Independent schools offer their take on Common Core

The Common Core State Standards are the source of much discussion among both educators and parents. Common Core standards apply to public schools in the 45 states that have adopted it, including Illinois. But what about private schools?

Independent private schools in Illinois are not bound by the standards, which were first introduced by an association of governors nationwide in 2009 and subsequently backed by the Obama Administration with the goal of establishing uniform, national educational standards for students in kindergarten through high school.

Fosca White, head of school and co-founder of Montessori Academy of Chicago, says Montessori standards already encompass the Common Core naturally so she plans no changes in her classrooms to adapt to Common Core.

In fact, many students at Montessori Academy of Chicago are meeting Common Core standards earlier than public school students. For example, a primary classroom of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old students will include a presentation tray with one bead, a bar of 10 beads, a square of 100 beads and a cube of 1,000 beads helping students identify the 1s, 10s and 100s, a Common Core standard for first-graders. In addition, White notes that students are introduced to fractions in the primary classroom far earlier than specified by Common Core.

“As an authentic Montessori school, our focus is giving the best education possible to the students and, yes, some of our children are well above the Common Core,” she says.

Rob Huge, head of school at Greenfields Academy in Chicago, believes that the timing of the Common Core standards does not always align with student readiness.

Huge gives the example of a first grade geometry standard regarding shapes that asks children to compose two-dimensional or three-dimensional shapes to create a composite shape, and compose new shapes from the composite shape.

“If a child is trying to solve a story-based real-world problem that requires them to use this skill they are much more likely to actively engage and learn the skill,” Huge says. “If a child isn’t interested in the challenge this year, that’s OK. That child may be really interested in shapes the next year and that is the right time to help them develop the skill based on a subject they are interested in.”

Learning, he says, isn’t linear. It’s exponential. “By creating artificial limits on what students can learn when, schools are inherently limiting children’s chances for deeper learning,” he says. “You could say we use the Common Core in an a la carte way by focusing on standards with a clear ‘why’.”

Mila Cohen, outreach co-chair at Chicago Friends School, explains that the school’s focus extends beyond academic standards.

“Parents who choose Chicago Friends School agree with the premise of high academic standards that motivated the adoption of the Common Core, yet are concerned with the resulting disproportionate focus on testing that minimizes every other subject that is necessary for a wellrounded education,” she says.

“Children are not standardized,” she says. “Chicago Friends School recognizes this with differentiated learning and a belief that quality of character is as important as intellectual growth.”

Independent private elementary and middle schools are aware that their students will likely face the standards and standardized testing at some point in the future.

“Chicago Friends School is confident that our children will gain all the academic skills necessary to easily transition into a Common Core based curriculum in high school and, more importantly, grow into thriving global citizens,” says Cohen.

Preparedness for the future is also what motivates independent schools to administer standardized tests, but with a different purpose and more freedom found in public schools bound by the Common Core. “Standardized testing has its benefits and we utilize those benefits. We offer the NWEA MAP test twice each year and parents are given the option to opt-in. We present it as a no stakes tool that helps us measure growth,” Huge says.

At Montessori Academy of Chicago, students take standardized tests as a practical life activity. “We don’t teach to the test, and we don’t use them to evaluate teachers or students, but we give them because students need to know how to take tests with confidence,” White says.

Unlike public schools, independent schools can continue that focus on preparing students for future success, using Common Core Standards to the extent they feel they are useful.

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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