As the idea of common educational standards gains traction across the United States, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) has released the first draft of its proposed national reading and math standards.

The initiative, created by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), aims to ensure that all students graduate from high school ready for college and the 21st century workforce by creating a common core of standards for all states.

It’s been a long-held tradition in American public education that decisions about standards and curriculum are best left to state and local school systems, and that belief has derailed past efforts to push for a national set of standards. But NGA and CCSSO say this effort is different, because it’s driven by collective state action and because states will voluntarily adopt the standards based on their own timelines and context.

Every state except Alaska, South Carolina, Missouri, and Texas has signed on to the effort so far. But getting the states to adopt whatever emerges will be politically difficult.

According to a recent study by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which conducted a quick snapshot survey on common standards, administrators across the U.S. support the idea of common standards.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they’d like a single set of common standards to replace the current system, where each state has its own standards and creates its own tests.

A total of 179 school administrators from 44 states completed the AASA survey; 57 percent of respondents were from rural districts, 33 percent from suburban districts, and 10 percent from urban districts.

In their first attempt at drafting common core standards for graduation, CCSSI participants have spelled out standards for reading informational and literary texts, writing, speaking and listening, and all areas of mathematics. The draft also lists sample reading texts, sample math problems, and sample reading and math tests. It describes practical applications of the standards and lists research and evidence used in informing the draft.

Examples of some of the standards include:

• Informational and literary texts: Determine what the text says explicitly and use evidence within the text to infer what is implied by or follows logically from the text; summarize the ideas, events, or information in the text and determine main ideas and themes; analyze how word choice shaped the meaning and tone of the text.

• Writing: Create a logical progression of ideas and use transitions effectively to convey the relationships among them; develop and maintain a style and tone appropriate to the purpose and audience; represent and cite accurately the data, conclusions, and opinions of others.

• Speaking and listening: Respond constructively to clarify points and to build on or challenge ideas; follow the progression of the speaker’s message; and evaluate the speaker’s credibility and use of evidence.

As for mathematics, the draft declares that 10 Mathematical Principles "form the backbone of these standards. Each principle is accompanied by an explanation that describes the coherent view students are expected to have of a specific area of mathematics."

For example, under the principle of expressions — which the draft explains as using "symbols and efficient notational conventions about order of operations, fractions, and exponents to express verbal descriptions of computations in a compact form" — students must understand core concepts of expressions, have a coherent understanding (described in the draft), and possess core skills for expressions.

However, the draft states that the math portion is "not complete; it is intended to give a first-order picture of this portion of the project." The draft also notes that for mathematics, early reviewers provided feedback that has not yet been implemented.

Even so, some initial reviewers of the draft say it doesn’t live up to the goal of 21st-century standards that will help students compete in the global economy.

An education blog by Robert Pondiscio states that while the draft "purports to offer ‘sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable, and measurable,’ the … guidelines offer almost no specific content and little that would be of use to teachers in planning lessons–or to parents in understanding what their child is expected to know."

Pondiscio continued, "To put this as blandly as possible, this is neither a revelatory insight nor a meaningful standard. Educators hoping for guidance on what particular texts are expected to be taught, or how to get students to reach the bland and obvious standards, will be disappointed."
But not everyone shares Pondiscio’s view.

"It seems obvious to me that these are meant to address high-level understandings for high school students," said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas. "The acceptable evidences presented from a variety of different sources help to determine the depth of instruction needed to achieve student success in these standards. That said, it would be a large task for school systems to prepare new, or even to correlate existing, curriculum to adequately [provide] students the necessary learning experiences to demonstrate competency in these standards."
Hirsch also believes that a "huge conversation" must still happen at the K-8 levels. "The careful articulation of expectations and standards must include the entire enterprise," he argued. "Starting at [grades] 9-12 is not necessarily wrong, but it’s important to see the expected building blocks as well."

As of press time, neither NGA nor CCSSO had responded to requests for comment.


Common Core State Standards Initiative

National Governors Association

Council of Chief State School Officers

"Support grows for common standards" (eSN Online, May 2009)

"Stimulus funds to advance national standards" (eSN Online, June 2009)