Revised Draft of ‘Common Core’ Standards Unveiled

By Sean Cavanagh — September 21, 2009 6 min read
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A revamped draft of proposed common academic standards for states offers more detailed expectations than an earlier version, though the document also says that some decisions about specific curricula and lessons should be left to individual states and schools.

The document, released for public comment today, is supposed to provide guidelines for determining “college and career readiness” in language arts and math for students across the country.

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 that exist among the states today.

Two organizations that work closely with states are leading the process: the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, through its Center for Best Practices.

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, as well as the New York City-based College Board and ACT Inc., of Iowa City, Iowa, which sponsor widely used college-admissions tests. Committees of outside experts reviewed the standards.

The current draft is being put out for public comment until Oct. 21. After that, the math and language arts standards will be reviewed by a “validation committee,” whose members will be named in the coming weeks.

“You’ll find greater consistency across both documents,” Gene Wilhoit, the CCSSO’s executive director, said of the new draft. “Our sense is we were able to hold onto our goal.”

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

‘Exemplar’ Reading

An earlier draft of the career- and college-readiness standards was leaked on the Web in July. The most significant changes to the document since then 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 comments that the authors received, said 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 labored to craft a document written in a way that made sense to parents, teachers, and the public, the CCSSO officials said.

The language arts document is divided into three sections. One section presents presents “strands” of skills for reading, writing, and speaking and listening. A second discusses how those skills should be applied in conducting research or using various media.

The third section presents supporting materials, or “illustrative texts.” Those reading materials are meant to serve as “exemplars”—texts with a level of complexity students should be able to handle to be ready for college or the workplace.

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 standards expand the 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 lecture; the front page of The New York Times on April 15, 1865, the day after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; business, science, and financial texts; and other materials.

Those texts are not meant to provide prescriptive guidance on curriculum, or how to teach, the standards document says.

“While this document defines the outcomes all students need to reach to be college- and career-ready,” it says, “many important decisions about curriculum will necessarily be left to states, districts, schools, teachers, professional organizations, and parents.”

The authors also say that while the standards call for students to read a broad range of complex texts, “this document does not contain a required reading list.” If states and districts choose to make such lists, they say, the standards are simply meant to provide guidance on the level of reading complexity expected.

The standards-writers did not believe it was appropriate to make decisions about particular reading materials for states or schools, Mr. Wilhoit said.

“I can’t imagine us getting to the point of issuing a reading list,” he said.

Deep Math

Considerably more consensus has been reached so far among the authors of the math document, and as a result, fewer changes were made to this draft, Mr. Minnich said.

The most significant alteration, Mr. Minnich said, may have been establishing a new standard, called “mathematical practice,” defined in the document as the ways in which “proficient students approach mathematics.” The draft also includes 10 separate standards for math content, or “organizing principles” in the subject, which include numbers, equations, probability, and statistics. The authors concluded that mathematical practice—generally defined as the thinking, habits, and strategies used by students to solve problems—was important enough to be singled out, Mr. Minnich said.

The proposed math-standards document cites research on the curricula of high-performing countries that shows those nations’ schools focus on fewer topics than U.S. schools. It also notes that college math faculty have called for high school courses that do not just “survey advanced topics” but also encourage students to probe content in greater depth.

“Evidence from many sources,” the document says, “shows that the next generation of standards in mathematics must be focused on deeper, more thorough understanding of more fundamental mathematical ideas and higher mastery of these fewer, more useful skills.”

Zalman Usiskin, a math-textbook author from the University of Chicago, said that he admired aspects of the document and that it had improved over an earlier version. But he also argued that the standards-writers’ focus on college and workforce skills results in other valuable math problems and concepts being neglected.

Mr. Usiskin, a professor emeritus of education, in particular wants to see discussion of the math used in finance, medicine, and other areas—rather than simply the kind that appeals to college mathematicians.

“What’s missing is this whole notion of literacy and citizenship and solving problems you see in life, rather than just mathematical problems,” Mr. Usiskin said. Those everyday math applications, he said, are “just not there.”

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

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, a pool of economic-stimulus money. (“Criteria Seen as Too Restrictive in Quest for ‘Race to Top’ Funds,” Sept. 16, 2009.)

As they write and revise 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. To that end, drafts of the Common Core standards so far have included references to studies and standards from the United States and abroad.

Since the earlier draft was unexpectedly made public in July, Mr. Minnich said, the CCSSO and the NGA have received between 300 and 400 sets of comments from individuals and organizations. CCSSO officials say they expect, and want, more public input in the weeks and months ahead.

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

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week

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