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December 2010 | Volume 16 | Number 4
Coming to Terms with Common Core Standards
From its inception, the Obama administration has set its sights on the unevenness of existing state standards and promoting the development, adoption, and implementation of common standards that would provide each school across the country with clearly defined markers of what students should know and be able to do at each level of their K–12 schooling.
In a 2009 speech at the National Press Club, Secretary Duncan accused states of setting the bar too low in order to comply with the regulations of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. "We want to raise the bar dramatically in terms of higher standards. What we have had as a country, I'm convinced, is what we call a race to the bottom. We have 50 different standards, 50 different goal posts. And due to political pressure, those have been dumbed down. We want to fundamentally reverse that. We want common, career-ready internationally benchmarked standards," said Duncan (2009).
NCLB's requirement that students achieve "proficiency" on state tests by 2014 has had unintended consequences. In the Thomas B. Fordham Institute report Stars by Which to Navigate?, the authors state that the "hodge-podge of state standards and tests, some of them world-class rigorous, some downright embarrassing, made a mockery of NCLB's 2014 drop-dead deadline by which all American youngsters would be 'proficient' in reading and math" (Carmichael, Wilson, Finn, Winkler, & Palmieri, 2009, p. 4).
Duncan (2009) added, "When children are told they are 'meeting a state standard,' the logical assumption for that child or for that parent is to think they are on-track to be successful. But because these standards have been dummied down and lowered so much in so many places, when a child is 'meeting the state standard' they are in fact barely able to graduate from high school. And they are absolutely inadequately prepared to go to a competitive university, let alone graduate."
For a variety of reasons, many business leaders, policymakers, educators, parents, and other individuals see the creation of common standards as key to improving student achievement, closing equity gaps in the nation, and regaining the United States's prominence as a global education leader. Conversely, critics of national or common standards worry that the federal government plans to commandeer what has traditionally been a locally controlled education system. Opponents fear that teachers across the nation will be forced to teach exactly the same curriculum, using the same texts and instructional strategies, at the same time.
One thing, however, many supporters and opponents both applaud is the fact that the common standards project is led by states rather than at the federal level.
With the majority of states committing to implementing these new standards, many stakeholders have important questions regarding how states will make common core standards a reality in the classroom.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is coordinated by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The common core state standards were released in draft form in 2009. The standards are internationally benchmarked and backed by evidence showing that students' mastery of them leads to preparedness for higher education and the workforce. The initiative defines college and career readiness as the ability "to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce-training programs" (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010).
The NGA and the CCSSO say the standards were developed with input from teachers, school administrators, and experts. The groups also received nearly 10,000 comments providing insight that shaped the final drafts of the English language arts and mathematics standards released in June 2010.
"The standards are informed by the highest, most effective models from states across the country and countries around the world, and provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live," say the NGA and CCSSO (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010).
In a statement on the standards, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010) says, "The [common core standards] will help teachers, students and parents know what is needed for students to succeed in college and careers, and will enable states, school districts and teachers to more effectively collaborate to accelerate learning and close achievement gaps nationwide."
Duncan sees the common core standards as the key to President Obama's goal of raising the percentage of U.S. college graduates (with two- or four-year degrees) to 60 percent of the population from the current 39 percent by 2020.
According to the common core initiative's website (2010), the common core standards
In the area of reading, the common core standards are meant to "establish a 'staircase' of increasing complexity in what students must be able to read so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school.
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," say the NGA and the CCSSO on the initiative's website (2010), but states, districts, and schools make the remaining content decisions.
The common core standards for writing say that students must achieve the ability to "write logical arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence." The standards also focus on students' mastery of research, opinion writing, analytical, and presentation skills.
The speaking and listening standards require students to "gain, evaluate, and present increasingly complex information, ideas, and evidence." Use and understanding of media and technology are also required.
At the K–5 level, the mathematics standards provide students with a "solid foundation in whole numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals—which help young students build the foundation to successfully apply more demanding math concepts and procedures, and move into applications," say the NGA and CCSSO.
The standards "stress not only procedural skill but also conceptual understanding," with an aim to develop students' skills more deeply in this subject area. The middle school standards are intended to better prepare students for rigorous math courses at the high school level.
At the high school level, the standards "call on students to
practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges." The high school standards "set a rigorous definition of college and career readiness, by helping students develop a depth of understanding and ability to apply mathematics to novel situations, as college students and employees regularly do," say the standards developers.
Curriculum issues pose one of the biggest unknowns for educators, with some advocating for a stronger curricular framework, curriculum guides, or just more guidance, while others think the standards should stand alone, leaving educators to make appropriate curricular decisions for their students.
The common core standards are decidedly not a curriculum, say the NGA and CCSSO. "They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms," states the common core initiative website (2010).
Furthermore, although standards in science and social science are being considered, the common core standards currently address only English language arts and mathematics. Effectively integrating all content areas into instruction is essential for students to receive a comprehensive education.
While the majority of states have adopted the standards, approval has not been without controversy. (See sidebar.) Kentucky and Hawaii adopted the standards before they were finalized (or, in Kentucky's case, before they were publicly released). States like Virginia and Texas have decided that their own standards are preferable. In Massachusetts, home to what were widely considered the highest standards in the country, the adoption process generated heated debate.
But to those who worry that adopting common standards "will bring all states' standards down to the lowest common denominator," the NGA and CCSSO say, "the Standards are designed to build upon the most advanced current thinking about preparing all students for success in college and their careers. This will result in moving even the best state standards to the next level. In fact, since this work began, there has been an explicit agreement that no state would lower its standards."
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute's review of the standards (Carmichael, Martino, Porter-Magee, & Wilson, 2010) gives the English language arts standards a B+ and the mathematics standards an A-, saying the standards in these areas are far better than those of most states.
However, despite the praise for the standards, some critics question whether they go deep enough or provide ample direction for educators. In July 2010, the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based think tank, voiced its dissent in the white paper Common Core's Standards Still Don't Make the Grade (Stotsky & Wurman, 2010). The report looked at whether final common core standards would provide a "stronger and more challenging framework for mathematics and [English language arts] curricula than do California's current standards and Massachusetts' current (2001) and revised draft (2010) standards" (Executive Summary).
Stotsky and Wurman determined that the "Common Core's literature and reading standards in grades 9–12 do not prepare students for college and career better than those in California and Massachusetts. Common Core's high school standards fall well short of those in California and in Massachusetts 2001 and 2010 in specificity of literary and cultural content. By adopting Common Core's standards for their own, California and Massachusetts significantly weaken the intellectual demands on students in the areas of language and literature. They also weaken the base of literary and cultural knowledge needed for actual college-level work now implied by each state's current or draft standards" (2010, Executive Summary). However, after thorough comparisons of their state standards with the common core's, both California's and Massachusetts's state boards of education opted in.
To allow for some state-level customization, a provision in the voluntary adoption guidelines allows states to supplement the common core standards with state-specific standards, up to an additional 15 percent.
Since so many states have signed on to the common core standards, leaders and educators are collectively wondering how to make these standards a reality quickly, efficiently, and effectively. The Obama administration's blueprint makes Title I funds contingent on state adoption by 2015. But what is needed for successful implementation? Nothing short of maximum effort from every educator, administrator, and policymaker at every level.
First, successful implementation of the common core standards requires intensive capacity building, professional development, and training for teachers, principals, and district- and state-level staff.
Strong leadership will be key to implementing the standards. Many educators strongly support the adoption of the common core standards and anticipate significant benefits for their students; leaders should build on this enthusiasm to motivate their colleagues.
Smooth implementation requires clear communication and open discussions between policymakers, education leaders, teachers, staff, parents, and students. Schools need to be prepared to answer questions by stakeholders, and teachers should know how these standards will help each of their students. Also, collaborative teams, cooperative learning groups, learning communities, and other groups will be needed to help stakeholders at all levels build and discuss implementation plans before, during, and after the process.
Implementation, says Stephen Sawchuk (2010), will require stakeholders to "be engaged in attempts to reshape teacher training, craft new curricular materials, devise methods of gauging student progress toward any new standards, and audit classrooms to ensure that instruction is aligned with them. None of these conversations will be easy, they say. But without such efforts, a set of common standards will risk becoming the educational equivalent of bric-a-brac—attractive but useless."
Supporters of the common core standards stress that their formation and adoption is just the beginning of a long journey toward higher levels of student achievement. There are dozens of unanswered questions regarding how these standards will be maintained, updated, and assessed. Some of the pressing questions regarding next steps include
Another important issue that will prove challenging in this mad dash toward alignment will be determining which vendors schools can trust. In a post on the Curriculum Matters blog, Catherine Gewertz (2010) states, "It won't be easy for states and districts to sort out the competing alignment claims. And common-standards insiders are grappling with how to manage the Alignment Rush. This will be interesting stuff, with huge profits hanging in the balance."
ASCD is an endorsing partner of the common core initiative. "Creating such high standards is the first step in transforming our education system," says ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter (2010). "Just as important is helping educators understand the new standards and how to implement them in their schools and classrooms. The common core standards effort—and the hard work of CCSSO, NGA, and their partners—won't bring about positive, meaningful change for students unless we translate the standards from words on a page to tangible improvements in learning and teaching."
ASCD supports high standards for student learning and achievement that are the result of a development process that is state-led, transparent, and implemented under the following principles:
The National Center for Educational Achievement and ACT (Montgomery & Mercado, 2010) suggest what it will take for the common core standards to succeed: "Belief that all students can reach the standards and the educator behaviors to support it. Coherent support structures from state-level down to classroom-level. Willingness and awareness that this is just the first and necessary step. … The key is in the implementation."
Standards alone don't address the in-school and out-of-school influences that affect student achievement, but they do help provide guidance about where students should be in their skills and knowledge development. The common core standards are just the beginning of a brighter future for the nation's youth.
The push for national or common academic standards is not new. For at least the last several decades, educators, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders have debated whether students would benefit from having a set of clearly articulated, ambitious common standards that outline what all students across the nation should know and be able to do at each level.
In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower discussed the creation of national goals for education that would enable the next generation of Americans to be more competitive against other nations.
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education report
A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform raised a red flag, stating students needed higher standards to compete at the level of young people in other countries.
In 1988, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan collaborated on the "reinvention of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), complete with state-by-state comparisons of student achievement and what became known as 'achievement levels' by which NAEP data are now reported, a close relative of national standards" (Carmichael, Wilson, Finn, Winkler, & Palmieri, 2009, p. 4).
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush oversaw the development of "'voluntary national standards' in core subjects," but the initiative died when the Senate gave a thumbs down to the draft version of the U.S. history standards (Carmichael et al., 2009, p. 4).
That same year, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published a set of standards for teaching mathematics, based on consensus from teachers and experts. These standards have been adopted or adapted by many states, districts, and schools.
In the 1980s and 1990s, several other major organizations produced their own standards, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Research Council, and National Council of Teachers of English.
The Clinton administration proposed to expand the NAEP to voluntary national testing in grades 4 and 8 in reading and math and an accompanying framework, but the idea stalled because of Republican opposition in the House of Representatives stemming from concerns about federal involvement in education.
State standards were the foundation for the assessments and accountability requirement of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, an approach that generated mixed results. Its unevenness is often cited by Secretary Duncan as a primary reason for needing higher, uniform standards.
For years, a debate has raged over what education standards to hold students to and how to accurately assess them. After all of this controversy, the adoption of the common core state standards by more than 35 states might be the first step toward accurate assessments and closing the learning gaps among states. Under these new standards, educators across the country will all be working under the same guidelines for what to teach students.
Over the next several years, states will be fine-tuning the adoption of these standards and developing assessments as the United States takes a leap toward common standards. These standards are designed to better prepare students for a changing workforce and an easier transition into higher education.
Missouri, one of the first states to adopt the standards, hopes to implement them by the 2012–13 school year. Implementing these standards did raise concerns among educators, but Amy Youngblood, Missouri ASCD president and executive director of SuccessLink, feels her state's education system will be able to handle the changes smoothly.
"I think it's a mixed bag," Youngblood says about teachers' concerns. "It's not going to be where we have to throw everything out and start all over again. Missouri is in pretty good shape, and I think mostly what you hear are concerns and fears from teachers because they don't know quite know what's happening yet."
Youngblood says many of the common core standards are similar to ones in Missouri's current system, so changes may not be as dramatic as some think. If there are major changes, curriculum teams and other support tools are available to help.
"I think overall, nationwide, it will end up improving our education system," says Youngblood about the standards' effects. "I think it will get us more in line with each other from state to state. … I really see it as a win."
In Wisconsin, a state that adopted the standards in June, Paul Sandrock also sees the common core standards as a positive move.
"One of the things that we felt was a benefit is the comparability," says Sandrock, assistant director of the Content and Learning Team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "The value to us was to have a common vision for instruction, for curriculum, for student learning and, ultimately, for state assessment."
Wisconsin has been especially proactive, as the state's education system has already started implementing common core standards this school year. Under the initiative, states must follow common core standards but have the option to add state elements. Wisconsin decided against adding any state standards, in an effort to align their curriculum as closely as possible with other states.
"Yes, you have to adopt 100 percent of the common core, but you could add additional state elements that would comprise no more than 15 percent of the total," said Sandrock. "We have adopted the common core and not added anything to it."
By adopting the common core standards without additions, Wisconsin ensures that its results can easily be compared with those of other states and that it does not have to create additional tests other than the forthcoming SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium's assessments. Wisconsin and Missouri are part of this consortium that will adopt the same common core assessments within the next few years. Wisconsin, despite already using the standards this year, will continue to use its normal state assessment test until the new one is ready.
Wisconsin, like Missouri, has a host of resources to help teachers with the transition, including various professional organizations, regional education providers, community partnerships, and teacher development services.
"We are now looking at the strategies to implement these standards effectively at the classroom level," said Sandrock. "The standards are in place, the assessment will be in place, but that doesn't drive change for an individual student. That change comes about with the instructional changes … that are implemented locally by each teacher in each classroom."
Sandrock emphasized that instruction is key for the common core standards to be successful. He feels that the major changes need to be in instruction and that educators need to focus on that.
"Just by changing the standards and changing the assessment, we can't just sit back and say, 'It's all done.'" says Sandrock. "It's really on the instruction. Those are the conversations that we are really working to ensure are occurring. … It all converges around that classroom instruction and making that the focus for change."
While a majority of states have adopted the standards, several states have refused for a variety of reasons. In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell argued that the commonwealth's standards were already high and that a change would be disruptive and costly, according to The Washington Post. Reservations about the math standards led Minnesota not to adopt the standards. Other states, such as Alaska and Texas, have also declared they will not adopt the common core standards.
While some of these states have openly stated they will not adopt the standards, several others have yet to make a decision. After the standards go into effect, states that have not adopted will be watching closely to see if the standards achieve the desired results, which might help them decide if they want to go in that direction.
Copyright © 2010 by ASCD
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