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U.S. moves closer to common standards

Nearly every state has signed on in support of the common core standards.
Nearly every state has signed on in support of the common core standards.

Math and English instruction in the United States moved a step closer to uniform—and more rigorous—standards March 10 as a revised draft of new national guidelines was released. But the move toward common standards still faces several hurdles, including a debate over what the standards should look like and the significant cost of revising each state’s standards and curriculum materials.

Supporters of the Common Core Standards Initiative, led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), hope the lists of things kids should learn at each grade level will replace a patchwork of different standards in states across the country.

The effort is expected to lead to standardization of textbooks and testing and make learning easier for students who move from state to state. That could save publishers, states, and districts money down the road—but getting to that point will require a huge up-front investment.

The federal government recently opened bidding for $350 million to work on new national tests that would be given to students in states that adopt the national standards.

People involved in the effort—which is endorsed by 48 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia, with Kentucky being the first state to formally sign on—said the new standards will raise expectations of student achievement so they’re in line with the educational expectations of top-performing states and countries.

“Under the current education system, there is wide variation between states and even school districts on what students are expected to know and do—a situation that is unfair to all students, and one that is especially harmful to low-income students and students of color,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Wise, a former governor of West Virginia, said it’s important that the proper tools and resources are available to teachers and students as the new standards are implemented and as assessments and instructional materials aligned with those new standards emerge.

The release of the draft standards indicates that states are moving “away from the old inequitable system and toward a new one with higher expectations for all students,” he said.

Unlike most efforts to revise standards at the state level, this document was not built on consensus, said Chris Minnich, CCSSO’s director of standards and assessment.

“We really used evidence in an unprecedented fashion,” Minnich said on March 8.

In contrast, states that have engaged in consensus-building have not made the tough decisions about what should be contained in the standards and what shouldn’t, Minnich said.

Mike Cohen, president of the nonprofit education reform group Achieve Inc., said the new draft standards are rigorous and will go a long way in helping to prepare students for college and the 21st-century workplace.

“This draft deserves the serious attention of educators, parents, and policy makers,” Cohen said.

Opponents fear that common standards will lead to a national curriculum and a national assessment, taking away states’ power to shape education at the local level. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that while students in Iowa should be held to the same standards as students in Oregon, education is best directed at the local level, and not from Washington.

Some have criticized the process, saying adoption of the new standards will not be voluntary.

“First they tried to tie it to Race to the Top money … now they’re trying to tie it to Title I funds,” said Robert Scott, Texas’ commissioner of education.

President Barack Obama told the nation’s governors last month that he wants to make Title I dollars for public schools contingent on adoption of college- and career-ready reading and math standards, but he said the states would not be required to adopt the coalition’s standards.

Texas and Alaska are the only states not participating in the national standards effort. Texas also opted out of the federal Race to the Top competition for $4.35 billion for education reform.

“Texas has chosen to preserve its sovereign authority to determine what is appropriate for Texas children to learn in its public schools,” Scott wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “It is clear that the first step toward nationalization of our schools has been put into place.”

The public is invited to comment on the proposed new national standards until April 2, and the developers hope to publish final education goals for K-12 math and English in May.

Components of the new standards

A glance at the math standards reveals the changes are not dramatic: Kids would still learn to count in kindergarten, not multiply and divide. Minnich said the main improvement is clarity and focus, following a trend already set by recent state standards revisions.

Each grade will have fewer goals in each subject area, but each goal goes deeper; the goals are written in plain English, with little or no educational jargon; and some learning goals might start to show up earlier than expected.

For example, second graders now are expected to add and subtract triple-digit numbers. Fractions start in third grade. And kindergarteners are expected to learn to count to 100.

Grade placement of particular topics in both the math and English standards was based on state and international comparisons, as well as the collective professional judgment of educators, researchers, and mathematicians.

“These are rigorous standards. These standards are as high as the highest standards that any state has,” said William McCallum, chairman of the math standards committee and head of the mathematics department at the University of Arizona.

One math expert who was not involved in writing the draft standards questioned the value of moving concepts earlier.

Cathy Seeley, senior fellow at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, has been involved in the revision of math standards in more than a dozen states. She saw a lot of similarity between the recent state revisions and the national plan.

Seeley, who plans to participate in the public comment period, said she doesn’t think making kids learn things earlier translates into higher standards.

“It’s not that they’re learning it well, but too late. It’s that they’re not learning it well,” Seeley said.

The development team worked to resolve differences between those who would like to see math instruction focus on computation and those who prefer the discovery method that focuses on higher-level problem solving. McCallum said the draft standards respect both points of view, calling for both conceptual understanding and computational skills.

“We tried to resolve conflicts and go beyond some of these arguments,” McCallum said. “We listened very hard.”

The draft report also addresses the debate over how much should be expected from immigrants who are just learning English. An introduction to the standards explains that English language learners should be held to the same standards but should be given more time and instructional support to meet the requirements.

Students with disabilities also should be challenged to master as many of the standards as they can, the document argues.

In December, the nonprofit National PTA announced a new three-year effort to mobilize parents to advance key education priorities, beginning with common core state standards. The initiative is accompanied by a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help support the effort.

In January, the National PTA began to educate PTA members and parents about the common core standards. It is focusing its early outreach in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and North Carolina, with plans to involve more states later on in the year.

“Currently there are disparities in the level of rigor, because every state has a different set of standards. This reform effort will educate parents about the need for higher, clearer, and fewer standards, so that they know what their child should be learning in school and how they can support learning at home,” said Charles J. Saylors, National PTA president.

Saylors said the reform effort will help assure parents that their child is receiving the same education as students across the country, and even around the world.

“Education standards have historically been too vast and too vague to provide the focus required for students and teachers to achieve at high levels,” said Vicki L. Phillips, director of college-ready education for the Gates Foundation.

During a March 10 National PTA panel discussion, Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), said that with the implementation of common core standards, ED wants to move away from “off-the-shelf, bubble-in testing” to assessments that focus more on critical thinking.

“We’ve invested $10 billion in technology, but we’re not using it well,” said Dane Linn, director of NGA’s education division, at the March 10 panel discussion. Students use technology before and after school, he said, but technology use during school is lacking.

“We think of technology as an add-on; we don’t think of it as an instructional tool,” Linn said. He added that educators and stakeholders should work with the publishing community not only to create better textbooks, but also to create a richer set of instructional tools, and that data should inform the instruction that happens in classrooms every day.

With more rigorous standards, some states’ lackluster benchmarks will be revealed—and those students who once seemed to excel under mediocre standards might not perform as well.

“We should be prepared for student performance in some states to go down,” Linn said. “We should prepare for gaps.” But it’s better to expose the areas where students and teachers must improve than to lead them to think they are meeting expectations, Linn added.

Impact on educational publishers

Jay Diskey, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ school division, said his organization is closely following the common standards movement and “very much supports the common core initiative.”

But a key question is whether there is enough money in the education infrastructure to support such a major change.

“If implemented correctly, the common core [standards] will lead to a massive change in curriculum, professional development, and assessments. All of those things will have to be altered in fundamental ways,” Diskey said. “It’s going to cost a significant amount of money, and I have no idea how much. I don’t know if state legislatures are fully tuned into the fact that the implementation may lead to a need for significant amounts of funding.”

Nearly half of states have rolling state textbook adoptions, but the common standards initiative will change those adoption procedures in states and districts, which raises another process that will have to adapt to the new system, Diskey added.

But the standards are still in draft form, and educators and others should not be too quick in creating a new curriculum around them, he cautioned.

“Standards in and of themselves aren’t curriculum,” Diskey said. “Curriculum takes standards, research, content, and is put together in a pedagogical approach.”

Software companies likely will have to update not only the content that teachers use with students, but also their online professional development, said Donovan Goode, director of marketing for professional development provider PBS TeacherLine.

“We feel there will be a very immediate need to be able to help those teachers effectively implement common core standards in the classroom,” he said. “It will be imperative for us to adapt what we do, and the instructional strategies and pedagogy behind our courses, to be updated to the common core standards.”

Goode said that much of the past eight years’ focus has been on state tests and standards, and the challenge will be to help educators, data coaches, and instructional coaches become comfortable with the new common core standards.

That adjustment most likely will depend on how similar the common standards are to a given state’s current standards.

“I would guess that states will be putting together correlation tables [that indicate] where standards match up,” Goode said. “Districts will probably do a gap analysis and find a way to meet the gaps [with content].”

PBS TeacherLine is funded through a federal Ready To Teach grant, and the organization is reaching the end of its five-year grant cycle. Goode said PBS TeacherLine’s approach to the common core standards will be a key component of its next grant application.

“We’ve been paying it close attention; we’re quite supportive of the initiative,” said Rich Patz, vice president of research for publisher CTB/McGraw-Hill, which is an endorsing partner of the common core movement.

The initiative calls for states to adopt the common standards within three years, and Patz said different states are likely to adopt them at different rates and might be holding off on other reform efforts in anticipation of this effort.

“Everyone’s paying attention to this, and they’re probably not doing things they would otherwise be doing, like launching their own internal standards reviews,” he said. “They’re preparing to consider these common standards, concerns about the transition and making that successful, and getting materials in place for instruction.”

The common standards “will affect our product development plans, but that’s to be expected and it’s not terribly disruptive,” Patz said. “There’s always a dynamic and evolving marketplace. There isn’t a lowering of the standards, so I think that’s a good thing.”

He added: “It will change what we have to do. We are responding and welcome the development, and we’ll bring products to the market that support the learning of the common core standards.”

Jim Ryan, vice president of marketing for Key Curriculum Press, and Elizabeth DeCarli, the company’s mathematics product manager, said common core standards present “a huge advantage for those of us who are developing materials for students.”

DeCarli said implementing common core standards will let publishers and educators focus more on high-quality content, classroom practice, and groups of students who might need extra help.

“Any educational piece, whether it’s an online course or a textbook, that sells to different state markets, has to spend time and money on the correlation to different state standards,” DeCarli said. “It would be so nice if that time, energy, and thinking could be directed to a deeper assessment rather than [meeting the various needs of] every state. I could see the resources being used in a much more productive way regarding student thinking and ways to improve how we’re teaching.”

Said Ryan: “If we have a set of national standards, you could spend more time on your field testing, your feedback, and look at issues of coherence and retention among students, rather than look at topics on a modular form.”

Common standards also will help to make textbooks and digital learning materials more relevant to all students.

“Currently, the books that weigh five pounds are national books that incorporate everyone’s different standards,” Ryan said. “You have to put in extra lessons so you can sell in California, other extras so that you can sell in Texas, and so on. Teachers have to weed through and determine what parts of this book they have to teach.”


Common Core Standards Initiative

Key Curriculum Press

American Association of Publishers


PBS TeacherLine

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