Great things take time; we have to be willing to commit

May 13, 2014

It’s always nice to hear people’s comments about my column. Sometimes they even agree with me.

A few months ago I wrote about Common Core, a nationwide educational initiative that spells out, for each grade, what students should know in English and mathematics.

Common Core, which has the support of business leaders and the National Governors Association, was developed to help America’s students compete globally. Currently, the United States has a crazy-quilt of educational standards.

Standards are un-standard throughout the country. Students moving from one state to another may find themselves ahead or behind their classmates. This is inexcusable and no way for our students to have a chance competing against young people from other countries.

In my column, I referred to Massachusetts, which instituted higher educational standards in the early ‘90s. Despite troubles with implementation, Massachusetts stayed the course.

And the state’s efforts have paid off. According to a Dec. 13, 2013, article in the US News and World Report, “Only three educational systems worldwide statistically outperformed Massachusetts in reading, and only six in science and nine in math. If all students in the United States were performing at the level of high-schoolers in Massachusetts, our country would be at the top of the pack among peer nations.”

Shouldn’t Delaware - and other states for that matter - make the same commitment to higher standards?

Most would say yes, but Common Core remains mired in controversy. Teachers are concerned about being evaluated based on their students’ scores; others, mostly on the right, fear the loss of local control of school districts.

After my column appeared, Paul Herdman, president of the Rodel Foundation, whose mission is to promote a better educational system in Delaware, wrote to say he agreed with my assessment.

Not only is Herdman a former teacher, he worked on education policy for the governor of Massachusetts when the state was implementing its new, higher standards.

It wasn’t pretty, according to Herdman. “There was a lot of concern,” Herdman wrote. “We actually saw sit-ins and walk outs of the students, encouraged in some cases by adults in those communities.”

I can see that happening in Delaware. Frankly, I would be surprised if it didn’t.

Later I spoke to Herdman by phone. “Introducing a new concept is always hard,” he said. You’re going to have “pushback.”

Despite recent concerns raised by teachers, Herdman said, “My sense is that our teachers and our private sector still think Common Core still makes sense.”

He acknowledged concerns teachers have about being evaluated based on student tests scores. As difficult as that problem is, he thinks it can be overcome.

“If you can measure growth, I think there’s a way to get there,” he said. Not that he made it sound easy.

But, he said, “Teachers want that feedback. They want to get better.”

Two others things that Herdman said struck me. Traditionally, students sit in class and teachers provide content.

Common Core aims to help students find and analyze information themselves. It also emphasizes how to write and communicate. In an age where there is almost too much information, this approach makes sense.

Herdman also mentioned the idea of providing a career track to keep great teachers stay in the classroom. Often, teachers go into administration because of a desire to make more money. It would be good if great teachers could make more money by doing what many do best: teaching children.

Herdman directed me to a website called Teacher Evaluation Playbook, which features Delaware Teachers of the Year talking about Common Core.

Perhaps the most thoughtful comments come from Jill Krause, a fourth grade teacher at H.O. Brittingham Elementary School in Milton.

Krause comes across in the video as committed to Common Core but wary of the political winds that could blow the educational reform efforts off course.

“I think the Common Core standards are a good thing. I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Krause said.

“But I’ve been teaching for 17 years and I’ve always see these mad dashes to do this and that and it’s all lost because we don’t really take the time for thoughtful reflection. And for thoughtful implementation.

“I don’t want to see that happen with the Common Core standards. I want there to be time - built in - to the Common Core for reflection and understanding. I don’t want to blow it.

“We want to do it well. Nothing happens overnight. Or in four years or five years. Great things take time. And I think that’s what worries me about the Common Core standards. We have to be willing to commit the time to make them work.”

Great things take time. We have to be willing to commit. That’s it in a nutshell. I believe Common Core offers a way forward. That doesn’t mean it will be an easy road. More likely, it means the opposite.

But ask yourself: Are the people clamoring against Common Core for something better? Or are they just against Common Core?

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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