This fall, Maryland's public schools will start their second year under the Common Core Standards, and the controversy sparked by last year's rocky roll-out appears far from dying down. Parents, teachers, students and political leaders have all questioned the state's implementation of the standards, if not the standards themselves. We recognize that this transition is difficult and that some teachers and students, particularly those in higher grades, may be struggling to adapt to these new educational goals. But the idea of setting educational standards and aligning instruction in every classroom toward meeting them is nothing new; Maryland has been a leader in that movement for a generation. And there is little question that the Common Core represents an improvement over what we had before.

Part of the issue may be a lack of public understanding about what, exactly, the Common Core entails. The standards stress developing students' ability to think critically and creatively rather than rely on rote memorization. Students are now expected to present well organized, logical arguments to support their responses to test questions rather than to simply give the "right" answer.

For example, the new standards for English and language arts accelerate instruction in reading both fiction and nonfiction from the earliest grades so that students can begin using their skills to gather and analyze information sooner. Being able to read for meaning is vital to understanding the world, and the new standards present students with far more sophisticated and challenging texts. This year, second-grade students could be reading books that in previous years might not have been assigned until fourth grade, and high school students will be tackling the same materials one might find on a college freshman's reading list.

Similarly, in math students will be expected not only to get the right answer but to be able to explain how and why they did so. By emphasizing a deep understanding of the mathematical concepts underlying such traditional processes as addition, subtraction, multiplication and long division, the new standards will help students learn to apply math to real-life problems such as calculating the probability of winning a hand of cards or of an athlete being injured in a game. The goal is not only to teach students proficiency in mathematical operations and procedures but to get them to "think mathematically" as a way of understanding the world.

The changeover to the Common Core will doubtless be easier for children in the earlier grades than for students who already are in middle or high school — and their test scores from the first battery of statewide assessments are likely to reflect that. Kids who start out being prepared to meet the higher standards will have at least a temporary advantage over those in the later grades who came up under the old benchmarks. In an ideal world, the state would roll out Common Core one grade at a time every year, starting with kindergarten and ending with the last year of high school.

Yet doing it that way would also mean that most of the state's current students would never be exposed to the higher standards, and the plan wouldn't be fully implemented until 2027. State officials say it would be unconscionable to deny nearly a generation of children the benefit of the change. Instead, they envision making adjustments in the way test scores are used that reflect the different starting points of younger and older students in a way that doesn't unfairly penalize them or their teachers, whose evaluations will eventually include growth in student test scores as a factor.

The key to a successful transition lies in a step-by-step approach that gradually raises the academic bar while addressing parents' concerns and giving teachers time to incorporate the promised improvements in the quality of instruction into their classroom curriculum. Obviously, the efforts of the state and local school systems have not been uniformly effective in that regard, but that should not come as a surprise. The last time the state overhauled its instructional goals was in 2003, and it took three years for the new system to fully get up to speed.

It's easier for education policymakers to take a broad view of this effort than it is for parents, who have only one chance to see their children succeed. But avoiding the pains of transition would mean sticking with old ways that are demonstrably less well suited to giving students the skills they will need in the 21st century. Ultimately, we have to believe that no student will be worse off in the long run for having been exposed to the critical thinking the Common Core requires. This change is difficult, but it will be worth it.


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