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.”

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