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School & District Management

State Adoptions of Common Standards Steam Ahead

By Catherine Gewertz — July 09, 2010 8 min read

Nearly half the states have adopted a new set of common academic standards, barely a month after their final release and, in most cases, with little opposition.

As of July 9, 23 states had decided to replace their mathematics and English/language arts standards with the common set. Another flurry of adoptions is expected by Aug. 2, since the $4 billion federal Race to the Top contest gives more points to states that meet that deadline.

By the end of the year, 41 states are expected to have adopted the standards, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers. The CCSSO and the National Governors Association organized the Common Core State Standards Initiative and track states’ adoption plans.

Though many challenges remain in crafting curricula and tests that embody the aims of the new standards, the mounting adoption numbers represent a major landscape change in a short time. The NGA and the CCSSO announced the initiative in April 2009. They released the first public draft of the standards in March and the final version June 2. (“Final Version of Core Standards Assuages Some Concerns,” June 9, 2010.)

Common-Core Adoptions

(as of July 9)

36Standards C1s

SOURCE: Education Week

Note: Adoption dates are listed by date of first action. Some actions were provisional, followed later—or to be followed later—by final actions.

“You have a coming-together of states that want to take advantage of this moment in education,” said Chris Minnich, who is overseeing the CCSSO’s work on common standards. “For the first time, states are taking control of what the [academic] expectations should be across state lines. We’re excited about that.”

Some of those in state education policy circles worry that states are moving too quickly. David Shreve, a lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said they are “rushing headlong” into the process, driven largely by the prospect of Race to the Top money.

That view shortchanges the commitment states have shown by seeking development of the standards and by helping shape them, said Keith Gayler, who is leading the CCSSO’s state outreach for the common core.

“This work was happening long before Race to the Top,” he said.

Motives Questioned

Once the federal incentives were offered, however, states were dogged by questions about their primary motives in adopting the standards, especially since the recession left them strapped for money.

They tried to boost their chances of winning a slice of the federal reform pie by enacting laws that raised charter school caps, established performance-based teacher-evaluation systems, and embraced other measures favored by the U.S. Department of Education, which is awarding the competitive grants. Likewise, some states went out of their way to adopt the standards by Aug. 2 for maximum Race to the Top points.

In more than 30 states, standards adoption is the province of state boards of education. And some boards, such as those in Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada, moved their anticipated adoptions from August to June or July. The Florida board of education discussed the common standards at its June 15 meeting, but its next gathering won’t be until Sept. 21, so it has set up a July 27 conference call to adopt the common standards, according to a state education department spokeswoman.

Four states—Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia—wanted to endorse the common core even though it wasn’t completed, so they adopted it provisionally, contingent on review of the final version. (“In National First, Kentucky Adopts Common Standards,” February 24, 2010.)

A few states passed special laws. Normal standards-adoption procedure in Oklahoma involves the state school board, the governor, and the legislature, said Assistant Superintendent Cindy Koss. But in late May, lawmakers approved a measure aimed squarely at the timeline issue: They instructed the state board to adopt the standards by Aug. 1. The panel did so June 24. The governor and the legislature still must concur.

In Maine, the approval of the legislature and the schools chief is required for new standards, but the legislature was to be in recess for much of the summer. Before adjourning in the spring, lawmakers approved a bill that endorses the education commissioner’s use of her existing legal authority to adopt the common standards on an emergency basis. No date is set for that adoption yet. The legislature is to consider the matter once it reconvenes in January.

State education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the measure sent a key signal to evaluators of the state’s Race to the Top application by expressing the legislature’s commitment to the new standards.

‘Due Diligence’

Some states dropped out of the Race to the Top competition or decided not to apply, exempting them from pressure to adopt the common core by Aug. 2. Advocates of the common-standards initiative view adoptions by such states as symbolically important in decoupling the value of the standards from federal incentives.

Wyoming knew by early March that it did not win Race to the Top money in the first round and chose not to compete in the second round. But the state adopted the common standards in June.

Board Chairwoman Sandra Barton said that panel members and state education department officials discussed and got feedback on the drafts as they evolved. And the timing was perfect, she said, because the state had begun its cyclical standards review.

“We didn’t need to hurry, and we took our time, and we were well informed,” Ms. Barton said. “In Wyoming, our decision was not about Race to the Top. It was about what was good for Wyoming.”

Emma Atchley, a state board member in Idaho, which competed in the first but not the second round of Race to the Top, said she is glad her state now has a longer timeline to consider the standards. The board has discussed them at previous meetings and will do so again in August before conducting public hearings and voting, she said. The state legislature must also approve standards in Idaho.

The freedom to disregard the Aug. 2 date “has given us time to do what we consider our due diligence in adopting standards,” Ms. Atchley said.

Little Opposition

Among the states that have already adopted the common standards, the move has touched off little controversy. New Jersey was an exception. In the Garden State, some people concerned about math education objected, arguing that the math standards were not as rigorous as the state’s current expectations.

Joseph G. Rosenstein, a math professor at Rutgers University in Piscataway who helped shape New Jersey’s math standards in 1996 and 2002, said he feels the state board didn’t sufficiently consider his concerns, and those of other experts, before voting June 16 to adopt the new standards.

“It was extraordinary,” he said. “The standards came out in early June, and two weeks later, they sign on the dotted line for it. Deciding so quickly, to me, is irresponsible. It was like it was a done deal, a foregone conclusion.”

New Jersey state board member Ronald K. Butcher said that Mr. Rosenstein and the group he helps lead, the New Jersey Math and Science Education Coalition, had expressed their views to the board, its staff members, and Commissioner Bret Schundler, and that they were duly evaluated.

“It’s not that we didn’t deal with his concerns,” Mr. Butcher said. “We just disagree with him.”

The board had reviewed each draft of the standards as it was circulated to the states, he said, so the members were informed and ready to vote.

Some activists fear that swift adoptions are squeezing out public input.

In Illinois, which adopted the common standards June 24, Bev Johns complained that there was “no public outreach” about the pending adoption. As chairwoman of a group that advocates for special education students, Ms. Johns worries about how the new expectations will affect such students.

Since only three weeks passed between the issuance of the final standards and the Illinois board’s vote, she wrote in an e-mail to Education Week, “almost no one in Illinois has read them. There are hundreds and hundreds of pages of standards and explanations of standards. So why are they being adopted without broad input from Illinois parents, teachers, administrators, and others?”

Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois board of education, said the state department has publicized its involvement in the common-standards initiative, and posted an official notice of the meeting agenda on the department’s website in advance. The department is now receiving public comment, she said, and could use that feedback for possible amendments in September.

In most states that have adopted the common core, however, little opposition has been expressed.

Among board members themselves, the chief concern has been the swift time frame for consideration, said Tony Shivers, the director of government affairs for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

States found the path to adoption smooth largely because of an “intense” engagement effort that involved governors, schools chiefs, state boards, and education departments; business, teacher, and parent organizations; and subject-matter groups, said Dane Linn, who is overseeing the common-standards endeavor for the NGA.

David Griffith, the director of public policy for ASCD, a nonprofit education leadership and professional-development group, said he is surprised that more states have not made high-profile announcements about their adoptions.

“The whole notion of national standards has been the third rail of education for two, three decades,” he said. “It’s a major accomplishment, completely revamping your K-12 math and English standards. I don’t understand why [states] are not playing it up more.”

He speculated that one reason for the relative lack of controversy is that to many people, “standards are somewhat abstract.” They will become clearer when curricula and tests are designed to reflect them, he said, predicting those would spark more debate.

Common-standards adoptions with more potential for controversy lie ahead, though.

Debate is heating up in California over the standards’ approach to studying Algebra 1 in 8th grade. Critics in Massachusetts argue that the common standards would water down their own, widely admired standards. And policymakers in some states, such as Colorado and Nebraska, fear adoption would mean a loss of state control over education decisions.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as States Adopt Standards at Fast Clip

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