best of their work on their standards," he says.

Coleman says the Common Core standards — for kindergarten to 12th grade — are tougher and go much deeper. He says their rigor is why states that have field-tested them, like Kentucky, have seen kids' test scores plummet by as much as 30 percent.

"Those kids who scored 30 percent lower, that's the number of kids who are on their way to remediation in college," Coleman says. "So they may have been passing previous state tests, those tests were presenting kids as ready who were not."

Lack Of Consensus

To hear Coleman tell it, the Common Core standards will provide a more accurate snapshot of what kids actually know and are able to do. Not everybody thinks that's true.

Among them is Karl Krawitz, the principal at Shawnee Mission East.

"In fact, I think Common Core [is] going to set education back even further because you're dictating curriculum," he says, "what people are supposed to regurgitate on some kind of an assessment that's supposed to gauge how well kids have learned the material and how well teachers have taught the material. The reality is tests don't do either one of those things."

Krawitz, who still teaches chemistry at his school, says Common Core proponents also assume that there's a consensus about what should be taught.

"Kansas is struggling right now. I mean, my goodness, we're still trying to figure out whether or not evolution should be taught," he says.

To be clear, the Common Core standards are only a guide for states to follow as they write their curricula. Still, critics argue that the standards are too rigorous, too complex and developmentally inappropriate, especially in the early grades. Some dispute that teachers actually wrote the standards.

Is It Worth It?

Krawitz worries that Common Core will impose more testing.

"And there's a big thing people need to understand: Testing in this country is big business," he says.

He says the testing industry stands to make tons of money.

"To me, the real question is not who makes money. The question is, is it worth it?" Krawitz says.

Coleman says it is worth it because too many students, especially poor minority children, aren't being challenged.

"These standards are the most serious attempt this country has yet made to come to grips with those early sources of inequality," he says.

Many school reformers say that's one big reason they support the Common Core standards. Convincing educators in the trenches, like Krawitz, is another matter.

"I would do everything I can to keep Common Core out of this school," he says.

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