New Standards Draft Offers More Details

By Sean Cavanagh — September 25, 2009 8 min read
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The latest draft of proposed common academic standards offers more-detailed expectations of what students should know and be able to do by the end of high school in math and language arts, but also notes that some decisions about curricula should be left to individual states and schools.

The new version, released for public comment last week, is meant to provide guidelines for determining “college and career readiness” for students around the country.

“You’ll find greater consistency across both documents,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of two organizations leading the project. “Our sense is we were able to hold on to our goal.”

As with an earlier version, the new draft drew both praise and criticism.

Several education advocacy groups said the document, which is divided into two main sections for each of the subjects, would help forge a path toward establishing clearer, more logical expectations in states and schools. Others took issue with features of it, questioning, for instance, why some texts and not others are presented as examples of the kinds of materials students need to understand to be ready for college and the workplace.

Forty-eight states have agreed to take part in the effort, known as Common Core, whose goal is to establish more-uniform expectations for the nation’s students, in contrast to the wide variations in academic standards among states today.

Along with the CCSSO, the National Governors Association, through its Center for Best Practices, is heading up the venture.

Teams of working groups appointed by the CCSSO and the NGA have drafted the language arts and mathematics standards. The groups consist mostly of representatives of Achieve, a Washington policy organization founded by governors and business leaders, as well as the New York City-based College Board and ACT Inc., of Iowa City, Iowa, sponsors of the nation’s two major college-admissions tests. Committees of outside experts reviewed them.

The new draft is being put out for public comment until Oct. 21. After that, the standards will be reviewed by a “validation committee,” whose 25 members were named last week.

As the college- and career-readiness standards move ahead, CCSSO and NGA officials also will begin work this fall on a second phase: devising a separate set of standards for grades K-12.

Validating the Standards

Leaders of the common-standards effort last week named 25 members of a “validation committee” who will review the expectations for college and career readiness. State and national organizations nominated the members; final selections were made by a group of six governors and six chief state school officers.

• Bryan Albrecht, president, Gateway Technical College, Kenosha, Wis.

• Arthur Applebee, distinguished professor, Center on English Learning & Achievement, school of education, State University of New York, Albany

• Sarah Baird, K-5 math coach, Kyrene school district, Tempe, Ariz.

• Jere Confrey, professor, college of education, North Carolina State University

• David T. Conley, professor, college of education, University of Oregon

• Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education, Stanford University

• Alfinio Flores, professor of mathematics education, University of Delaware

• Brian Gong, executive director, Center for Assessment, Dover, N.H.

• Kenji Hakuta, professor of education, Stanford University

• Feng-Jui Hsieh, associate professor of the mathematics department, National Taiwan Normal University

• Jeremy Kilpatrick, regents professor of mathematics education, University of Georgia

• Barry McGaw, professor and director of Melbourne Education Research Institute, University of Melbourne (Australia); director for education, Organization for Economic Coooperation and Development

• James Milgram, professor emeritus, Stanford University

• P. David Pearson, professor and dean, graduate school of education, University of California, Berkeley

• Stanley Rabinowitz, senior program director, assessment and standards-development services, WestEd

• Lauren Resnick, professor of psychology and cognitive science, learning sciences, and education policy, University of Pittsburgh

• Andreas Schleicher, head of indicators and analysis division of OECD education directorate

• William Schmidt, university distinguished professor, Michigan State University

• Catherine Snow, professor of education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

• Christopher Steinhauser, superintendent, Long Beach Unified School District

• Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform, University of Arkansas

• Dorothy Strickland, professor of education emerita, National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University

• Martha Thurlow, director, National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota

• Norman Webb, senior research scientist emeritus, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison

• Dylan William, deputy director, Institute of Education, University of London

SOURCES: Council of Chief State School Officers; National Governors Assocation

After the standards are revised and in final form, the participating states will be expected by early next year to each submit a timeline and process for approving them. Mr. Wilhoit said states would be asked to consider the final college- and career-readiness and K-12 standards at the same time.

The progress on the revised document pleased U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who, through proposed federal rule-making, has encouraged states to adopt common standards.

The proposed college- and work-readiness standards mark “an important step forward,” Mr. Duncan said in a statement. “It is now in the hands of the public to provide critical feedback to state leadership. There is no work more important than preparing our students to compete and succeed in a global economy, and it is to the credit of these states that this work is getting done.”

‘Exemplar’ Reading

An earlier draft of the career- and college-readiness standards was leaked on the Web in July. Since then, the most significant changes to the document have come in language arts, which has been beefed up and partially reorganized.

More work was needed on the language arts section because of disagreements about the draft and the feedback writers received from outside reviewers, according to Mr. Wilhoit and Chris Minnich, the CCSSO’s director of standards. The authors wrestled over how specific or general they should make the standards, and how to write them in a way that was clear to parents, teachers, and the public, they said.

The language arts document presents “strands” of skills for reading, writing, and speaking and listening, and discusses how those skills should be applied in conducting research or using various media. It also offers “illustrative texts” meant to serve as “exemplars”of the level of complexity students should be able to handle to be prepared for college or work.

The earlier draft included just four illustrative texts: portions of the Declaration of Independence, a short story by Katherine Mansfield, a science text, and a sample business memo. The new draft expands that list to include not only the Declaration of Independence, but also passages from Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice; Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain”; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”; Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize lecture; the front page of The New York Times on April 15, 1865, the day after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; and a business memo; science and financial texts.

Local and State Decisions

Those texts are not meant to provide prescriptive guidance on curriculum or on how to teach, the document says, nor do the standards include a required reading list.

“Many important decisions about curriculum will necessarily be left to states, districts, schools, teachers, professional organizations, and parents,” it says.

Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington organization that advocates a content-rich curriculum (and is not part of the standards effort of the same name) said the document has been improved significantly since the last draft. She praised language calling for students to “build a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance.”

But Ms. Munson questioned the inclusion of business texts and newspaper stories as exemplars. Schools should teach documents that are of “rare quality,” like the Austen novel and Dr. King’s letter, she argued.

“It has an undermining effect,” Ms. Munson said of the business and workplace documents. Students who can follow great literature and historical documents “are going to be more than capable of understanding a business memo.”

Mel Riddile, a former high school principal and now the associate director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va., disagreed. Too manystudents study literature, as they should, yet are lost when they confront basic workplace documents like technical manuals, he said. Mr. Riddile served on the panel that released a report this month on adolescent literacy.

“We talk about a rigorous and relevant curriculum. That means relevant to the world that [students] live in,” he said.

Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University who has studied college and workforce preparation, argued that the draft standards gloss over the differences in skills required by two- and four-year colleges and technical programs and in those required for different jobs. The authors seem to assume that those skills are similar, yet the document doesn’t present enough evidence to back up that premise, Mr. Kirst said. “There is essentially no distinction between college and the workplace,” he said.

Mr. Kirst has advised state boards of education that will eventually be asked to approve the standards. He predicted that state officials would resist the standards if they think they present college and workforce skills as “one size fits all.”

‘Mathematical Practice’

The CCSSO and the NGA found there was more consensus in math than in language arts, and as a result, fewer changes were made to the math section, Mr. Minnich said. The most significant alteration may have been establishing a new standard, “mathematical practice,” generally defined as the thinking, habits, and strategies through which “proficient students approach mathematics.”

The document also lists 10 separate standards for math content in areas such as number, equations, probability, and statistics. The proposed standards cite research on curricula in high-performing nations in calling for important topics to be taught in more depth. The authors note that math faculty members at colleges have complained that high school students merely “survey advanced topics” in math, rarely mastering them.

Zalman Usiskin, a math-textbook author from the University of Chicago, said he admired aspects of the draft, but wished it placed more emphasis on the practical math students encounter in finance, medicine, and other areas.

“What’s missing is this whole notion of literacy and citizenship and solving problems you see in life, rather than just mathematical problems,” said Mr. Usiskin, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Chicago.

Hank Kepner, the president of the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, was on a committee that reviewed the document. He credited the authors for responding to criticism of the document. And he was pleased with its emphasis on mathematical practices, or helping students come up with different problem-solving methods.

One challenge for the CCSSO and the NGA, Mr. Kepner argued, would be to make it clear to states and schools that math standards are broad academic expectations andnot meant to say, “This is all everyone needs.”

For instance, in strong academic settings, he said, some students could finish the Common Core expectations “by the end of 10th grade or junior year.”

The nctm official also said the timeline to set standards is overly ambitious. “The pace they have intended for it is just unbelievable to me,” Mr. Kepner said.

States could soon have a strong incentive to take the Common Core standards process seriously. The Obama administration has proposed giving states that adopt common standards a competitive advantage in seeking federal aid as part of the $4 billion Race to the Top Fund. (“Criteria Seen as Too Restrictive in Quest for ‘Race to Top’ Funds,” Sept. 16, 2009.)

As they work on the standards, CCSSO and NGA officials have said they are being guided by a search for the best available evidence of what works in math and language arts, rather than by unsupported opinion. Their draft documents reference studies and standards from the United States and abroad.

Since the earlier draft was unexpectedly made public, Mr. Minnich said, the CCSSO and the NGA have received 300 to 400 sets of comments. Cssso officials say they expect, and want, more public input.

“We’re entering a phase,” Mr. Wilhoit said, “where we’re going to reach out to a much broader audience.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week as New Standards Draft Offers More Details New Standards Proposal Offers More Details


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