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My Turn: Common Core standards are good for students, good for the state

The new Common Core state standards are good for our students and an asset to educators working to prepare our kids for today’s world. Each state must find its own way to do this, and we can be proud of the approach New Hampshire has taken.

First, what are the standards? They are English and math goals for what students should learn in each grade. Here’s an example: A fifth-grade student should be able to “write opinion pieces . . . supporting a point of view with reasons and information.”

You can read the standards on-line. It’s easy – they’re written in plain English, not education jargon. Think, as you read, about your fifth grader. Look for a standard that you would not want her to learn. I couldn’t find one. It’s good stuff.

And it’s no wonder. Hundreds of educators and researchers worked for years writing the standards in response to a call from the National Governors Association. Governors across the political spectrum wanted to set consistent expectations that would prepare our kids to compete globally, whether they came from Massachusetts or Mississippi.

But those same governors were committed to maintaining control in each state and school district. So the standards do not dictate curriculum or lesson plans. Curriculum is the still district policy as it has always been in New Hampshire. Lesson plans are still the teachers’ responsibility, though they work together and get professional support from the school districts, the unions and the department of education.

For instance, the new standards call for an increased emphasis on reading, analyzing and writing nonfiction.

One principal said to me, “It was an, ‘Okay, you caught us’ moment. We’ve been doing 90 percent literature, but we need to create a better balance to prepare the kids for the knowledge work they will be doing in this new economy.”

But each New Hampshire school must determine for itself how to achieve this improved balance. English class might still analyze literature, while in history class students might write persuasive essays on de Tocqueville or the Revolutionary War.

Every classroom you look into, if the teachers are engaging with the new standards, the kids are the winners. Now, instead of drilling on how to solve each type of math problem, they will learn how to apply math techniques to solving interesting real-world problems.

The new standards do make greater demands on the schools and teachers because they raise expectations of our students. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Angela Manning, who has implemented the new standards in her fifth-grade classroom at Portsmouth’s award-winning New Franklin School, said matter-of-factly, “It’s overwhelming, of course, because it’s a big shift. It’s been interesting, though, to watch the kids step up to the level of deeper thinking that we’re asking them to do.”

And, I would add, to watch Manning and the whole faculty step up. That’s happening all over the state.

Principal Judy Adams at Manchester’s Bakersville Elementary School said, “Some of the teachers and I just completed a book study on Common Core. Others are beginning a book study on higher level comprehension skills.” They discuss their readings for an hour before class starts.

You’ll hear complaints that the new standards are a “federal intrusion.” Not in New Hampshire. We’re a small state with no budget for the research necessary to develop our own standards from scratch, but as the Common Core standards became available, our state Board of Education saw they that were a step forward from what we had been doing. They adopted the new standards as soon as they were ready – with no push from the federal government or anyone.

As you would hope, the U.S. Department of Education wants to fund only states that have high educational standards. It doesn’t have to be the Common Core standards, but even states like Massachusetts, universally acknowledged to set the highest standards, have chosen the Common Core.

Instead of complaining about federal intrusion, we should be proud of our role in the national commitment to preparing our kids for today’s world.

The Common Core state standards preserve local control in New Hampshire. But local control does not give school districts the right to do a bad job educating our kids. Our Constitution gives every New Hampshire child the right to an adequate education. Our colleges demand it. Our businesses demand it. Our state has an obligation to ensure that our public schools deliver for our kids.

But we can’t go it alone – and we don’t need to. The Common Core state standards help our school districts deliver for our kids.

(Bill Duncan is a resident of New Castle and founder of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.)

I agree with your conclusions and I appreciate the clarity of your explanation of the Common Core standards. Setting clear goals without micromanaging how to achieve them gives everyone relative autonomy without sacrificing excellence. Thanks for your article.

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