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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

We're now going to focus in on an ongoing issue in America: How to improve the country's education system. Forty-five states have adopted an education initiative, known as the Common Core State Standards. It's a voluntary state-led effort. The federal government has no role in implementing these standards. Supporters say they will significantly improve what schools teach and prepare students for college and work. Critics say it's a misguided attempt to dictate the first ever national curriculum.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez found some skeptics among faculty and students at Shawnee Mission East High School, just outside Kansas City, Kansas.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Its 2 P.M., crunch time for students who write for The Harbinger, the award-winning, online student newspaper at Shawnee Mission East High.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I couldn't get a quote from somebody.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I mean, we shouldn't have waited till today anyway, so that's awful. We just need to delete it.

SANCHEZ: One of the editors, a tall lanky 17-year-old, hovers over his reporters.

DUNCAN MCLAUCKLIN: I'm Duncan McLaucklin, co-editor of our high school news publication.

SANCHEZ: McLaucklin and his reporters have poured over countless documents about the so-called Common Core Standards and talked to Kansas state legislators who pushed for their adoption, trying to understand why they're even necessary.

MCLAUCKLIN: I think it's because we've known for years that there's something wrong with our education system. That there's better ways to be doing what we're doing.

SANCHEZ: Although that's not readily apparent here. Ninety-eight percent of Shawnee Mission East High graduates after all go on to college. But experts say high achieving schools like this one are the exception, not the rule. Most students finish school without the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in college or the workplace. Why? Because in most states, the tests, the curricula, the standards, are all pretty weak, poorly designed.

The Common Core is an attempt to get all states to adopt the same rigorous standards, beginning with English and math. But McLaucklin says it's still not clear.

MCLAUCKLIN: How is it going to change our learning in the classroom? And our coverage of that has been sparse because we don't know.

DAVID COLEMAN: The most important thing to know is that it was actually teachers who had the most important voice in the development of the Common Core Standards.

SANCHEZ: That's David Coleman, considered to be the architect of the Common Core Standards. He started working on them years ago as one of the founders of Student Achievement Partners, a private consulting group. Today, he's president of the College Board which administers the SAT. Coleman credits 45 governors, thus far, for putting their political differences aside and moving to adopt the Common Core.

COLEMAN: So you had states bringing their best work to the table, the best of their work on their standards.

SANCHEZ: Coleman says the Common Core Standards - kindergarten to 12th grade - are tougher and go much, much deeper. Which is why states that have field tested them, like Kentucky, have seen kids' test scores plummet by as much as 30 percent.

COLEMAN: Those kids who scored 30 percent lower, that's just about the number of kids who are on their way to remediation in college. So they may have been passing previous state tests. Those tests were presenting kids as ready who were not.

SANCHEZ: So to hear Coleman tell it, the Common Core Standards will provide a more accurate snapshot of what kids actually know and are able to do. Not everybody though thinks that's true.

KARL KRAWITZ: It's not. It's not.

SANCHEZ: Karl Krawitz is the principal at Shawnee Mission East High.

KRAWITZ: In fact I think Common Core is going to set education back even further. Because you're dictating curriculum, you're dictating what people are supposed to regurgitate on some kind of an assessment that is supposed to gauge how well kids have learned the material and how well teachers have taught the material. The reality is those tests don't do either one of those things.

SANCHEZ: Krawitz, who still teaches chemistry at his school, says Common Core proponents also assume that there's a consensus about what should be taught.

KRAWITZ: Kansas is struggling right now. I mean my goodness, we're still trying to figure out whether or not evolution should be taught.

SANCHEZ: Now, to be clear, the Common Core Standards are only a guide for states to follow as they write their curricula. Still, critics argue that the standards are too rigorous, too complex, developmentally inappropriate - especially in the early grades. Some even dispute that teachers actually wrote the standards.

Krawitz worries most that the Common Core will impose more testing.

KRAWITZ: And there's a big thing people need to understand: Testing in this country is big business.

SANCHEZ: He says the testing industry stands to make tons of money.

COLEMAN: To me, the real question is not who makes money. The question is, is it worth it?

SANCHEZ: David Coleman says, yes, it is worth it because too many students, especially poor minority children today aren't being challenged.

COLEMAN: And these standards are the most serious attempt this country has yet made to really come to grips with those early sources of inequality.

SANCHEZ: Many school reformers say that's one big reason they support Common Core Standards. Convincing educators in the trenches like Karl Krawitz is another matter.

KRAWITZ: I would do everything I can to keep Common Core out of this school.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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