School & District Management

Common-Core Rollout Ripe for Studying, Experts Say

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 08, 2013 4 min read
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The creators of the Common Core State Standards purposely set out what students should know in mathematics and reading without laying out how teachers should meet those requirements. That creates a rare opportunity—but also requires a massive lift—for K-12 education research to fill in the blanks.

“Standards are necessary but they aren’t sufficient to improve student learning,” said Pascal D. “Pat” Forgione Jr., the executive director of the K-12 Center at the Educational Testing Service, during a meeting on research in the common core held here by the Center on Education Policy and George Washington University. “We need significant R&D work.”

On the eve of the federal government shutdown, experts debated the focus on common-core-related research, and how it could be sustained without drawing fire from critics who see the state-created standards as a federal initiative. A majority of K-12 education research now is supported by federal grants, including those from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and the National Science Foundation.

Most of the public is not familiar with the common core, and in states now debating the common core, such as Kentucky and Colorado, bringing up federal funding for research and implementation could make people suspicious of federal stakes in the initiative, said Jacqueline King, the director of higher education collaboration for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the consortia developing tests for the common core. The federal government has already pledged hundreds of millions to support the state testing consortia.

“If the feds were to say they would do a ‘common-core center,’ they’d have governors on the phone saying, ‘What are you trying to do, kill us?’” she said.

Janice M. Earle, a senior program director for K-12 STEM education at the NSF, noted that several grants are supporting interventions and evaluations associated with the common core, but these are generally part of larger stem or “college readiness” programs.

Too Big to Plan

Program officers from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and others all noted they are supporting research around the common standards—including on teacher professional development, lesson plans, and formative tests—but argued that standards implementation will be too big to create a single plan for research and development. “We’re all in, but the research goes in many directions,” said Scott Hill, a senior program officer for Gates. (The Seattle-based Gates Foundation helps underwrite Education Week‘s coverage of business and innovation. The Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif., provides support for Education Week‘s coverage of “deeper learning” issues.)

Christopher Shearer, an education program officer for the Hewlett Foundation, suggested that implementation across the 46 states and the District of Columbia now signed on to the common standards may raise more questions than traditional education research is prepared to address. He suggested opening up high-profile competitions to solve specific problems of practice, and encouraging not just K-12 researchers to participate but also those in other fields, such as big-data analysis, and adult and military education.

“This is going to require researchers to operate in different ways with different partners and ... different outreach pathways with different goals,” Mr. Shearer said.

No ‘Yes or No’ Answers

While it’s uncertain who will drive research and development for the common core, meeting participants argued that studying and supporting standards implementation will accelerate the drive in education research for closer partnerships with practitioners and cyclical research models focused on solving problems.

“There’s a consensus that research as a whole has to be research for improvement; it can’t just be documentation of what worked and what didn’t,” said John Q. Easton, the IES’ director. “There’s no grand [randomized controlled trial] that anyone will conduct that will give us yes or no in eight years.”

Ms. Earle predicted there may be staged cycles of research to support the standards in their first years of implementation, with deeper studies and evaluations six and 10 years out. If researchers and educators begin developing partnerships to implement the standards now, they will be in a better position to collect information and understand earlier indicators of problems or success.

“What was the role of research in the prior incarnation of standards-based reform? It was very removed; it was not practitioner-based research. We watched it unfold as opposed to being part of the unfolding,” said Jonathan A. Supovitz, the director of the Philadelphia-based Consortium for Policy Research in Education. “This is an opportunity to create a place for researchers to be part of the unraveling of the puzzles of the process.”

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