Special Report
International

Common-Core Standards Drew on Ideas From Abroad

By Catherine Gewertz — January 09, 2012 12 min read

In crafting a set of learning goals that nearly every state in the nation has embraced, the architects of the common-core standards effort sought to import from abroad key lessons about what top-performing countries teach their students.

To distill and articulate those goals, the common-core writers tried to balance the rigor, coherence, and focus they saw in the standards of high-achieving countries—and U.S. states—with the American tradition of respecting states’ and districts’ freedom to choose what they teach. All but four states have adopted the standards, taking the United States closer than ever before to having one shared set of academic expectations.

The standards, in mathematics and English/language arts, have their patrons and their detractors. Some see them as an admirably rigorous blueprint for the demands of work and college, while others argue that they ask too little, or too much, of students. Arguments persist about whether the standards—and common tests being designed with federal funds—will dictate curriculum and whether they reflect the right lessons from around the globe.

The organizations that propelled the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which represent governors and state schools chiefs, aimed to make the standards comparable to those of high-performing countries. Whether they succeeded is still being debated. But the common standards represent a major U.S. endeavor to learn from abroad.

“The common-core effort is a great example of leveraging lessons from other countries,” says Andreas Schleicher, who oversees analysis of education indicators at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based group that administers the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, and analyzes its results. “It’s about trying to understand what drives the success of other systems and adapting that to your own national context.”

Blending Models

The lead standards writers examined other countries’ standards or curricula, as well as international comparisons done by researchers, the Washington-based policy group Achieve, and by the groups that administer such tests as PISA; the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS; and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. They also drew on lessons from home, studying states with widely respected standards in one or both subjects, and research that reflects the skills and knowledge employers and higher education faculty find lacking in young people, from building solid arguments and working in teams to using math to solve real-world problems.

The math team started with an established knowledge base built by researchers such as Michigan State University’s William H. Schmidt, showing that American math standards covered more topics, in less depth, than did those of international high-performers such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, and repeated topics year after year.

According to William G. McCallum, a University of Arizona math professor who co-led the writing of the math standards, the writers drew on math standards from those countries and others, including Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan, and New Zealand, and states such as California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.

Chief among their goals was to craft standards that concentrated deeply on a few key concepts at each grade level and progressed from grade to grade in a logical way that reflected how mathematical knowledge builds, McCallum says.

In elementary school, for instance, the standards in high-performing Asian countries emphasize measurement, geometry, and number and operations, de-emphasizing concepts that would distract from that focus, such as collecting data and using it to build charts and graphs, he says.

Instead of topic strands that include every topic at every grade level, the standards writers created domains that span a limited number of grades, such as fractions for grades 3 to 5.

“The message is that you’re done with this in grade 5, and you’re moving on to the next thing,” McCallum says. “Rather than broad strands that go all the way through and sample everything, never quite bringing anything to completion, you focus on given things at given times.”

The writers also sought to synthesize thinking, internationally and at home, about the habits of mind students must acquire to be proficient in math. The “mathematical practices” section includes such skills as “attending to precision,” applying math to everyday problems, and critiquing others’ math arguments.

A particularly thorny area of the standards was algebra, McCallum says. The writers found that countries took varied approaches to the timing of content typically associated with an Algebra 1 course, he says. They “had to look at what was ambitious but also possible,” in consultation with states whose experts were collaborating on the standards, according to McCallum.

Although a few states, such as California, want all 8th graders to take Algebra 1, the writers decided to “strike a balance,” crafting guidelines that “get into serious algebra in 8th grade,” without requiring classic Algebra 1 elements such as quadratic equations, he says.

That choice, among others, stoked an argument that the common standards don’t meet international or university-preparation levels.

“It’s absolutely a mistake not to require all of Algebra 1 [content] in 8th grade. They’ve got very little of Algebra 2 in there,” says R. James Milgram, a professor emeritus of math at Stanford University. He served on the common standards’ validation committee, but refused to approve them, in part because in his judgment they did not meet their own stated criteria of being “comparable to the expectations of other leading nations.”

“In most high-performing countries, calculus is a high school graduation requirement,” Milgram says. “It’s almost a joke to think students [who master the common standards] would be ready for math at a university,” much less an elite one such as Stanford, where calculus is “considered remedial.”

Seeking ‘Takeaways’

In crafting the English/language arts standards, the writing team studied standards or curriculum from Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom; the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario; and the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria, among others, alongside those of U.S. states such as California and Massachusetts.

Joanne Eresh, a Pittsburgh-based consultant, helped lead the international comparison work on the literacy standards. Along with colleagues in math, she had begun the comparison work several years earlier at Achieve, which works through its American Diploma Project to upgrade states’ academic standards. The comparisons expanded under the common-standards initiative when Achieve began playing a central role in that project.

In literacy, Eresh found that many higher-performing countries place a greater emphasis on listening and speaking skills and on students’ ability to build arguments from evidence. Those emphases dovetailed with U.S. surveys of employers and college faculty, who find students weak at skills such as making oral presentations and writing persuasive, well-founded essays, she says.

As a result, the common standards zero in on students’ ability to draw evidence from text and use it to mount arguments. They define sets of speaking and listening skills, such as “propelling conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence.”

Another lesson from abroad, Eresh says, was the level of demand in the books recommended in countries’ standards or required in their curricula.

“They more often were books that are far less straightforward, with symbolism, or that juggle multiple plots, than what students read at a given grade level here,” she says. A “staircase” of increasing text complexity was built into the common standards.

Some countries—like some U.S. states—create detailed lists of recommended readings. In countries that administer a national gateway exam that carries high stakes for students, such as England, where the “A-level” exams influence college admission, “recommended” readings can unofficially become “required” readings if they are widely known to appear on the test, Eresh says.

‘Exemplar Texts’

The common-standards writers built a list of “exemplar” texts that illustrate the range and types of reading students should do to master the literacy skills in the standards, says Susan Pimentel, one of the team’s lead writers. Only four texts are required reading in the standards: the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

“The idea of putting together a required reading list for the nation is just a nonstarter,” Pimentel says. “We talked with the states to see how they felt about it. And they weren’t interested.”

There is no nationally mandated exam in U.S. schools, but two groups of states are in the early stages of designing voluntary, shared assessments for the common standards. Once those are in use, in about three years, every state in each consortium—more than 20 are currently in each—would use the same assessment. Many are keeping close tabs on the development of those tests, since they are likely to wield considerable power over what is taught.

A host of questions have been raised about the effort to import lessons from abroad when shaping U.S. standards.

Global Readings

Nations vary widely in the selection of reading and other language arts material that finds a home in the curriculum. In some cases, these are required texts; others show up on lists of recommended titles; and still others are offered as examples of literature that can satisfy academic standards and curricula.

In the United States, students in states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards are required to read the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Readings suggested for 11th or 12th grade include As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell; and “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry.

In Ontario, Canada, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is on the list of approved readings for grade 11 English classes.

New South Wales, Australia, requires 9th graders to read “The Lady of Shalott,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, a poem based on Arthurian legend, and at least one work by William Shakespeare.

In Hong Kong, students taking the English-literature section of a required secondary school exam must pick from an eclectic basket of selections, ranging from Shakespeare’s “Othello” and short stories by James Joyce and Edith Wharton to the iconic 1974 Hollywood film “Chinatown” and poems by Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes.

In England, required reading for the national English-literature exam taken by many 16-year-olds includes Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck; To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; and Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.

Sources: Common Core State Standards; International Reading Association; National Center on Education and the Economy

Sandra Stotsky helped shape the highly regarded standards in Massachusetts, and, like Milgram, a fellow member of the validation committee, refused to endorse the standards’ international comparability. She notes that leaders of the common-standards initiative now describe them as being “informed by” other countries, not “benchmarked” to those nations’ standards.

“ ‘Benchmarking’ means you use a set of agreed-upon criteria for judging something,” says Stotsky, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville. “To be ‘informed’ by other countries’ standards means simply that they were read. Some other countries are light years ahead of what the common standards require for college readiness.”

Systemic View

Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the National Governors Association, which spearheaded the common-standards initiative with the Council of Chief State School Officers, says the international-comparison work was not a search for a “one-to-one match” between U.S. and foreign standards, but a blend of “multiple models,” including key ideas from other countries’ standards, as well as important takeaways from research and U.S. states’ standards.

What’s taught in schools is important, many experts say, but all parts of a country’s education system, including teacher training, assessment, and parental support, have to be harmonized to be effective.

“National standards could be right, but they’re not sufficient,” says Gary W. Phillips, who oversees large-scale assessment projects as a vice president at the Washington-based American Institutes of Research, and served on the advisory board for Quality Counts 2012. “You can look at high-performing countries’ standards, but it’s possible that some of the lowest-performing countries are doing some of what they’re doing, too. You have to look at an entire system, all of its elements. But none of it will work without the full commitment of an entire society to education.”

Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, conducted a study that found that standards—the broad statements of academic goals—have no measurable impact on school improvement, but that curriculum—what’s taught week to week in classrooms—does. Still, no one has isolated the effect of either one on countries’ international-exam performance, says Whitehurst, a former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm.

Phillips says he is examining many dimensions of countries’ education systems for their impact on performance on international exams. But he has found that simply having a national curriculum bears no relationship to performance.

Transforming academic standards into curriculum can take differing forms from country to country, but most high-performing ones leave schools and teachers considerable discretion in determining curriculum and accompanying materials, says Schleicher of the OECD.

Some set academic expectations at the national level, and others leave that work to states. What’s common to top-achieving countries, Schleicher says, is that their academic expectations are clear, high, and shared, and they are connected to “a deliberate chain of policies and practices” that ensure they are reflected throughout the system.

Finland, Canada

Finland, widely known for its rigorous, nationally set expectations, states those goals in spare terms at the national level, leaving its highly trained teachers to decide how to complete the picture. In Canada, which often ranks high on international exams, each province exerts control over its standards, curriculum, and tests, but the provinces’ chief education officers work together through the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, to examine education data and discuss academic expectations, says Andrew Parkin, the director general of the council.

Australia, even though it scores high on international tests, chose to move from a decentralized to a national approach on curriculum and assessment. Its national exams are now in their third year, and states and territories are adapting their curricula to them, says Ben Jensen, the director of the school education program of the Grattan Institute, a think tank in Victoria. A national curriculum is being phased in.

“We went in this direction to get some national consistency, because there is so much variation [in academic outcomes] from state to state,” he says.

However hotly debated, the U.S. common standards now represent the academic goals of nearly every state in the country. But a long road lies ahead to translate them into curriculum and instruction.

Because of popular opposition to one mandatory curriculum, as well as legal restrictions on the role of the U.S. government in curriculum, the outcome is likely to feature a marketplace of curricula and instructional materials crafted by private-sector developers, philanthropically backed groups, federally financed state consortia, and states and school districts. And that scenario has prompted some to question how well such a range of materials will reflect the standards they are designed to embody.

Whitehurst, of the Brookings Institution, says that difficult tradeoffs are involved when managing the alignment of standards and curriculum.

“The more opportunities you have for leaks in the bucket between the standards at the national level and what teachers are doing in the classroom, the less likely you are to find any effect” of those standards on learning, he says. “Having 15 curriculum choices is good from an innovation and choice perspective, but there will be less alignment between the standards and what’s being taught.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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