Let Common Core flourish in Illinois

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This coming spring, students statewide will for the first time take the PARCC test, a next-generation exam aligned to the new, tougher standards. This marks a critical milestone for the Common Core, but more importantly, for the decades-long journey to improve America’s schools.

More than 30 years ago, a prominent commission declared the United States to be “a nation at risk” because of the “rising tide of mediocrity” sweeping our education system. Since then, policymakers and educators have put in place a series of reforms; some of these have worked better than others, but our progress is undeniable. Our lowest-performing, low-income, and minority children have seen major gains since the 1990s, especially in math, and especially in elementary and middle school, in part because of the move toward standards, testing, and accountability. Our K-12 educators and those who lead them should be proud.

Unfortunately, this progress has not reached nearly far enough. Students at the middle and top of the performance spectrum have mostly flat-lined in recent decades. And in the past few years, even our lowest-performing students have been plateauing. That’s why, in 2010, dozens of states, Illinois included, elected to take the next step on the reform journey by adopting more rigorous, college-and-career-ready standards for their public schools. Rather than hold schools accountable just for getting students over a low bar, indicating minimal literacy and numeracy, Illinois now expects its schools to help all of their pupils make progress toward challenging standards connected with student success — meaning a clear path after high school to college or a good paying job.

Educators throughout the Land of Lincoln have spent the past four years preparing for the new standards by developing local curricula, adopting new textbooks, and prepping themselves to teach challenging material. It’s been a struggle, though, because the tests connected to the standards will only go live in early 2015. These exams are expected to provide a more honest picture of student achievement, which inevitably means that fewer students will be deemed “proficient.”

Yet just as Illinois is about to reap the rewards of this long planting season and gain some mileage in the journey toward higher expectations, some want to backpedal. This effort is led by the Chicago Teachers Union, which reversed its earlier support for these new standards.

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