Amid Criticism, States Gear Up For Common Core

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell co-chaired the Common Core State Standards Initiative. He speaks with NPR's Scott Simon about the set of standards, and responds to its critics.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. When the school year starts back up this fall, many states in the country will implement what's called the Common Core. These are education standards for kindergartners through 12th graders about what they ought to be able to know and do at each grade level. It is meant to get every student in the country on the same page, at least in math and language arts. It's what a lot of countries with good educational programs do. But the standards, which were designed by a group of governors, school representatives and education experts, face criticism, often at the highest state-level. Three states with Republican governors have already pulled out of the program. We're joined now by Governor Jack Markell of Delaware. He is a Democrat who co-chaired the Common Core Standards Initiative. Thanks very much for being with us, Governor.

GOVERNOR JACK MARKELL: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So if a lot of states pull out of the Common Core, is there really a Common Core?

MARKELL: Well, it depends what they replace it with. I mean, I think a lot of states, you know, who are talking about getting rid of the Common Core are quite likely to replace it with something that looks quite similar. If they call it something else, that's up to them. If they want to, you know, tweak the standards somewhat, that's up to them as well. I can tell you, in Delaware we're going forward because we really think it makes the most sense for our students.

SIMON: Governor, what do you say to those critics, and they run from conservative groups to, interestingly, Louis C.K. the comedian, who is rarely called a conservative, who say there's just something wrong with trying to make education, which is a process of curiosity and inquiry, into a program that standardizes knowledge?

MARKELL: Well, I mean, to me, there's certainly nothing wrong with saying, OK, we expect, you know, students at this grade level to have an understanding of calculus II, or that we expect them to have an understanding of European history, or that we expect them to be able to write, you know, a well-structured essay or be able to do poetry. If people are objecting to that and calling that standardized knowledge, I respectfully disagree. I think, you know, we could - if you look at what it's going to take for our country to be successful in the future, we do have to have certain expectations. That being said, what is not at all being driven from any kind of top-down basis is what are the curricular materials? What is the approach the teacher should take in the classroom? Those kinds of decisions we appropriately are leaving up to local districts.

SIMON: Head of the NEA, a few months ago, said, quote, "the implementation has been completely botched."

MARKELL: I think that may be true in some cases, and it's not true in other places. Let's take this out of the political rhetoric. And let's actually visit classrooms where there are real teachers teaching real Common Core lessons. And when we've done that in Delaware, which we've done a fair bit of, the people who leave those classrooms leave, and they say, well, that certainly seemed a whole lot like math and English language arts, as opposed to seeming like some kind of federal plot to take over education.

SIMON: How will you judge if Common Core is working, Governor, let's say in three years?

MARKELL: Well, I think the only measurement that matters is student achievement. But we expect, over time, students to improve their critical thinking skills as well as the, you know, the straight knowledge and facts and all of that. But in terms of how they use the skills to solve problems, that's what this is all about.

SIMON: And it will be measured against South Korea and other nations that seem to have...

MARKELL: Well, that's the real world - that's the world we live in. We've been doing the academic equivalent of teaching our kids to play basketball by having them shoot at an eight-foot basket. And you can get very good shooting at an eight-foot basket. But when you get into a game where your competition has been practicing shooting at a 10-foot basket, you don't do so well. And we're not being honest with them. And I think a dose of honesty is in order since our children are going to be competing for jobs with, as you say, whether it's South Korea or lots of other countries - it's the best in the world. And so we need to be a lot more honest with them about what proficiency means in a global economy.

SIMON: Governor Jack Markell of Delaware, thanks for speaking with us.

MARKELL: You take care, bye.

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