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46 States Agree to Common Academic Standards Effort

By Michele McNeil — June 01, 2009 5 min read
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Forty-six states—representing 80 percent of the nation’s K-12 student population—have formally agreed to join forces to create common academic standards in math and English language arts through an effort led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The four states not on board, as of last week, were Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas.

“This is a giant step,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has been pushing states to adopt common, rigorous standards. “It would have been unimaginable, this kind of thing, just a year or two ago.”

As for those states holding out, he said: “I’m not focused on politics, but there’s plenty of time” for them to sign on.

In each of the 46 states, both the governor and the chief education officer signed a memorandum of agreement committing to the process and development of voluntary, common standards—the tangible result of a daylong meeting in Chicago in April. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have also agreed to take part.

“It’s going to take both the governor and the chief to get this work done,” said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the Washington-based NGA’s Center for Best Practices. “This is really becoming an economic and a moral imperative. We can’t afford to keep operating in a vacuum.”

The groups plan to pursue their aggressive timeline of getting college- and career-readiness standards—those things students should know by the time they finish high school—in draft form for states and eventually the public to review in July. Grade-by-grade standards—which the organizers are also calling “learning progression standards”—are set to be done in December.

Working groups composed of representatives from the Washington-based group Achieve, the New York City-based College Board, and ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based organization that administers the college-entrance test of that name, will develop the standards.

Both the NGA and the CCSSO plan to create a “validation” committee made up of independent national and international experts in content standards to review and comment on the drafts. The experts will be nominated by states and organizations, but ultimately chosen by those two organizations.

Once the standards are agreed to, it will be up to the states to get them adopted. The signed memo stipulates that the common core must represent at least 85 percent of a state’s standards, and that the common core needs to be adopted within three years.

The memo also spells out that the governors’ association and the state chiefs’ council will convene a “national policy forum” to facilitate the sharing and coordination of this standards effort. The forum will include the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Business Roundtable, the National School Boards Association, the Council of the Great City Schools, the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Leadership and Policy, and the National Association of State Boards of Education.

One influential organization that focuses on subject matter, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, released a statement last week asking that state officials, in trying to craft national standards, consider the work that group has already done.

“We hope that in this fast-moving political movement [NCTM’s work] is not forgotten,” NCTM President Henry Kepner said. “We’ve been through many of the [issues] that the standards document is going to produce. … we’ve grown and learned.”

Lengthy Process

The 46-state commitment follows an April 17 meeting in Chicago that drew representatives from 41 states. The one-day summit was meant to get education chiefs and governors’ policy advisers in a room to learn about the effort, and eventually to commit to it. (“NGA, CCSSO Launch Common Standards Drive,” April 20, 2009.)

“We didn’t want them to join in a cavalier way,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based CCSSO. “It’s time for a very serious effort.”

A primary goal is to eliminate the patchwork of academic standards across the country that result in students in the same grades learning different things in different states. The effort also is intended to devise a more rigorous common set of academic targets, and then internationally benchmark them.

But that isn’t a persuasive argument for officials in Texas, which just approved new English and math standards, and developed and ordered new testing materials and textbooks as a result. Switching gears could cost the state up to $3 billion, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson.

“The economic reasons [for holding out] are substantial,” she said.

In South Carolina, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford said that the state has a separately elected superintendent of education, and that Gov. Sanford, a Republican, deferred to Superintendent Jim Rex to make the decision.

“The governor does not have a role in implementing education policy,” spokesman Joel Sawyer said.

But even though Mr. Rex, a Democrat, has signed on, Gov. Sanford will still not sign the agreement, Mr. Sawyer added.

Pete Pillow, a spokesman for the education superintendent, said the state education department is already preparing to pursue the common standards even if South Carolina isn’t officially part of the larger group.

Missouri isn’t necessarily holding out for good, but is currently searching for a new education chief. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, wanted to wait until a new chief is on board, which will probably be this summer, said spokesman Scott Holste.

In Alaska, Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, said in a press release that although the state isn’t participating, it will “monitor” the situation. “If this initiative produces useful results, Alaska will remain free to incorporate them in our own standards,” she said.

For states that are forging ahead, there could be a financial payoff.

Chiefs and governors have their eyes on federal economic-stimulus money in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, authorized as part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Secretary Duncan will dole out in the form of competitive grants to states. Mr. Duncan and President Obama are pushing for voluntary common content standards.

Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week

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