TOPICS > Education

In Chicago, Public Schools and Teachers Work Towards a ‘Common Core’

December 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Some states, including Illinois, have recently adopted new public school curriculum guidelines called the Common Core State Standards. While some teachers feel relief at having clear guidelines, Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW reports from Chicago on a more contentious aspect of the new implementation: student and teacher evaluation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: how to increase student performance in America’s secondary schools.

Federal education officials announced today that five states will participate in an experiment to make students spend more time in school. Meanwhile, many states are already implementing a new national approach, called the Common Core State Standards.

Special correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of public television station WTTW reports on how that’s working out in Chicago.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chicago elementary school students have walked these stairs for more than 100 years. Named for the meatpacking tycoon Philip D. Armour, this Chicago public school is now 87 percent Hispanic. And like many inner-city schools, it is on academic probation.

LESLIE ROACH, Teacher, ArmourElementary School: You’re going to write the main idea of the story on one Post-it note. And then you’re going to rip off another. And you’re just going to write two character traits.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But now Armour is on the cutting edge of the biggest change in American education in years. It is one of a small group of Chicago schools that is testing the new Common Core State Standards. So far, 46 states have adopted the standards which describe what every student needs to know from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Fifth grade teacher Leslie Roach says her classroom methods have changed dramatically since Armour became a pilot school for using the Common Core Standards three years ago.

LESLIE ROACH: What’s different is the Common Core allows the kids to kind of dive deep into what they’re reading or what they’re learning.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: America’s dismal educational ranks led to the push for more rigorous standards. Nationwide, only 35 percent of eighth graders met expectations in reading. And only 25 percent of high school graduates who took the ACT college entrance exam tested ready for college.

The University of Chicago’s Tim Knowles says the poor outcomes led to the call for new standards.

TIM KNOWLES, University of Chicago: One of the main motivations is looking at the highest-performing countries in the world and the most improving countries in the world and saying, what are they doing? One of the things that we find that they’re doing is they’re teaching many fewer standards. In Singapore, for example, which has some of the best mathematics and science results in the world, they teach literally half the standards that America attempts to teach.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Common Core Standards were developed by teachers, school administrators, experts, and parents. But the developers say the federal government didn’t have a role in creating the standards. Instead, they were state-driven. And each state must approve the standards if they are to be used.

LESLIE ROACH: We’re just going to read very, very short chapter. OK? We’re on chapter three. And we’re going to read it. And then you guys are going to go in your centers and do some work on character traits.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There are only 10 reading standards for literature for Leslie Roach’s fifth grade class. But Roach says they require a deeper understanding of the text.

LESLIE ROACH: Now we do a novel or a book or a piece of nonfiction for weeks at a time. So they really get a better understanding of what they’re actually reading.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Roach started her fifth-graders off with a book about a yellow fever epidemic.

LESLIE ROACH: What’s the genre of this book?

STUDENT: Nonfiction.

LESLIE ROACH: Not nonfiction.

STUDENT: Historical.

LESLIE ROACH: Historical fiction, which means what, Matthew?


STUDENT: It’s really a piece of history, but it has made-up characters.

LESLIE ROACH: That’s right.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: She challenged the class to find the book’s themes and analyze the characters.

LESLIE ROACH: Our essential question that we’re going to keep in mind through this whole novel is, what does it mean to be brave?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the standards are just that: standards. They do not come with curriculum guides on how to meet the standards. That’s up to the school.

Roach sits down once a week with a literacy coach and fellow language arts teacher to talk about what works and what doesn’t.

WOMAN: I wanted to ask you if, you know, there’s a big writing component, that daily routine writing? Did you see that in your framework? What have you been doing with that?

LESLIE ROACH: I just do a quick write in the morning.


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Roach and her colleagues are developing standards-based unit plans for English teachers at Armour.

Math teacher Eden Barragan has worked on building a math curriculum that will align with the Common Core Standards for his third-grade math class. In this lesson, Barragan is teaching his students ways to measure volume.

EDEN BARRAGAN, ArmourElementary School: Now, here’s the challenge, boys and girls. You have to figure out how much is in here, because did you use it all? No. How much is left?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Barragan says he’s had to step up his game in order to prepare his kids to meet the new Common Core Standards.

EDEN BARRAGAN: We used to just cover volume as the space, the amount of space something takes up.

And it would have been, for example, say, a picture and the kids would have just had to read the number, whereas now they’re actually hands-on, finding it, the volume, themselves, and then also working other problems within volume.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Armour’s state standardized test scores have moved up 16 points since it became a pilot school for the Common Core, significant progress in a school that is 98 percent low-income in a neighborhood plagued by violence.

Principal Shelley-Lugo Cordova says her decision to apply to become a pilot school for the Common Core was a good one, though she admits that not all Armour teachers felt that way initially.

SHELLEY LUGO-CORDOVA, ArmourElementary School: Well, as always, anything new, you’re always skeptical about. We have had some resisters.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Leslie Roach was one of them.

LESLIE ROACH: My colleagues laugh because I was the biggest just downer on the Common Core when it first came out. I was very angry about having to find our own materials and how are we going to do this and all this time. And after a while, they got pretty tired of listening to me complain.

But as I got into it myself and as I kind of embraced what was coming, I really did find that the kids do understand more and they learn more. And they’re more interested in what they’re learning.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This is the first year that all Chicago public schools are using the Common Core Standards. The chief of instruction for CPS says the district’s professional development programs will be key to a successful transition.

JENNIFER CHEATHAM, ChicagoPublic Schools: Teachers haven’t necessarily had the experience of planning their own instruction. So, we need to legal-them learn how to plan their instruction, which is something that is going to be critical for implementation of the Common Core.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In a district that suffered through a bitter six-day teachers strike in September, there is a surprising amount of cooperation between the district and the teachers union in planning for the Common Core implementation.

KAREN LEWIS, Chicago Teachers Union: As contentious as our relationship has been, the one place that we totally agree is on how to figure out instructional delivery.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the good feeling between the union and the district breaks down when it comes to how students will be evaluated. Beginning in 2014-’15 school year, a new assessment test will replace the current state test. Cheatham says the results could be shocking.

JENNIFER CHEATHAM: The reality is, we’re actually going to see a drop-off. We’re close to around 70 percent of students at proficient on the Illinois test right now.

Predictions show that we may drop to somewhere in the teens in terms of proficiency. That’s Chicago. But that’s going to be a trend that we’re going to see across the country. The standards are that much more rigorous.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The union is concerned that a dramatic drop in test scores could have a disastrous impact for teachers, who will be evaluated on student performance.

KAREN LEWIS: Everyone will be judged, and possibly very harshly. And what we’re really concerned about is that this could be a death sentence. OK? So it could be a death sentence in the death of a career, the death of a school.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Teacher evaluation is sure to be part of the future debate. But, for now, the teachers here at Armour appreciate how the standards have benefited their students while improving their teaching methods.

JEFFREY BROWN: And online, you can learn how some states are implementing expanded learning time to raise achievement levels. You will find that in the Rundown.