Editorial: A common cause

New public school curriculum standards deserve a chance to succeed
May. 13, 2013 @ 12:07 AM

It should be clear to everyone with or without school-age children that we have to do something to improve the quality and intensity of public education. This country, as great as it is, is falling behind other nations in comparative student test scores and benchmarks. That cannot be allowed to continue.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia are adopting a new set of benchmarks for education known as Common Core, with full implementation at all grade levels to take place in the 2013-2014 school year. The state of Tennessee is among them, which means Sevier County public schools will join that program. The change has been quick — maybe too quick, some educators say.

“I believe we would have benefited from an expanded transition period that included opportunities for thorough deconstruction of the standards to set clear learning targets, in-depth training of teachers over time, and a more gradual implementation of the new standards starting in the primary grades and moving up the grades with those students as they move from grade to grade,” said Debra Cline, director of curriculum and instruction for Sevier County Schools.

Nancy Sims, principal of New Center School, said the biggest disadvantage of the new curriculum is the pressure it puts on teachers. “When teachers feel pressure, students feel pressure,” she said. “We have to take it in perspective, educate the whole child, and realize that all children learn differently.”

Still, despite the concerns, Common Core is a good thing. It promises to lead to more in-depth study. Sims says it will mean more “application of knowledge” instead of kids merely reciting facts. Common Core will provide educators with a national test for comparing student performance, and it provides an opportunity for states to collaborate and share resources, Cline said.

It is not without controversy. Some see this as federal meddling in the affairs of local public schools, since the standards are being pushed by the U.S. Department of Education. They say it will hurt curriculum and restrict the freedom of local school systems to do what they think is best for their students.

Of course, if school leaders at any local level always did what was right, public education would be far better than it is. These days, when educators and schools are judged by test scores, too many teachers feel compelled to spend their days teaching the tests instead of challenging students and finding creative ways to instill critical thinking in young minds.

School systems need to be rated by some method, and comparative testing is the prevailing way, But in the end we have to turn out teenagers with diplomas who are ready for another level, ready to write papers and think through problems and who are knowledgeable about the core curriculum from which they emerged.

Kids today face so many distractions, not to mention the difficulties some face at home with dysfunctional parents and no incentive to learn and read and study. Public schools can be better, even in the face of so many problems and so many people who think they know best.

Common Core is a step in finding the right combination to unlock minds and improve the students our public schools turn out. It deserves a chance to succeed.