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Standards bring out skeptics

Some see federal attempt to usurp district’s control

DIXON – New standards for schools have attracted their share of controversy in the last couple of months.

At a forum Tuesday, though, one woman told Dixon school officials that she liked the Common Core State Standards, which 46 states have adopted.

“I’m glad the pendulum is swinging back, so students can get back to the basics,” she said. “Students have to use their thought processes.”

But many others in the audience expressed skepticism about the standards, which, so far, deal with language arts and math. They say it’s a federal attempt to usurp the control of parents and local school districts. 

Last month, the Sauk Valley Tea Party hosted a parental rights advocate who presented the case against Common Core. In the audience were Dixon Superintendent Michael Juenger and Assistant Superintendent Margo Empen.

They said nothing, but later decided to hold a Parent Academy on the subject, with 45 attending their presentation in Dixon High School’s auditorium.  

They said they would neither advocate nor criticize the standards. Their goal, they said, was to provide information. 

Among other things, the standards move up each of the main mathematical concepts – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division – a year earlier in elementary school. The standards also introduce algebraic concepts years earlier.

They also ask students to provide more analysis of reading materials. And in high school especially, students get more exposure to nonfiction, which experts say greatly improves reading comprehension.

As an example of a reading selection for second-graders or third-graders, the officials used “Charlotte’s Web.”

The old Illinois Learning Standards would have expected teachers to ask basic questions such as “Who is telling the story in Charlotte’s Web?” or “How does Wilbur feel toward Charlotte at the end of the story?”

The new standards would recommend questions such as “What is your point of view about Wilbur?”

Amanda Norris, president of the Sauk Valley Tea Party, criticized the new approach.

“The new expectation is completely subjective. You are asking for their opinions,” she said. “Whose worldview will grade their opinions?”

Juenger responded that elementary school students would focus on fiction, while high schoolers would get nonfiction.

“With nonfiction, there won’t be that subjectivity that you talk about,” he said. 

Another woman asked about the expense of Common Core testing, which must be done on computers. 

Juenger said the district already had the technology available. 

“Whether we went with Common Core or not, we would provide the technology,” he said. “This is the world we live in.”

Another attendee said the standards seemed geared toward college-bound students. 

Empen said the standards are built on career and college readiness. In creating the standards, national education leaders say, they asked employers and colleges what they needed. 

Juenger said he liked some things about Common Core and disliked others. The standards, he said, are among a number of unfunded mandates for schools. 

“Has our local control been eroded a bit? Yes. Have we had to chase the dollar a bit more? Yes,” he said. 

“That’s why we need more local control,” Norris said. 

Old vs. New

Here's a comparison between the old standards and the new standards for middle school students:

Previous math question:

Donna buys 40 apples at 35 cents each. She eats 2 apples and sells the rest for 45 cents each. How much money does she make?

(This question only requires use of simple arithmetic.)

New math question:

Donna buys some apples at 35 cents each. She gets 2 apples and sells the rest for 45 cents each. She makes $4.40. How many apples did she buy?

(This question requires use of an algebraic equation.)

Source: Dixon Public Schools handout

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