Beware of Myths About Common Standards, Organizers Say

By Catherine Gewertz — February 19, 2010 3 min read
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One of the guys leading the common-standards initiative sat down in front of a roomful of state board of education members in Philadelphia yesterday and said, “I’m not from the federal government.” A wave of chuckles rippled through the room. But he was getting at something serious.

The quip by Chris Minnich, who is overseeing the common-standards work for the Council of Chief State School Officers, was intended to ease some of the skepticism about the initiative being led by CCSSO and the National Governors Association. He was appearing with the NGA’s David Wakelyn at the third in a series of regional meetings the National Association of State Boards of Education has been hosting to inform its members about the Common Core Standards Initiative.

Minnich was responding to grumbles that emerged at an earlier NASBE meeting that the common-standards initiative is an unwelcome federal intrusion into states’ education business. (See here for a story I wrote from that meeting, and two blog items, here and here.)

Minnich clarified that the initiative originated with states, not the federal government. And while the feds are certainly ardent supporters of the common-standards work—even offering Race to the Top incentives to states that support it—the initiative is not, not, not a federal initiative, he said.

In fact, Minnich wanted to make that point so clear that he urged state board members to ignore any pressure they might feel to adopt the standards by the deadline specified in the Race to the Top application.

“I encourage you not to let the Aug. 2 deadline drive you in your state,” he said. “I encourage you in these discussions to make sure you’re holding onto why you are doing this. If you’re chasing the 10 points on the Race to the Top application, I’m not sure that’s what you want to be doing.”

The only reason to adopt the standards, Minnich told the board members, is that they are “good for kids” because they set high expectations for all students, ensure that those standards will not vary state to state, and enable parents to know what their kids should master at each grade.

Wakelyn compared the potential value of the common standards to that of the invention of 110-volt electricity.

“Where we are now is like life in 1910,” he said. “Some firms used direct current, other firms used water wheels. There was a hodge-podge of standards of generating electricity. It was massively unsafe and not very productive. The development of 110 volt as a standard allowed us as a country to become more efficient and productive in our work. When you have common standards, the result is you can develop all kinds of appliances, materials, that plug into it. ... Productivity should increase.”

Minnich also sought to blow away a semantic confusion. The CCSSO and NGA effort is producing content standards, he said, not curriculum and not performance standards (determinations of how to gauge whether students have mastered the content). He’s heard that some folks think the movement is about dictating national curriculum. Nope, he said: “Beware conversations that are not based in reality.”

A member of NASBE’s government-affairs committee complained that state board members are not being actively engaged in the common-standards process. And for that, Minnich flat-out apologized.

“That was a mistake on our organizations’ part,” he said. “We should have had them there from the beginning. We need to work to rectify that situation ... We are committed to doing what we need to do to make you feel you are involved and you can inform the content.”

It seems, also, that the timeline for the first public draft of the grade-by-grade standards has stretched again. First anticipated in December, then eased into January and February, Minnich now ventured that the draft would be available in the second week of March for three to four weeks of public comment. Then it will undergo more revision to incorporate that feedback before becoming final.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.