Federal Opinion

The Death of Quality by Consensus

By Quentin Suffren — July 21, 2009 5 min read
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At last, it’s official: What was a call for common standards is now a full-fledged movement. Leading it are the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, which plan to create a set of common standards in English language arts and math, with grade-by-grade progression standards, by year’s end—an incredibly ambitious undertaking. Their aim is to fashion sets of clearer and more-rigorous standards aligned with college- and workplace-readiness expectations. Given the crowd that attended the meeting to launch the effort, representing 40 or so states, it’s safe to say that interest in common standards runs high.

For good reason. More than seven years into the No Child Left Behind era, it’s become painfully evident that there are numerous interpretations of “accountability” across just as many states (a recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “The Accountability Illusion,” sizes this up well). At the core of this inconsistency are the almost 50 sets of state content standards, many of which are mediocre in quality, that mandate course expectations for kindergarten through grade 12. These standards serve as the foundation for course curricula, but in too many states they are capricious, bloated, and unwieldy.

Fortunately, most people can now agree that algebra or biology course content shouldn’t vary by much from one place to another. Education policy types of every political shade and interest have been more or less in unison with this approach for some time. And educators are clamoring for greater clarity and quality in these all-important guides for student instruction.

That the CCSSO and the NGA have undertaken this task—not an easy one—is a sure sign that progress is being made. We certainly wish them success, but more importantly, we hope that they get it right—particularly for these first sets of standards, which form the basis of understanding for all other subjects. Indeed, this movement for common standards will be judged by the products of its efforts, not its laudable intentions. While many agree on the need for them, there will be serious disagreements about what these common standards should look like. Sure, consensus might be achieved on some of the issues, but at what cost? Consider just a few burning questions (yes, there are burning questions in math and English language arts) that drafters must address in these documents.

In Math:

• Will the standards adhere to the guidelines (sound ones, too) articulated by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Curriculum Focal Points? Both would winnow bloated math standards to focus more deeply on content and skills that prepare students for algebra.

If it doesn’t make sense to have 50 sets of standards, does it somehow make sense to have 50 different state tests—or, more important, 50 different interpretations of what constitutes ‘proficiency’ on these tests?”

• Will these math standards fall on the issue of instructional approach? How much time should be spent on working algorithms vs. solving “real world” problems? And what will be the sequence for imparting strong number sense: automaticity of facts and then conceptual understanding, vice versa, or both approaches combined? These may seem like esoteric matters, but they have been a major bone of contention in the long-running “math wars.”

• Will these math standards assume that all students should be algebra-ready by 8th grade? This approach would certainly go a long way toward cleaning up substandard middle-level standards, but there is little agreement about whether it’s good for all students.

In English Language Arts:

• Will the document for English language arts be a set of content standards or a framework? The former includes explicit information about what should be taught; the latter focuses mainly on pedagogy, or how instruction should be delivered. Too many state standards are of the framework variety, and a move toward rigorous and specific content standards is long overdue.

• Will the English-language-arts document include specific references to or examples of grade-level-appropriate texts for reading?

• In grades K-2, how much emphasis will be placed on explicit phonics instruction as opposed to whole-language strategies for reading? Though rigorous research has shown that phonics-based instruction yields results, particularly for low-income students, constructivist approaches to reading still abound.

• In middle and high school, will the document mandate teaching of specific literary traditions and full courses in American, British, and world literature? Many standards are silent on this issue—a fact that has allowed second-rate literature to become the focus of instruction in too many classrooms.

In Both:

• Will the drafters bow to advocates of so-called 21st-century skills and incorporate “soft skills” such as collaboration and media literacy into the document? I sure hope not. Despite their catchy buzzwords, these advocates have already taken quite a beating in the press—and for good reason. The last thing we should want for K-12 education is another distraction from what many students and teachers sorely need: deeper content knowledge. Without it, “skills” tend to become a moot point.

• If course-content standards represent “what’s tested” by state assessments, what will be the relationship between these new documents and individual state tests? If it doesn’t make sense to have 50 sets of standards, does it somehow make sense to have 50 different state tests—or, more important, 50 different interpretations of what constitutes “proficiency” on these tests? (OK, so the latter questions won’t be tackled soon, but they should be answered.)

How these and other issues are addressed will likely affect which states choose to adopt the new sets of common standards. They have already shown their ability to make or break coalitions and pit groups of educators against each other. Moreover, how these and other issues are addressed will also affect the quality of the standards themselves. For everyone’s sake, surely the CCSSO and the NGA will lean on documents that have been widely recognized as excellent: the standards of Massachusetts, Indiana, and those created by the nonprofit group Achieve Inc., to name a few.

All of this leads to one final point about this worthwhile endeavor: Process matters. By process, I mean the character of these committees and how they do their work. Presuming that those named on July 1 as members of the panels are the best and brightest, rather than the most credentialed and least offensive, the way the documents are produced will be crucial. Will there be a high level of transparency? Will those involved risk offending certain groups or factions in the name of quality and rigor? Will they avoid the “death-of-quality-by-consensus” approach that too many states adopt for their standards process?

To be sure, this common-standards movement represents an immense opportunity to affect K-12 education for the better. But when it comes down to it, the success of the effort will depend on “who’s in the room” and just how willing the CCSSO and the NGA are to buck consensus, when needed, to achieve excellence.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week


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