On the third day of school at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School in Naperville, 27 eighth graders shuffle into room 216 for English class.
For the next hour, they’ll dissect a quote by the man their school is named after.
“What’s Jefferson saying here?” asks their teacher Holly Bontkowski.
Students look down at the quote Bontkowski’s printed out for them. It reads: "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”
A student raises her hand and says, “He’s saying that he believes in democracy and that the people should have the power, but that they should use the power well and if they aren’t then they shouldn’t take it away from them but they should teach them how to use it right.”
“And who’s they?” Bontkowski asks.
“The government?” the student responds
“Yeah, the government shouldn’t take the power away from them. Who’s them?” Bontkowski presses.
“The people,” says the student.
This is not what Holly Bontkowski would have taught in her English class on the third day of school last year.
“It’s a big shift,” Bontkowski tells me between classes. “It’s going to be very important that they can read history, science. If you looked at that quote it was completely out of their context level. It’s critical that they have the confidence to look at it and say, ‘OK, I can break this down. I can read this.’”
Jefferson Junior High is one of thousands of schools across Illinois getting a new curriculum this fall.
That’s because Illinois is one of 46 states adopting a new set of national math and reading standards called the “Common Core.” Common Core is in the process of developing science and social studies standards, but those won’t be out until later this year or next year.
President Barack Obama made Common Core a key requirement when he was doling out billions of dollars in competitive federal grants. The idea is to have a more comprehensive and fair way to measure students across states.
Instead of the Illinois Learning Standards, which some teachers described as a lengthy checklist of content standards, the state will use Common Core’s math and reading standards. Districts have until 2014 to adjust, but many are starting to introduce Common Core-aligned lessons into their day-to-day classes.
The standards are meant to make students dig deeper, write more, and articulate why what they’re learning even matters.
Lisa Hendrix is an English teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park. She says the content will largely stay the same, but how and when it’s taught will change.
“They’re still going to get all of the basic fundamental vocabulary, word study, literature, writing, technology, listening and speaking, they’re going to get all of that. But the pacing may be different,” Hendrix said.
In math, that means students will be exposed to algebra sooner, they’ll get geometry later and lessons, like “how to tell time,” will fall by the wayside.
For English, books will be longer and more complex earlier on, and all students will get more non-fiction. At least half of what students read, starting in Kindergarten, will be non-fiction.
That means books about turtles and trains, and less Clifford the Big Red Dog in Kindergarten. In middle and high school, it’ll be more newspaper and magazine articles, and a little less Shakespeare. The Common Core still suggests many of the classics, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Great Gatsby, but proposes teaching them in a more analytical way.
Valerie Reynolds teaches first grade at Hough Elementary School in Barrington District 220 and is a little skeptical about how younger students will do with longer chapter books.
“I’ve always read a few…Charlotte’s Web… But Common Core suggests Wizard of Oz at first grade so, I am very curious how that’s going to go,” Reynolds said.
Over all, most of the teachers I talked to across the suburbs like the new standards, because they don’t tell them specifically what to teach.
Hendrix said in some ways, the standards get back to how teachers used to teach before No Child Left Behind was passed. No Child Left Behind is the most recent version of the federal law that governs public education. Passed in 2001, it requires all schools to have 100 percent of its students passing state standards. The law has been criticized in recent years for being unrealistic and prompting states to “dummy down” standards in order to reach the 100 percent passing goal.
Kristin Lahurd, a middle school English teacher in Evanston, said in her district “teaching to the test” was never encouraged. She sees the shift to Common Core standards as necessary for kids to think critically in today’s information age.
“I know you can access the parts of the body. You can get that online so easily,” Lahurd said. “BUT I don’t know that you can evaluate the information that’s coming at you at such a rapid pace now.”
Some suburban districts already emphasize critical thinking and don’t plan to make many changes in order to align with the new standards. A spokeswoman for New Trier Township High School told WBEZ that there is “not a need to adjust” their current standards because they “were already rigorous.”
But curriculum expert Barbara Radner of DePaul University said districts should be careful not to get caught flat-footed.
“No matter what you’re doing, take a look at these standards,” Radner said. “They are different from what you have been doing. In some cases, it’s a matter of degree. In some cases, it’s a matter of totally different agenda.”
The good news is teachers and kids have some time to figure out the new guidelines. Students won’t face a standardized test based on Common Core for another two years, when the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) is replaced by the national PARCC assessment (PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).
In the meantime, everyone will have to change their views of tests and grades because, with Common Core, getting an “A” may mean more than turning all your work in on time and passing a multiple choice test.
And sometimes how you get to the answer will be more important than the answer itself.
In room 216 at Jefferson Junior High, Ms. Bontkowski’s English class got that message the first week of school.
“One thing you’re going to need to get used to in this class, look at me when I say this. This is important,” Bontkowski said on the third day of classes. “You’re going to look at me like I’m the one who has the answers. K? And I’m going to tell you very, very clearly, that’s not what learning is all about.”
She says that uncertainty might drive them crazy at first, but in the long run, it will make them better critical thinkers. And that’s what the new Common Core standards are meant to do.