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To Adopt or Not? States Will Decide on Common Standards
Strong Federal Push Behind 'State-Led Initiative'
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The 48 states that signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative for English/language arts and mathematics last year will soon make decisions on whether to formally adopt those standards. (Alaska and Texas declined to participate.) The effort was spearheaded by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Supporters frequently emphasize that the initiative is state-led, but the Obama administration has made no secret that national standards are an agenda priority. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan telegraphed his intent as early as February of 2009, declaring, "If we accomplish one thing in the coming years it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America."

A few states elevated educational benchmarks in recent years, but others lowered them to avoid penalties mandated by No Child Left Behind for underperformance, leading some analysts to describe the effect as "a race to the bottom." Mounting frustration with NCLB and concerns about American students lagging behind internationally increased receptivity to national standards in recent years.

The Department of Education ensured high participation in the Common Core Standards by tying federal grants to state involvement. At a hearing of the House education committee last December, Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) said that in making participation in the common standards initiative a category for earning points in the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, the Department of Education had "transformed [the common core effort] from a voluntary-state-based initiative to a set of federal academic standards with corresponding federal tests."

President Obama also told the nation's governors he would like to make Title I funding, intended for disadvantaged students, contingent on states' adoption of the proposed reading and math standards. States could choose to partner with universities to craft standards as an alternative, but it is unclear who would determine if those benchmarks qualified a state for Title I money. Language in the current NCLB legislation forbids the U.S. government from endorsing specific curricula; it remains to be seen whether Obama's blueprint for its reauthorization, renamed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, will retain such prohibitions.

'You Can't Pick and Choose'

States were informed after they signed on to the common core initiative that those who ratify the standards must use them in their entirety. "You can't pick and choose what you want. This is not cafeteria-style standards," said David Wakelyn, program director of the education division of the NGA. "Adoption means adoption," reiterated Scott Montgomery, a deputy executive director of the CCSSO.

States may add items to the common standards, as long as the state's additions do not make up more than 15% of the total, said NGA and CCSSO officials. In a none-too-subtle critique, Susan Ohanian, a fellow in the education departments of both the University of Colorado at Boulder and Arizona State University, commented, "Exercising any judgment based on what teachers and parents know about kids and literature is forbidden. To get the Obama bribe, state politicos must promise that schoolchildren will be forced to swallow ALL the Kool-Aid."

The 62-page English/language arts standards aim to "lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century," able to understand complex works of literature and nonfiction, use critical thinking to sift through large amounts of information, and construct compelling arguments.

The 71-page mathematics standards emphasize key ideas and concepts, and focus on students' ability to explain math problems as well as compute them. Lengthy appendices providing examples and support material accompany both documents. (Visit www.corestandards.org to see a copy of the draft released in March.) Draft Elicits Praise and Critique

Educators and officials involved in the writing process cited elements of the standards they perceive as strengths. Gene Wilhoit, executive director of CCSSO, said the conciseness of the standards make them manageable for teachers to cover in more than a superficial manner, in contrast to many state versions. Another improvement, said others, is that the material students learn in early years builds a foundation for subsequent years. "Students are asked to do progressively more challenging things, and although that may sound obvious, it's a real breakthrough," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a Washington organization that played a major role in writing the standards.

Reaction regarding the quality and usefulness of the standards draft has been mixed. A slew of organizations immediately endorsed the document, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts.

Others offered more muted praise. Henry Kepner Jr., president of the National Council of Mathematics, said he appreciated the draft's stated emphasis on problem solving and reasoning, but that those goals weren't adequately supported. Overall, he felt the draft is "on the right track."

Critics Charge Draft Standards are 'Inferior' to Some State Standards

Several parties complained the draft standards were lower than their state's current benchmarks. Sandra Stotsky, part of the draft validation team, said the Common Core standards are less rigorous than those she helped write for Massachusetts. Her specific critiques included "no research base" for the "generic, content- and culture-free" K-12 reading skills, and "pedagogically useless" vocabulary standards in grades 6-12.

The math standards are inferior to those currently in place in California, said Ze'ev Wurman, part of the team that wrote California benchmarks in the 1990s. The Common Core standards don't support teaching "authentic" Algebra I courses even as late as 9th-grade, and the standards appear to be "incompatible with admission requirements to California state colleges," he said.

Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota said the standards would "water down" his state's "rigorous standards" that require students to take algebra by 8th grade. The Alliance for Childhood, an organ-ization of early childhood health and education professionals, said they have "grave concerns" about the draft's core standards for K-3 based upon "compelling" new research about "how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them." Their statement called upon the NGA and CCSSO to suspend drafting standards for K-3 children and called for the creation of an alternate consortium of early childhood specialists to address the matter.

Many of these critiques are particularly pointed given the oft-repeated emphasis of the Obama administration and of NGA and CCSSO spokesmen on "research-based" pedagogy and "college- and career-readiness." A criticism concerning process came from Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute, a nonprofit that helped Massachusetts revise their standards in the 1990s. "When was the last time you saw a national effort that was rammed through in three weeks?" he asked, referring to the short time frame allowed for public response to the draft.

Next Steps

States must also consider how adoption of the standards would affect their current student assessment measures. The academic officer charged with overseeing curriculum development for Hartford, Connecticut schools, Penny E. MacCormack, said she was "impressed" with the draft. "No doubt my team will use [the common standards] to improve our work," said MacCormack, "but we are being measured on state assessments," and she and her colleagues must account for that reality.

The NGA and CCSSO have stated they have no plans to create curriculum or assessments based on the standards, but they might play "a catalyzing role" in coordinating the efforts of education organizations, school districts, and publishers to do that work. Education secretary Arne Duncan has already sought input on assessment tools, and has promised $350 million in federal money for their development.

The final version of the draft will be released by early summer, at which time states are expected to decide whether or not to adopt the standards. Kentucky announced its intent to adopt them back in February. Other states have begun laying the groundwork, including Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, and North Carolina, according to Dane Linn, education division director of the NGA. (Education Week, 1-14-10, 3-17-10; New York Times, 3-11-10)

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