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by John S. Kendall
Table of Contents
In the spring of 2009, in an effort unprecedented in the history of U.S. education, governors and state commissioners of education from across the United States formed the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). The goal of this initiative? To develop a set of shared national standards ensuring that students in every state are held to the same level of expectations that students in the world's highest-performing countries are, and that they gain the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for success in postsecondary education and in the global arena.
The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association committed to this work with representatives from 48 states, 2 territories, and the District of Columbia. The task engaged the talents and expertise of educators, content specialists, researchers, community groups, and national organizations, including an advisory group of experts from Achieve, ACT, the College Board, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the State Higher Education Executive Officers. The subject-area organizations, including the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), were not asked to help draft or provide feedback to early drafts of the standards but were invited to critique drafts of the Common Core standards prior to their release for public comment. In addition, the draft standards were informed by feedback from teachers, parents, business leaders, and the general public.
June 2010 saw the publication of Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSSE/L) and Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM). Efforts are also under way to develop state-shared standards in science and social studies. A committee selected by the National Research Council is currently crafting a conceptual framework to guide the development of standards in science, an effort funded by the Carnegie Corporation. The National Council for the Social Studies is part of a coalition of 18 states and 15 professional organizations that have started work on a conceptual framework and criteria for a set of interdisciplinary standards.
In some respects, this effort came as a surprise. Education curricula in the United States have long been controlled at the state and local levels. Yet the Common Core can also be seen as a natural product of the standards-based education movement of the last 20 years. Without having experienced the standards movement, it is improbable that so many states—as of now, 43, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico—would sign on to such a great enterprise. The fact that the voices arguing against adoption of the Common Core standards do not reject the idea of common standards but, rather, argue that their own standards are better, stands as a testament to the significant inroads the standards movement has made in public schooling. It appears that the debate over the merits of establishing common standards is over. It is no longer considered acceptable that students in different states are learning at different levels.
Before we move on to discuss the details of the Common Core standards, we would be wise to place them in context by examining the history of the standards-based education movement—and why it has experienced only limited success. Figure 1.1 outlines some noteworthy differences among the Common Core approach, standards-based education, and the general character of education prior to the standards-based education movement.
Before Standards-Based Education
During the Standards Movement
Under the Common Core
Appropriateness of expectations to instructional time available
Time available = time needed.
Varies by state; no explicit design criteria. Often, not enough instructional time available to address all standards.
Standards are designed to require 85 percent of instructional time available.
Curriculum is defined by the textbook.
Standards drive the curriculum, but curriculum development lags behind standards development.
Standards publication is followed quickly by curriculum development.
Methods of describing student outcomes
Seat time; Carnegie units (emphasis on inputs over outcomes).
State standards; criterion-based.
Cross-state standards; consortia of states.
Source of expectations for students
The expectations in textbooks or those described in Carnegie units; historical, traditional influences.
Varies by state; over time, moved from traditional course descriptions to college- and career-ready criteria.
The knowledge and skills required to be college- and career-ready; international benchmarks; state standards.
Primary assessment purposes
Infrequent comparison of students against a national sample; minimum competency tests in the 1970s.
Accountability; to clarify student performance by subgroup (NCLB).
Accountability; to inform and improve teaching and learning.
Systemic nature of reform
Not systemic; reform is enacted through programs at the school or district level.
Reform varies by state and within states. Some are tightly aligned; "local control" states are much less systemic.
Standards, curriculum, and assessment are shared among participating states and territories.
To fully understand the Common Core, it is necessary to understand how standards-based education transformed K–12 education in the United States. In the early 1990s, working with researcher Robert Marzano as a consultant, I observed teachers from a local school district discuss the new idea of establishing districtwide standards. Back then, as now, it was typical for districts to be ahead of the curve; they could move with greater alacrity than the states and were eager to understand how standards might affect curriculum and instruction. The leaders in this district had created an atmosphere that encouraged thoughtful, open discussion. A few wise old owls in the room, ready to educate the younger set, enlightened us to the fact that we were looking at just another fad in education—one that would have its day and be gone. For these veterans, the key question was how to conserve their energy and tack into the storm in a way that would not leave them exhausted and waterlogged when it was all over. Other teachers, who viewed their work in the classroom as an eclectic mix of the best ideas that zipped through these workshops, pushed the discussion forward to glean from it whatever nuggets they might carry away. For them, too, the reform effort was simply a local, temporary phenomenon.
But some teachers were quick to see why this idea should not be another three-year buzz and fizzle. First, the effectiveness of standards-based education depended heavily on the school as a system of learning with students as its focus. It couldn't survive if teachers remained autocratic, using what they liked in the textbook and ignoring what they didn't. This systemic approach appealed to teachers who believed that their jobs were made more difficult by colleagues who taught only what they liked to teach rather than what students really needed. Second, the national subject-area organizations, bent on ensuring that the essential concepts and skills of their disciplines were a part of every curriculum, emphasized the importance of agreeing on what all students should learn. Educators continued to generate greater potency for the standards movement as they asked themselves, "How much more effective could we be if we deliberately identified exactly what students need to learn during each step of their schooling?" Finally, state departments of education began to turn the system, however ponderously, taking standards as true north and aligning policy and reform efforts to help schools and districts reach shared goals for students.
It was easy to see the advantage afforded by standards: if we could agree on a set of standards for each grade level, then students would start each school year better prepared to learn. As some teachers saw it, standards formed the basis of a social contract with their colleagues. If everyone could see what the expectations were, the responsibilities of each teacher would be clear. Some feared their loss of control over the curriculum, characterizing their resistance to standards as concern for losing the freedom required for the art of teaching. Certainly lost was a level of autonomy—the freedom for each teacher to do whatever he or she deemed best without knowing whether or not it clearly served students' futures.
The Common Core standards are indebted to the standards-based movement and its accomplishments. But just as important, the Common Core also reflects lessons learned. In the next few sections, I discuss the flaws of standards-based education and the challenges it presents to date.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics effectively initiated the standards-based movement with the publication of its mathematics standards in 1989, a work that implicitly argued that it was educators, not textbook or assessment publishers, who were best equipped to identify what students should know and be able to do. Other subject-area groups with a predominant teacher membership quickly endorsed this view and began to publish their own drafts. Funds for these efforts became available not long after an Education Summit was held that same year, during which President George H. W. Bush and the nation's governors set forth ambitious education goals, including student competency across the subject areas.
The definition of a standard, including its scope and specificity, varied from one group to the next. But the groups had at least one thing in common: the amount of content they identified as important for student mastery staked significant claims on the school day. Over time, the publication of standards in each subject area effectively delegitimized textbooks as the basis for curriculum in the United States. This result had a further consequence, likely unintended, of weakening local school boards, whose authority over the curriculum had been exercised largely through textbook selection. Departments of education, often directed by state legislation, began the process of developing state standards in mathematics, language arts, and science. Eventually, most states established standards for every subject area. Relying in large part on the foundational work of the national subject-area groups and having little research to counterbalance the groups' claims, the states tended to accept too many standards from each discipline—often, more than could be realistically addressed in the instructional time available. Ironically, this situation meant that teachers were once again the final arbiters of what students would learn: they had to either select what to teach and what to ignore or race through all the standards ineffectively.
Prior to the standards movement, the textbook largely defined what students should learn. The textbook was the curriculum. But when standards began defining what students should learn, a sudden vacuum in curriculum support became apparent. Standards were out in the front, while curriculum built to support these standards trailed behind. This lag crippled districts' and schools' attempts to implement standards-based instruction and has been counted by many as the single greatest failing of the standards movement. The fact that each state developed its own standards and then created high-stakes assessments aligned to them put a premium on curriculum and instructional materials that targeted the specifics within a state standard. This state-by-state specificity rendered sharing resources across states problematic. Publishers, to meet the sudden demand, became notorious for quickly producing customized versions of each textbook series for state standards, although many suspected that it was only the ad copy that had changed.
Here's a scenario depicting how standards-based education can inadvertently hurt schools and students. Imagine that you're a teacher in a classroom anywhere in the United States. The 2000 U.S. Census found that up to 18 percent of school-age children had moved in the previous year (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001); research also shows that the rate of school mobility over a two- to three-year period commonly exceeds 30 percent (Reynolds, Chen, & Herbers, 2009). That means if you're teaching mathematics to 30 4th graders, you may have no idea what 5 or more of your students know about fractions or decimals. They might not be ready to learn what you have to teach, or they might already know it well. Some studies (Burkam, Lee, & Dwyer, 2009; Rumberger, 2003) show that the greater the number of new students in your class, the more your continuing students will suffer. Why? Because your commitment to helping students means that you will invest much of your time and attention to learning what your new students know and don't know.
Even if the "regular" students in your classroom had last year's class just down the hall from you, how confident can you be that they are prepared to learn what you have to teach? It depends on several factors: the state you're in (geographically speaking) and how well the state designed the standards for the previous grade; how strongly your district supports the standards through aligned curriculum and assessment; and, finally, your school and its culture, and whether your colleagues have the commitment and resources to ensure that students leave their classrooms ready to move on to yours.
You and your colleagues may fully believe in developing an agreement on what students should know before heading to the next grade but may be hindered by practical issues. For example, does the instructional day include as much time as the standards require? Does your school have effective interventions in place to help struggling students? Are the standards too ambitious, and do they demand more attention than your time allows? Or are they so generally written that you can't know for certain whether or not you've reached their stated goals? Have too many hours been spent on other, more frequently tested subjects, encouraging schoolwide tunnel vision?
Now, let's say you're teaching a 5th grade class irregular verbs (a subject without which no student, in however free a society, should be able to escape elementary school), and you don't like the approach your textbook or curriculum guide takes. "Someone somewhere must have come up with a great idea that works," you think. Yet once you've begun to search the Internet, you find that most lessons are tied to other state standards that address the question in earlier or later grades and are therefore designed for different sets of skills than the ones you need to address with your students. Disappointed, you realize that there aren't any customized resources made for you, or at least for what you're tasked with teaching. You have no option but to rummage through your desk drawer for a previously used lesson and do your best to reconstruct it. You wonder to yourself, "Wouldn't it make more sense to share great lesson plans?"
Finally, think back to those five students in your hypothetical class who are new to the school. Some of them may have moved from another state. Are their families hoping for continuity between state school systems? Too bad. It's not even remotely likely that a student will continue where he or she left off. In some states, students will experience this disparity just moving from one district to another. From a student's point of view, this scenario doesn't make sense. More to the point, it's just not fair that the degree to which a student is prepared for the next class or grade should be a matter of geography.
Teachers tackle problems like these every day, and naturally, some of their solutions are less elegant than others. For example, they may use quick tests to diagnose where their students are in relation to the standards, but these assessments, like the standards, may be meaningful only for their district or school.
Let's say a district actually recognizes that the state standards are too voluminous or too vague or do not provide direction where it matters most: identifying, grade by grade, what students need to learn. If this district doesn't improve on the standards, then a teacher's only recourse is to select from among the standards that seem to make sense. But will every teacher's decisions be wise? Will each teacher make choices that prepare students to succeed in next year's classroom? What if, instead, a school collectively asks teachers to select their "favorite" 50 percent of the state standards to teach, as was recently recommended by a best-selling education consultant (Schmoker, 2011)? Such an approach seems democratic on the surface but is really the work of an oligarchy because the standards apply only to the teachers and students in this school, ignoring the larger community beyond. Other schools, led by a few teachers in other districts, may distribute the standards totally differently. None of these is a viable solution. When learning goals are developed from teacher preferences rather than from the perspective of students' learning progress, the best paths are lost.
As an educator, you ultimately don't contribute so much time and effort to your students just to help them do well in your class; you are also preparing them to succeed in life. So it's frustrating to know that so many students leave high school unprepared to succeed in higher education or a career. Each year, the amount of remediation that students need in their first year of postsecondary education grows. Between 1995 and 2000, the proportion of institutions reporting an average of one year of remediation needed for students upon college entry increased from 28 percent to 35 percent, while the proportion of institutions indicating that students needed less than one year of remediation declined from 67 percent to 60 percent (Parsad & Lewis, 2003). How can a system that identifies the knowledge and skills that students must acquire each year, kindergarten through 12th grade, somehow fail to determine what these students actually need to succeed? If the hallmark of a standards-based education is that it provides a systematic method for identifying and delivering crucial knowledge and skills through the grades, how is it that, at the end of the process, students end up needing a remedial course?
This situation is one reason the Common Core standards were developed. The Common Core provides an established set of standards whose mastery will provide each student with the skill and knowledge to advance in study, whether as a master craftsman, a biochemist, or a pioneer in a field that has yet to emerge. And for the immediate future, you know what your students need to learn to succeed in the next grade or course, just as the teachers who have the students you'll receive next year know what their students need to succeed in your class. This transparency is both a significant obligation and a significant freedom.
The obligation comes in the form of a social contract affirming that you will prepare each student to learn the content specified for the subject and grade that you teach. The freedom is that just as you prepare students for their next class, students come to you prepared. Even if the teacher doesn't know you or teaches in a different state, he or she knows what students need to be successful in your class. More important, the students and their parents know. You don't need to spend time trying to bring students up to the first step because they're already there, ready for you to help them take the next step, and the next. You don't begin the year reteaching; you begin the year teaching.
In the next chapter, I describe just what the Common Core standards look like.
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