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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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Math teacher Kristina Smith works with her students in Loveland, Colo., as administrators look on in an effort to assess the best practices for classroom instruction.

Barbara Colombo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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In an Algebra I class at Mountain View High School, a freshman girl is struggling with a new assignment: The students are working in small groups to try to find the number of different-shaped tiles needed to cover a certain size tabletop – and then how to find a pattern and extrapolate on that answer for other sizes.

"Is this supposed to be hard or easy?" she asks her teacher in frustration.

"It's supposed to make you think," replies Kristina Smith, the teacher, as she patiently circles through the room, responding to each student's questions not with an answer but with additional questions that encourage them to push themselves to the next step.

What's going on at this school in Loveland, Colo., as well as across the United States, is a key step in a long-running shift to national standards. These Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, have the potential to drastically change curriculum in elementary, middle, and high schools around the country.

In a crowded field of major K-12 education reforms, the shift to new, common standards is one of the biggest. Depending on whom you talk to, it's the most promising education reform in decades – an opportunity for teachers to delve more deeply into material and focus on critical-thinking skills and comprehension. Or, it's yet another reform that's being pushed through too quickly, paired with too many high-stakes consequences, and it will further drive teachers from the classroom and discourage kids.

The true test, both proponents and detractors agree, will come over the next year or two, when the standards shift from just existing on paper to becoming a reality in classrooms. Right now, teachers and administrators are discussing how to translate the standards into practice, which are in various stages of implementation. It's a state-by-state and district-by-district process, with many different approaches.

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