A year-long effort to define a common set of academic standards for English and math culminated on June 2 with the release of the final version of the Common Core State Standards, which aim to establish consistent learning goals across states.
The K-12 English, language arts, and math standards are intended to ensure that students in Kentucky have the same learning opportunities as students in Wisconsin, for instance, and were developed in collaboration with content experts, state officials, teachers, school administrators, and parents.
A draft of the standards elicited roughly 10,000 public comments, and the final version reflects some of this feedback. Supporters and developers said they looked to standards in other top-performing countries for inspiration. The standards were released in a joint launch by the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the final standards are “much improved” over earlier drafts and are crisper and more focused on what students need to learn.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, whose state, along with Tennessee, won the first round of federal Race to the Top funding, said it is “critical that our nation makes clear its renewed focus on making sure kids graduate not only ready to compete, but ready to win.”
States should view Race to the Top and the common core standards not as a competition, but as a relay race in which one state shares a successful program or practice with other schools and states across the country, he said.
“Core standards are driven locally, not by Washington,” Markell added.
“Chief state school officers from across the country believe that through collective state actions such as these, we can provide all the country’s children with a world-class education,” said Gov. Steve Paine of West Virginia. “These standards lay the groundwork for students to live and compete in today’s global world.”
Paine said the standards pay particular attention to teacher support and preparedness, which in turn will build students’ capacity to emerge from high school ready for the workforce or college.
Key English and language-arts components include:
• Skills related to media and technology use are especially important, the standards say—including how to evaluate media sources.
• A “staircase” model for reading is advocated, so that students master increasingly complex material.
• There is no set reading list, because the standards “recognize that teachers, school districts, and states need to decide on appropriate curriculum.” The standards do include sample texts to help teachers prepare for the school year and to let parents and students know what to expect at the beginning of the year.
• The standards mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare. The standards defer the many remaining decisions about what and how to teach to states, districts, and schools.
• Beginning in the earliest grades, students will learn how to formulate a clear written argument, the standards say.
• Speaking skills, and especially small-group and collaborative discussions that lead to problem-solving, are emphasized.
Mathematics standards include:
• K-5 standards will give students “a solid foundation in whole numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals.” This will help students build strong math foundations for more advanced concepts.
• Kindergarten students will follow successful international math models and recommendations from the National Research Council’s Early Math Panel report by focusing on numbers, how numbers correspond to quantities, and how to put numbers together and take them apart—the beginnings of addition and subtraction.
• Teachers will have detailed guidance on how to help K-5 students through traditionally difficult topics such as fractions and negative numbers.
• Conceptual understanding, in addition to procedural skills, will be essential.
• After building a K-5 math foundation, students should be prepared for geometry, algebra, and probability and statistics. “Students who have completed 7th grade and mastered the content and skills through the 7th grade will be well-prepared for algebra in grade 8,” the standards say.
• High school standards will ask students to apply mathematical ways of thinking to real-world challenges, and they will help students develop the ability to apply knowledge as college students and employees regularly do.
• The high school standards “emphasize mathematical modeling—the use of mathematics and statistics to analyze empirical situations, understand them better, and improve decisions.”
Forty-eight states and Washington, D.C., signed on to help develop the common core standards. Kentucky was the first state to pledge adoption, and West Virginia, Maryland, and Hawaii have since signed on to adopt the standards.
The Council of the Great City Schools also urged adoption of the standards. In an open letter to school leaders, the organization said that “even the best efforts will not get all students to the levels of performance needed to compete in today’s global economy until we repair the patchwork system of U.S. standards that encourages high expectations in one community while discouraging those expectations in another.”
“In all, the initiative has been an important and strong step toward ensuring [that] all states have a consistent approach to rigorous standards,” said Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). “P21 believes this initiative will lead us in the direction of internationally benchmarked standards that ensure 21st-century readiness for every student.”
Kay said his organization will issue a more detailed analysis of the final standards in the coming weeks.
The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) lauded the standards’ release as “a major step toward elevating the expectations for every student,” and the group said it “looks forward to assisting state boards in this effort.”
If states decide to adopt the standards, they will have to develop curricula, align assessments, and train teachers and other staff.
Toward that end, the Obama administration has made $350 million in Race to the Top funding available to help states develop new tests based on the Common Core Standards in English and math. (See “Feds to shape the future of assessment.”)
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