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Jay Evensen: Education won't improve until it's as local as your kitchen table

Published: Thursday, March 27 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Despite the contradictions, there is something refreshing about Indiana's decision to back out of the Common Core education standards this week.

Steve Pope, Associated Press

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By 2014, schoolchildren in America were to have reached 100 percent proficiency in math and science, according to the goals of the No Child Left Behind law.

So … how's that working out for us?

As a nation, we’re so far from that goal of perfection that it’s getting in the way of seeing the progress we’ve made.

Yes, it’s true that only 42 percent of fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders were measured as proficient in math in 2013, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress study known as the Nation’s Report Card.

And yes, only 35 percent of fourth-graders and 36 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or better at reading.

But compare this to the math scores in 1990, when only 15 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math and 29 percent were proficient in reading, and you can see that progress has been made.

We’ve gone from terrible to pathetic. Break out the party favors.

But if you want to know why things improved — was it because of No Child Left Behind, President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative or any of a laundry list of reforms from school grading to vouchers? — you’ll have a fight on your hands.

Success, even if it’s so small you need a magnifying glass to see it, has myriad fathers in a nation where public education is fractured into thousands of separate pieces.

And, in our own unique American exceptionalism sort of way, that’s kind of how we like it.

All of which lends some perspective to Indiana’s decision this week to back away from the national Common Core education standards — a choice that has many people wondering whether the remaining 44 states that adopted it (including Utah) will begin stampeding the exits.

Common Core is a set of standards developed by the National Governors Association and state education leaders. It is not, as many people believe, something developed in Washington and imposed on states, who are free to adopt the standards or not.

Common Core’s own website describes it as “a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed.”

Local educators are supposed to decide how best to meet those goals, including how to write lesson plans and tailor studies to the needs of individual students. But even with that understood, many Americans don’t like the top-down feel of it all.

The irony is Indiana, in developing its own standards, is likely to come up with something quite similar to Common Core. But it would be stamped with Indiana’s name on it, not some larger organization that feels like Washington, even if it isn’t.

In the United States, many people hold it as a sacred principle that education should be a local matter. People elect representatives to sit on local boards that govern how their neighborhood schools operate and what is to be taught. Even if many people couldn’t name their board representative regardless of the method of torture used, they like knowing where to go if they need to complain, and there is indeed a value to that.

And yet there is nothing more local than your own kitchen table, where education becomes an individual matter.

Despite the contradictions then, there is something refreshing about Indiana’s decision. Even if, in the end, the state ends up adopting an exact duplicate of Common Core, it will be underscoring the need to keep education decisions close to the students.

That also should be a reminder to parents that, no matter who decides their child’s curriculum, they have a responsibility to be the most involved.

And it should remind each state that parents need all the tools and choices they can get.

It’s difficult to oppose standards, but after years of big plans, sweeping laws and only minor successes, it’s also difficult not to be skeptical.

As I’ve said before, public education could use a dose of radical thinking to shake it into the 21st century. But even that would have limited success unless teachers, parents and other interested parties find ways to reach individual children and make them excited to learn.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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