PARCC and Common Core Undergo Scrutiny in Wealthy Lake County School District

Published March 23, 2015

Thousands of parents across the country and here in Illinois are concerned about Common Core standards, PARCC testing on those standards, and the accumulation and storage of their children’s personal data. Thorner, as a citizen and taxpayer living in a community in northern Illinois, is represented by Lake Forest-Lake Bluff school Districts 65, 67 and 115. All have embraced Common Core standards with enthusiasm.

As in school districts across Illinois, PARCC testing wasn’t received with open arms in Lake Forest District 115.   An e-mail dated Monday, March 16, from Superintendent Michael Simeck, and sent to parents midday imploring them to send their freshmen to school on Tuesday morning (March17) to participate in the English portion of the PARCC test, was quite telling.  It seems that PARCC testing done in the prior week was “well below” the 95% threshold, meaning there was less than a 95% participation of students taking the PARCC exams.

 Superintendent Simeck stated in his email: “Students’ failure to participate in the PARCC exams will result in the district automatically failing to meet accountability obligations [Not mentioned is that federal funds are contingent upon a 95% participation rate].”In order for our district to be legally compliant, we encourage you to allow your children to take the PARCC exams or have them attend the make- up sessions, if they have missed.”

The Women’s Republican Club of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff , president, Jennifer Neubauer, deserves much credit and praise for hosting a debate on the merits and demerits of Common Core, PARCC testing, and “womb to tomb” personal data collection on students. The event took place on Saturday, March 14 at 9 a.m. at Gorton Community Center’s Stuart Room, Lake Forest. All members of the public were invited to attend the event for free. 

Participants at the March 14 Saturday event

  • Bruno Behrend, J.D., a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute and a Lake Forest High School graduate. The Heartland Institute is a vocal opponent of Common Core and its mandated PARCC testing.
  • Jessica Handy, currently the Government Affairs Director with “Stand For Children”, and a vocal proponent of Common Core and PARCC.  She is a former teacher and former Illinois Senate Democratic staffer, serving in a variety of capacities before becoming the Policy and Budget Analyst for the Education and Pensions committees.
  • Rep. Sheri Jesiel (R-61st), a member of the Elementary and Secondary Education School Committee in the Illinois House, make brief remarks between the solo comments of Ms. Handy and Mr. Behrend.  Representative Jesiel, whose office is in Gurnee, described Common Core as a very polarizing and a highly debated topic.  She sits on the House committee that oversees PARCC testing.

Jessica Handy and Bruno Behrend were each given 20 minutes to address their individual assessments of Common Core.  Ms. Handy, as pro Common Core advocate, is the Chicago organizer of “Stand for Children.” Her extended bio can be read here. Ms. Handy described her organization’s mission accordingly:  to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, a college education.” Because Handy believes that every kid has a right to a high quality education, Common Core strikes Jessica Handy as the way forward.

Pro Common Core, Jessica Handy, Stand for Children 

As shared by Jessica Handy, the facts are stark.  Roughly a quarter of American children fail to finish high school.  That number translates to nearly one million young people leaving classrooms for the streets every year.  This is a guarantee for a life that will breed low earnings, poor health, and risk of incarceration.

In relating background information, Handy spoke about the forerunner of Common Core, “No Child Left Behind”, a George W. Bush education program that required all children by 2014 to meet NCLB standards.  As states scrambled to set their own standards for children to achieve success, the American Federation of Teachers and Fordham Institute looked at the state standards.  Some states had good standards, while others didn’t.  Illinois received a D.

Such a haphazard approach could not continue, given that 50% of students entering college needed to take remedial education courses.  Students were racking up lots of students loans and no college credits. 

Enter Common Core which laid out the following:  1) what was expected of children at each grade level and 2) what children needed to know at each grade level to pass on to the next grade. Common Core was latched on to by Stand for Children in 2010, as a plan that could provide the standards for success in every state.  The organization Stand for Children is now active in 11 states.  Illinois was the 7th state to join forces with Stand for Child in 2010. 

Favorable attributes of Common Core as expressed by Ms. Handy:

  • Common Core moves away from rote memorization.
  • Every math problem is a word problem.  It’s not enough to know that 9 + 6 = 15.  The child must understand why this is so, which dictates that the child is able to interpret what the numbers mean, and then be able to interpret the answer in real words.
  • In English, informational texts must be read along with standard literature, because, as adults, children will be required to read and understand informational texts.
  • First year testing assessments of PARCC will not count.  When the test is taken it is best done on a computer. No longer will a child just fill in the bubble.  Critical thinking is required where a written response might be required. 
  • Common Core testing will indicate where a child needs help.
  • Common Core will eventually replace the COMPASS test for junior college and will count for college admissions at some colleges.
  • We must move into the 21th century in the way children are assessed.

Con Common Core, Bruno Behrend, Senior Fellow, The Heartland Institute

Bruno Behrend, although a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute, does his presentations for free.  In that Bruno graduated from Lake Forest High was a definite plus.  In the audience was a classmate of Behren’s when a student at Lake Forest High School.

In listening to Mr. Behrend speak about why he’s not supportive of Common Core, at times Bruno appeared almost apologetic in having to point out how his views differed from those of Jessica Handy.  It often appeared that Bruno was being overly polite in his interactions, out of fear of being considered too aggressive.  But what happens when one of the main faults of Common Core it that its agenda is left-leaning and that the purpose the PARCC testing is to assure that teacher are teaching Common Core curriculum? 

In a post event interchange with Mr. Behrend, I became aware that he was well versed on the perceived left-leaning agenda of Common Core. Following are Bruno’s reasons for not fixating on the nature of the Common Core agenda:  1) Confrontation is no way to win an argument; 2) the political bent of Common Core might be upsetting to some in attendance; and 3) the format of the event didn’t lend itself to aggressive debating.  Then too, Jessica Tandy was likewise extremely polite and respectful.  Together Bruno and Jessica created an aura of comaraderie, even though their Common Core positions were on opposite ends of the scale.  But they did share a common goal.  Both Bruno and Jessica wanted all children to receive a good education.

For Bruno Behrend education is a social and an economic problem, not unlike that expressed by his counterpart, Jessica Handy.  But for Mr. Behrend Common Core is the wrong approach to education.  It is not the answer for solving the gap between how American children rank education-wise in comparison to children of other nations.  Such a dismal showing of American children is especially troubling because as a nation we dump so much money into education (Lake Forest High School spends $22,500 per student.), yet during the past 20 or so years test scores have remained flat.  Mr. Behrend did admit that Illinois’s standards were crummy, and that if Common Core standards were good he would have no problem supporting Common Core.

Behrend’s main “beef” with Common core is the centralization of education by the federal government.  As Bruno surmised, “Will we discover after 5 – 10 years that Common Core is not producing the desired educational outcome, that Common Core was an education experiment that was conducted at the expense of our children?”  Behrend mentioned two curriculum experts (one each in English and Math) who helped write the Common Core standards.  Upon disagreeing that the Common Core standards formulated were the best standards in the world, the two experts quite the validation committee and were accordingly forbidden to write a minority report.

Bruno believes that a unified set of standards sounds like a good idea, but with this nation’s diverse population, and 52 million children to educate, decentralization of education works better.  By definition Common Core will narrow the curriculum being taught and what children are learning. Apart from the federally directed Common Core state curriculum, only 15% of what is taught locally in each school district can deviate from these standards.

Bruno Behrend questioned whether Common Core really represents 21century education, as the ways in which children are learning and can learn continue to expand at a rapid pace.  Behrend spoke highly of the Khan Academy and how it is changing the rules of education. Khan Academy is an educational website that aims to let anyone “learn almost anything—for free.” Students, or anyone interested enough to surf by, can watch some 2,400 videos in which the site’s founder, Salman Khan, chattily discusses principles of math, science, and economics (with a smattering of social science topics thrown in).  Khan Academy is on a mission to unlock the world’s potential. Most people think their intelligence is fixed. The science says it’s not. It starts with knowing you can learn anything.   Check out this excellent youtube video about Kahn Academy.

Following is question of particular interest addressed to Bruno Behrend from a Lake Forest, District 115 parent:  “How will Common Core affect the Lake Forest School System (District 67 and 115)?  What impact will it have?  To which Bruno replied:  “Lake Forest will be the last place to get bad, and the first place to get better, because of the caliber of its students.”


[Originally published at Illinois Review]