Schools taking stock in standards
When teachers and school administrators talk about common core standards, they tend to use phrases such as "literacy in all subjects" and "coherence in curriculum."
As a result, parents and community members tend to tune out, assuming the standards are just another academic fad.
But the standards are part of a national movement designed to intensify academic rigor, create a consistent curriculum across state borders and, most important, prepare students for a world that requires more than the ability to recite facts.
Not that there's anything wrong with facts. It's just that knowledge is better.
At the turn of the 20th century, education was about rote learning. Students were supposed to recite the capitals of the states and countries, run through the multiplication tables and recite bits of poetry and prose.
It was a one-size-fits-all type of learning, and it matched the spirit of the age.
As Clinton Superintendent Don Childs put it, "Henry Ford didn't just invent the automobile; he invented the assembly line."
American schooling has evolved, but somewhere along the way American students fell behind their peers in other countries, some say.
Childs pointed out that in the 1950's, America had one of the longest school days and one of the longest school years in the world.
Even more significant, the curriculum became more diffuse.
Childs, using math as an example, described it this way: "The American math curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep."
"In the typical eighth-grade Japanese curriculum, they work on an average of 17 new math topics in a 220-day school year," he said.
American students might be introduced to fractions for two to three weeks and then, after mastering the mechanics, move on to the dozens of other math topics they need to cover.
Under the new standards, students will have to master the mechanics and then explain the "why" of the mechanics. Why do you flip a faction in division?
That kind of thorough learning is generally reserved for gifted and talented students. Now, however, all students will be challenged.
That information learned beyond the basic mechanics will serve students, "not for the next 40 minutes, but the next 40 days and the next 40 years," Childs said.
Why the change?
Here's a fact: Madison is the capital of Wisconsin.
Here's some knowledge: Did you know that Madison's founder, James Doty, owned a significant amount of land on the isthmus of what is now Madison?
During the state's first legislative session in Belmont, Doty lobbied legislators to put the new capital on his isthmus—even though the city only existed as a surveyor's plan on paper.
Back then, territorial Gov. Henry Dodge wanted Belmont, the center of lead mining, to remain the capital.
According to some historians, Doty offered legislators good deals on land in his city with the tacit understanding they would opt for Madison as the capital.
Students have always memorized the state capitals. Will they do so under the new standards?
"Students might memorize the state capitals, but it would incidental to the learning," Childs said.
Here's what has changed: Simple facts are now available at everyone's fingertips. You can find out what the capital of Wisconsin is in an instant.
Memorizing the state capitals is a good exercise. Knowing how geography, industry, culture and money influenced the choice of capitals is an exercise in intensive learning that will help students throughout their lives.
Here's another example from the field of math: A television pundit announces that 89 percent of those polled agree with him on his favorite topic. What does that mean?
Eighty-nine percent of whom? People who watch his or her show? How many people responded to the poll? Five or 50?
Anyone can calculate percentages. Understanding how they work requires a flexible mind.
Districts have already started moving toward common core standards.
In the Delavan-Darien School District, high school students all are engaged in "Authentic Intellectual Achievement," in which students are taught using methods usually reserved for gifted and talented students. There's more focus on non-fiction reading and writing, and students are required to show their knowledge by communicating it to others.
The Janesville School District has altered its report cards, going from letter grades A-F to number grades 1-4.
A score of 1 indicates the student has a partial understand of the subject, and 2 means the student has mastery of the simple mechanics of what he or she is learning. Three reflects a complete mastery of the mechanics or information and some of its complexities. Finally, 4 means the student has an in-depth understanding of the subject that "goes beyond the learning goals."
A grade of 4 is the goal of common core standards.
Childs believes students will respond to work that is more rigorous as long as it is engaging and relevant.
"We've got to get students more deeply involved in their learning," he said.