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NGA, CCSSO Launch Common Standards Drive

By Michele McNeil — April 17, 2009 5 min read
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After years of debating the idea of national content standards, representatives from 41 states convened in Chicago today in what organizers hope will be a first, concrete step toward common guidelines in mathematics and English-language arts.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—the Washington-based groups that are co-sponsoring the meeting—want to build a prototype of high school graduation standards by summer, and grade-by-grade academic standards in math and language arts by the end of the year.

The undertaking would start with rigorous math and language arts standards that are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations and made available for states to adopt voluntarily.

Following the meeting states ready to support common standards were to be asked to put their commitment in writing within weeks.

“I’ve been in education for more than 35 years, and we’ve had major meetings that have called for progress before, but I see [this] meeting as the first step to really taking aggressive action,” Eric Smith, Florida’s education commissioner said in an interview Thursday.

It remains to be seen how significant a milestone the meeting will prove. The long path to national standards is often dated to 1983, with the release of A Nation at Risk, a report that warned the American education system was slipping into mediocrity and losing ground against international competitors.

Over the past quarter century, the push has advanced in fits and starts. For example, while then-President George H.W. Bush was in office, an advisory panel on education recommended national standards and national tests. That fizzled. In 1997, President Bill Clinton proposed creating national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics. Congress stopped that in its tracks.

More recently, at the state level, Washington-based Achieve has been working to improve and align standards in 34 states that are participating in its American Diploma Project.

Within the past few months, though, momentum on the issue has seemed to escalate.

In December, the NGA, the CCSSO, and Achieve released a report urging states to start pursuing an agenda of common standards. (“Common Academic Standards Get Influential Push,” Jan. 7, 2009.)

Then in March, the governors at their annual winter meeting adopted a policy endorsing common standards. (“National Standards Gain Steam,” March 4, 2009.)

At the federal level, common standards have been declared a priority by the Obama administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In fact, Mr. Duncan has said he wants to use part of the $5 billion in “Race to the Top” incentive funds included in the economic-stimulus package to help fuel the drive for common standards. (“To Duncan, Incentives a Priority,” Feb. 4, 2009).

A representative of the Education Department was slated to attend the Chicago meeting.

“I think this is really a milestone; we have never seen the states come together to commit to doing national standards,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been a vocal supporter for improving standards.

Commitment Varies

The 41 states that plan to take part in the meeting—which the organizers declined to name in advance—are to be represented by their state schools chiefs, the governor’s education adviser or policy staff, or all such parties.

Not all 41 states are ready to fully embrace common standards, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO. But some states—including Arkansas and Florida—are prepared to take the lead, and with their governors’ support.

Mr. Smith said he has the support of Florida’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, to actively pursue common standards.

T. Kenneth James, the Arkansas education commissioner and the president of the CCSSO, said his state is postponing a planned revision of the English-language arts standards pending the outcome of the standards effort. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, was to send two of his policy staff members to today’s meeting.

“It’s time we come together and take this to a higher level,” Mr. James said.

Other states that are likely to sign on would be Minnesota, where Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, has been supportive of common standards and international benchmarking, and Georgia, where GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue helps lead the NGA’s task force examining those two issues.

“It’s important to be clear about what the problem is: We have 50 different versions of what standards are, ... and that has led to a thick stack of standards that sit on teachers’ desks,” said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices. “The goal of this work is to bring states together in the hope that we are able to use the evidence to narrow that list of standards so that we have both higher expectations and a focused set of expectations.”

Even with this meeting, it’s clear there is a long way to go.

“There are a couple of important questions: Who is going to do the work? And if college readiness is going to mean anything, then the colleges need to be pretty heavily involved,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of low-income students.

“Having new standards does us exactly no good until we have curriculum and assessments that go with it,” Ms. Haycock said. “The big risk is: So we have standards. Now what?”

Still, she said she was optimistic about this latest effort to create common standards.

Mr. Wilhoit said the chiefs’ and governors’ staffs will work with groups already active in crafting rigorous, college-ready standards, such as Achieve, the New York City-based College Board, and act, the Iowa City-based organization that administers the college-entrance test. The chiefs’ and governors’ groups also will convene a group of “respected individuals” outside the two groups to comment on the standards as the process continues, Mr. Wilhoit said.

States that agree to go forward will then have to figure out how to get those new, common standards adopted—a process that can vary from state to state. Some may need to work with their legislatures, others through their state boards of education.

Finally, states will have to get those standards down to the district level and then onto teachers’ desks and into lesson plans.

“Some states will take a little bit longer than others,” Mr. Wilhoit said. “The question they’ll be wrestling with is: What will it take to put this in place?”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as NGA, CCSSO Launch Common Standards Drive

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