Published Online: July 21, 2010

Mass. Adopts Common Standards Amid Fiery Debate

Following months of lively debate among education, civic, and political leaders, the Massachusetts board of education approved plans Tuesday to replace the state’s own English/language arts and mathematics standards with a common set of teaching guidelines now being approved in states across the nation.

The adoption of the common standards in Massachusetts carries symbolic importance because the state’s curriculum frameworks and aligned assessments, put in place by a 1993 education reform law, have been widely praised for two decades.

Approval in the Bay State has been viewed in some quarters as an important tipping point in attaining state support for the work that emerged from the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

“I think generally that we may see some states fall into place because of Massachusetts,” said Chris E. Minnich, the director of curriculum and assessment for the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two state-led groups that have helped marshal the creation of the common standards. “But we’ve worked with states all along to make sure that these are adoptable. We’re excited to see states taking quick action on this.”

Opponents of the move to replace the state’s own reading and math standards generated a no-holds-barred effort this week to delay the adoption process. They contend that the common expectations are not as rigorous or detailed as the state’s existing curriculum frameworks, and that the adoption has been rushed so that the state can get a leg up in its bid for $3.4 billion in remaining funds under the federal Race to the Top competition. States that adopt the CCSSI expectations by Aug. 2 receive additional competitive points.

Several current and former education officials added their voices to the mix this week as the debate became increasingly political. Two challengers to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who is up for re-election, condemned the standards swap, which suggests the adoption could become a major point of debate in the gubernatorial contest this fall.

Months of Debate

Nine of the 11 state board members were present at the July 20 meeting, and all of them voted in favor of the new standards.

“From my standpoint, this is a watershed moment, a historical moment for Massachusetts,” said Paul Reville, Massachusetts’ secretary of education. “It’s a decision that’s good for students, good for equity, good for education.”

Mr. Reville and other supporters highlighted reviews of the common-core standards conducted by Achieve, a nonprofit Washington-based organization that provided assistance to the CCSSO and the National Governors Association in crafting the standards; the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank; and WestEd, a San Francisco-based contractor, on behalf of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. All three found the common-core standards better than or comparable to the rigor and quality of the state’s existing benchmarks.

But officials for the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a longtime critic of the common standards, noted that all three groups received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a supporter of the common standards. (The foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

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In its own review of the English/language arts standards, which was released earlier this week, the Pioneer Institute asserted that the common standards are not specific enough in giving examples of literary and cultural texts that should be taught at each grade level, put too much emphasis on nonliterary narratives, and don’t focus enough attention on building vocabulary.

In addition, critics of the common standards said that they don’t put enough emphasis on algebraic concepts in the middle grades, an oversight that they say could reduce the percentage of students in Massachusetts capable of passing algebra in the 8th grade.

“I would say these standards are not only weaker, they are misconceptualized,” said Sandra Stotsky, who helped write the Pioneer Institute analysis.

Though a state board member, Ms. Stotsky did not attend the meeting or vote on the adoption because of an injury.

Similar criticisms of the common standards in math have emerged in the context of state-adoption discussions in California and Minnesota, but have not generated nearly as much attention.

Pro and Con

Early in the week, former top education executives in Massachusetts lined up with statements for and against the standards.

On July 19, former state Commissioners of Education Robert Antonucci and David P. Driscoll endorsed the swap. Shortly afterwords, two key architects of the 1993 reform law, Democrat Thomas F. Birmingham, a former president of the Massachusetts Senate who drafted the bill, and former Gov. William F. Weld, a Republican, who signed it into law, took the opposite stance. Both men said that changing curriculum standards was unwarranted in light of high achievement on national achievement gauges.

Mr. Weld, now a lawyer in New York, labeled the proposed change “a retrograde step” and called it a precursor to eliminating the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

The charges grew increasingly political as state Senate Minority Leader Richard R. Tisei, a Republican, charged that Gov. Patrick had brokered an agreement with the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association to support the common standards and replace the MCAS test, unpopular with the union, in exchange for its political support in the gubernatorial election. Mr. Patrick and the union both denied those charges.

Meanwhile, two gubernatorial challengers to Mr. Patrick, former Pioneer Institute Co-Director Charles D. Baker Jr., a Republican, and Tim Cahill, the state treasurer and an Independent, also questioned the replacement of the state’s standards.

Supporters of the standards, in the meantime, sought to clarify their position on the MCAS.

Massachusetts is a governing member of one of the two main consortia applying for federal funding through the Race to the Top competition to design common assessments aligned to the common-core standards. If funded, that consortium expects governing states to adopt a common reading and math test by the 2014-15 school year. ("Three Groups Submit Applications for Race to Top Assessment Grants," July 14, 2010.)

But Mr. Reville said that the state would keep the MCAS for the forseeable future and plans to make only “modest” changes to align it with the new expectations.

“We’ve made it clear and been quite specific with the U.S. Department of Education that our participation [in the consortium] is contingent on those [common] assessments’ being a least as rigorous as our own,” he said. “We may use them for sampling purposes or to augment our own assessments.”

Broader Context

Adoptions of the common standards in other states this week took place with little of the public contention that characterized Massachusetts or even the fanfare that traditionally accompany new curriculum expectations.

The New York state board of regents approved the common standards July 19, while its counterpart in the District of Columbia was on course to do so Wednesday night, pushing the tally of state approvals to 29.

While the Race to the Top competition was likely a major factor in the expedited adoptions, some proponents of the common standards said the federal tactic could backfire.

“For those states that don’t get Race to the Top funding, how energized will they be about implementing the standards they’ve adopted?” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which released an analysis of state standards this week. “States are broke, and putting these things in practice properly and quickly isn’t cheap or easy or politically painless.”

Vol. 29, Issue 37

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