Ten years ago, states across the country began to embrace a new set of tougher learning standards in public schools. This new model, called Common Core, was meant to transform how students are taught and what they learn. The goal was to raise the bar and level the playing field for schools across the country.
Today, Common Core is well-established across classrooms in Illinois — and many teachers say it has indeed transformed the way they teach and given students the critical thinking skills they need for the modern world.
But using standardized test scores as an indication, Common Core has fallen short of its original promise in Illinois. Only about one third of Illinois students are hitting the new high bar on state exams that gauge how well students are mastering the Common Core learning standards.
And school districts that are well-resourced — and that have typically been high-achieving — continue to score well under the Common Core exams. But many districts that have majority low-income students, and that have typically performed below the state average, continue to be low-performing.
The new standards do not appear to have helped reduce the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools and students in Illinois.
A look at two schools — one in Chicago and one in the suburbs — helps show how Common Core has played out here.
From memorization to critical thinking
In 2009, Common Core learning standards were pushed by a group of governors and education experts as a way to move away from rote memorization and toward the higher order thinking skills they said students needed for college and careers and to compete globally.
Common Core is not a curriculum, rather it’s a set of detailed expectations for what content and skills students should master at each grade level. The goal is to dig deep into topics rather than scratch the surface on a broad range of content.
At the time, each state had their own set of learning standards, and they ranged in quality. The goal was to increase difficulty across the board and aim for more uniformity across the country.
But soon after, Common Core faced some severe criticism from parents and teachers. They said the standards were overly challenging and questioned whether they encouraged an effective way of learning.
“[Common Core] often got conflated with other policy tools, like testing or accountability indicators or teacher evaluation, which made them much more controversial,” said Michael Cohen, a supporter of Common Core and president of the national education nonprofit Achieve, which aims to raise academic standards.
Common Core came with two new tests. The one used in Illinois and other states is PARCC, or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The test was expensive, and students performed worse on it than the state’s previous standardized test. Last year, Illinois switched to another Common Core-aligned test called the IAR, or Illinois Assessment of Readiness.
The statewide average on these tests has barely changed since it was first administered in 2015.
Cohen said not all schools used quality teaching materials aligned with the new standards, something he says is key to the success of Common Core.
“It really matters if there are high-quality well-aligned instructional materials to support the implementation of the standards,” he said.
Cohen recognizes disparities continue between advantaged and disadvantaged schools. Other experts say it's idealistic to expect higher academic gains across the board.
“If we write common standards, then we’ll have common achievement — I think that assumption is false,” said Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a romantic view of the world. It’s not the way it works.”
Loveless said the policy didn’t take into account socioeconomic differences. Some schools in Illinois are clear examples of that. In less resourced districts, like Chicago Public Schools, teachers say they had a hard time transitioning because of a lack of coordination. In wealthier districts, including those in the northern suburbs, teachers received much more training and support.
“The expectation is high for them”
Ivy Hall Elementary School in northwest suburban Buffalo Grove was named a Blue Ribbon School this year. The U.S. Department of Education recognized the school based on its overall academic achievement.
The school is part of Kildeer Countryside School District 96, which includes seven schools and covers 3,300 students. Just 7% of the district’s students are low-income students, who tend to do worse on standardized tests, and about 17% are learning English.
Like a number of schools around the state, Ivy Hall has historically been high-achieving. They’ve long had rigorous standards, so it wasn’t a huge leap once it came to Common Core.
In Kelly McNamara’s third-grade classroom, it’s become a daily routine to brainstorm and share ideas. McNamara doesn’t just stand at the front of the room lecturing while kids quietly listen, which was the traditional way of teaching.
“[Before] they would just learn a little bit about everything all at once,” McNamara said. “[Now], when we’re looking at our standards and our targets, we’re really zooming in on specific skills and they’re getting mastery at those skills.”
Ivy Hall administrators say the transition to Common Core was stressful at first. But the school district helped by implementing a district-wide curriculum, offered new materials, in-class coaches and communicated the changes with parents.
Teachers were given time to understand the material before taking it to the classrooms, and they revamped the way they teach. So instead of drilling multiplication tables, for example, they focused more on reasoning and the different ways to solve a problem. Ivy Hall coordinated with other schools in the district to develop a unified district-wide approach. They also met with the feeder high school to make sure kids were on target once they got to ninth grade.
McNamara has been teaching at the school for about 15 years. She went from the old way of teaching to Common Core.
“I’ve been teaching for a very long time, and I still meet with the coaches weekly when I’m not certain when they say ‘justify your thinking,’” she said. “We brainstorm together so we’re very clear in what we expect kids to be doing.”
The instructional coach position in the district was created when Common Core came along. Kasie Dolan is an instructional coach in math, and she helps teachers understand the lessons and works closely with students who might be struggling. She said teachers have a better understanding of the subjects, and kids are better for it.
“I think kids are able to explain math way better than we can as adults,” she said. “The expectation is high for them.”
The Pinterest curriculum
In Chicago Public Schools, a high-poverty district the state has deemed underfunded, teachers said the implementation didn’t go as smoothly. Despite that, CPS CEO Janice Jackson praised the district’s efforts, calling it in a recent interview “one of the best rollouts of an initiative.” However, she did acknowledge it got some “mixed reviews.”
The school district used a multiyear approach to introduce the standards starting in the 2011-12 school year and fully began implementing English in the 2013-14 school year, adding math a year later. But, while most teachers today say they feel comfortable teaching under Common Core, learning how to unpack the standards and making sure students understood the content wasn’t easy.
“I remember reading [the standards] and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to get there?’” said Erin Gawlick, a fifth-grade teacher at Belmont-Cragin Elementary on the Northwest Side.
Gawlick and other teachers recall attending some seminars and getting binders and online resources, but many say that wasn’t enough. They also said training was different from school to school — with some schools offering regular support and others offering little to none.
That was one of several issues also mentioned in a 2017 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which found the district relied heavily on individual schools and the ability of teacher leaders to train other teachers. The consortium analyzed surveys of teachers in 2014 and 2015 and found many teachers reported only two to four trainings per year, far short of the 50 hours research has shown teachers may need to achieve mastery of a new skill.
The report found that nearly half the teachers surveyed reported feeling very familiar with the standards and very prepared to teach them in 2014 and that improved substantially by 2015. But, it also highlighted the lack of Common Core-aligned teaching materials to help teachers understand and unpack the new standards.
Teachers like Gawlick said they were scrambling to find lesson plans online.
“For two years, it was dadsworksheets.com, curriculum and commoncoresheets.com or we called it: the Pinterest curriculum,” Gawlick said. “We were just looking on Pinterest at other teachers’ ideas.”
Gawlick was teaching at a different school at the time, but other teachers in CPS said without a uniform curriculum, students could potentially fall behind.
“You might be repeating things and missing things. I feel like missing things is the worse,” Gawlick said.
Unlike some schools in the suburbs, CPS also faces unique challenges. It is larger than any suburban school district — it has more than 600 schools, including charters, and principals have a lot more autonomy over their schools. They decide how much to spend from their school budgets on training beyond what the district offered, how often it happens and how much money is spent on curricula.
Also, the consortium cited two important points that are unique to CPS. It noted that CPS schools are rated based on a different, locally administered standardized test, the NWEA MAP, and that affects teaching time and focus “Preparing students for these tests is likely to take away from time spent teaching the new standards, thereby diminishing the standards’ potential for improving student achievement,” the report authors wrote.
The report also noted that CPS didn’t offer Common Core instructional materials for schools to buy until spring 2015. That meant “teachers had to supply their own materials or make use of resources available on the CPS online resource center during the first 1-2 years of implementation.”
Only now, a decade after Common Core was introduced, is the district offering a set curriculum for every grade and every subject.
At a recent press conference, CPS CEO Janice Jackson acknowledged the challenges teachers face coming up with lesson plans.
“I know that one of the ways that we can help reduce this frustration is by ensuring that every single teacher doesn’t have to guess what is grade-level appropriate material,” Jackson said.
A mixed bag of results
Overall in Illinois, kids aren’t meeting Common Core’s tougher standards.
The 2019 results for the IAR tests show just under 38% of kids passed the English exam, while about 32% met expectations in math.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, assesses students across the country, and in the past 10 years, the national scores have not changed much either. Several states that adopted Common Core early on dropped the standards and the Common Core tests. Many of their scores remain flat as well. Loveless said when you look nationally, it’s hard to know if Common Core is actually working.
“The effects that I found were a mix bag of tiny positive effects and tiny negative effects. But nothing significant at all,” he said.
While the needle on overall student achievement appears to be at a standstill, teachers have said instruction in the classroom has been transformed.
Many teachers say students are developing deeper critical thinking skills — even if that’s not always reflected on standardized test scores.
“With the standards, I feel like they are pretty in depth,” Gawlick said. “Now that we have gotten to know them, I feel like it’s working for the students for what they need.”
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.