In a move that could help states procure part of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top Fund, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) on Sept. 21 released the first official public draft of their Common Core State Standards.

The college and career readiness standards in English and math are part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort being led by governors and chief state school officers in 51 states and territories. The initiative aims to address the wide disparities in what high school students are expected to know before graduating in states throughout the nation, by creating a set of core standards that states can adopt voluntarily.

These standards, according to the organizations, "define the knowledge and skills [that] students should have to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs." An early draft of the standards was leaked to the public in June (see "Field sees first draft of common standards"), but observers say the formal draft standards released Sept. 21 are much clearer than the earlier version and could help revitalize American education.

The Obama administration has proposed giving states that adopt common standards an advantage in seeking federal aid, as part of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top Fund. The NGA and CCSSO are encouraging those interested in the standards to provide feedback, which must be supported by research and evidence, by Oct. 21 at www.corestandards.org.

"I applaud the leadership of this coalition of states in joining together to develop a common core of academic standards," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "The draft [standards] are an important step forward, and it is now in the hands of the public to provide critical feedback to state leadership. There is no work more important than preparing our students to compete and succeed in a global economy, and it is to the credit of these states that this work is getting done."

According to both organizations, after the public feedback period, the standards are subject to review by an expert Validation Committee consisting of national and international experts on standards, who will be named in a few weeks. This group will then "review the standards development process and the substance of the standards to ensure they are research- and evidence-based," with the goal of releasing a final version of the standards this winter.

"The college- and career-readiness standards are really just the beginning," said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of CCSSO. "We need this confirmed, validated goal of fewer, clearer, and higher standards to take on the real work of ensuring students have a roadmap from grades K-12 for achieving these standards."

While the idea of common national standards might make some policy makers and educators uncomfortable, NGA and CCSSO emphasize that these standards "…are not curriculum. The curriculum that follows will continue to be a local responsibility (or state-led, where appropriate)."

And while the new draft does list some suggested reading materials and texts, "many important decisions about curriculum will necessarily be left to states, districts, schools, teachers, professional organizations, and parents," says the report.

In this public draft, the English section has been divided into three "strands": reading, writing, and speaking and listening. For each strand, the report lists the skills that students should demonstrate before graduating high school, as well as how these skills should be applied in conducting research or using various media.

The English section also lists supporting materials (texts), or "exemplars," that students should be able to comprehend and analyze to be college-ready.

A major difference in the English standards from when they were first leaked in June is that they are now better defined and clearer, and many more are listed for the speaking and listening strand.

For example, in the reading strand, the old draft said students must "assess the contributions that significant details as well as larger portions of the text make to the whole." In the newer draft, students must "delineate the main ideas or themes in the text and the details that elaborate and support them."

New standards in the speaking and listening strand include "make strategic use of multimedia elements and visual displays of data to gain audience attention and enhance understanding," and "demonstrate command of formal Standard English when appropriate to task and audience."

The texts listed as exemplars also have improved. Whereas before, the "illustrative texts" consisted of the Declaration of Independence, a few reading passages, and a business memo, the new draft includes passages from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman, a New York Times article, and many other business and science pieces.

In general, the math section did not receive as much of an overhaul as the language-arts section, but a new standard, called "mathematical practice," or the ways in which "proficient students approach mathematics," was added.

This section includes 10 standards for math content, or "organizing principles" in the subject, which include numbers, equations, probability, and statistics.

The math section also notes that college math faculty have called for high school courses that go into greater depth. According to the report’s authors, "Surveys of college faculty show the need to shift away from high school courses that merely survey advanced topics, toward courses that concentrate on developing an understanding and mastery of ideas and skills that are at the core of advanced mathematics. Reviews of data on student performance show the large majority of U.S. students are not mastering the mile-wide list of topics that teachers cover."

Both the language arts and math sections conclude with evidence that supports each standard. The evidence cited usually comes from Achieve Inc., a Washington, D.C., policy organization, as well as the College Board and ACT Inc. Committees of outside experts reviewed the standards as well.

"There is a compelling need for common standards that are higher, fewer, and clearer. We are pleased that many of the comments from teams of teachers were heard and are reflected in this draft," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "The question is: Do these standards reflect what we expect our children to know and what they should be able to do upon graduation whether they enter the workforce or go on to college? We realize the answer is far from simple, but these draft standards are a solid first step."

Weingarten said the success of these standards also depends on "developing assessments that are aligned [with them]," as well as good implementation, professional development, and access to teaching resources.

The National PTA also supported the publicly released draft, saying the standards have the ability to ensure educational equity.

"Geographic or socioeconomic factors should not dictate the level of education that all students are entitled to receive," said Charles J. "Chuck" Saylors, National PTA president. "The great benefit of the standards is that they will ensure a level playing field among states, school districts, and schools that will give all students the opportunity to be ready for their college and career."

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, agreed.
 
"One set of common, rigorous standards will go a long way in ensuring every student, from Montana to Manhattan, has what it takes to compete with their international peers," Wise said. "It is essential to the success of our economy that these standards are fewer, clearer, higher, and internationally benchmarked."

Dane Linn, director of the education division for the NGA Center for Best Practices, said the leaked draft earlier this year "was not yet complete and did not include feedback from participating states."
 
Linn said the initiative’s next phase will look at common core standards for all of grades K-12.

Links:

Common Core State Standards

National Governors Association

Council of Chief State School Officers

American Federation of Teachers

Alliance for Excellent Education

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Measuring 21st-century skills resource center. With fears about the H1N1 virus, commonly known as "swine flu," putting school leaders on high alert, we’ve compiled this collection of news stories and additional resources to keep you up to date on the latest developments in this critical story–and to help you deal with the crisis in your own schools. Go to: Measuring 21st-century skills