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

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Prior efforts to set common national standards had failed, in part because they came from the federal government rather than from the states themselves. The hope this time was to have rigorous standards that cross state boundaries and that are coherent across grade levels and subjects – allowing students to build from year to year on prior understanding.

Former standards in many states "were a mile wide and an inch deep," says Heath Phillips. "We're trying to go to the opposite – a few inches wide but a mile deep. We're trying to build those critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and students' ability to apply those in various real-world situations."

Still, the standards are seeing a fair amount of backlash – some of which, say observers, is primarily due to bad messaging or misunderstandings: people equating standards with standardized testing, for instance; assuming national standards means a national curriculum; or thinking that the standard that 70 percent of texts be informational by 12th grade means English classes will no longer focus on fiction (the standard actually applies across courses, and the intent is for social studies and science classes to do more literacy work).

But some of the backlash is also due to concerns about how standards that may look good on paper will be implemented.

"When you first introduce the concept of Common Core to teachers who have been beaten down by ... drilling kids for testing, they are extremely excited," says Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University in California. "It's what people want for their own children. But that excitement is very quickly followed by fear and dread, because the ways in which it's going to be used are unknown. If it gets squeezed back into the old multiple-choice testing mentality as a tool for rewards and sanctions, and not a tool for classrooms to engage with more rewarding and challenging instruction, then teachers will turn against it."

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