Federal

Subject-Matter Groups Want Voice in Standards

By Sean Cavanagh — June 15, 2009 9 min read

Some of the country’s largest subject-matter groups are worried they will be ignored in the process of setting national academic standards that is now under way.

Major professional teaching associations have long wielded broad influence over curriculum and instruction through their publication of voluntary national standards spelling out what students need to know.

Now, a coalition of state leaders has begun working on a separate effort to craft common academic standards, in the hope of bringing unprecedented cohesion to the reading and math curricula of American schools.

Top officials from influential math and reading organizations voiced concerns last week about not having a more defined role in the “Common Core” project being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Forty-six states have formally agreed to take part in that venture, which is aimed at devising voluntary standards in math and language arts. Yet so far, it has not directly involved a number of the country’s largest professional education associations, including the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, based in Reston, Va.

Earlier this month, the NCTM released a statement of principles about math curriculum, which also outlined the organization’s extensive history of writing standards.

“The continuing discussions about common core standards or a national curriculum should be based on the work that has already been done,” NCTM President Henry S. “Hank” Kepner Jr. said in a statement. Those working on standards, he added, “should take advantage of what has already been carefully crafted by a consensus of mathematics teachers, teacher leaders, mathematics educators, mathematicians, and researchers.”

And in interviews with Education Week, top officials from two subject-matter associations focused on language arts, the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, expressed concerns about their lack of input in Common Core.

The IRA, an 85,000-member organization based in Newark, Del., would also like to be more involved, said Richard M. Long, its director of government relations. The group, which calls itself the “world’s leading organization of literacy professionals,” hopes to contribute because it wants Common Core to succeed, he said.

“There need to be involved discussions across all our communities,” Mr. Long said. “We really hope their leadership is not single-dimensional.”

‘Going to Be Inclusive’

NGA and CCSSO officials say they have no desire to exclude the subject-matter organizations. They attributed the groups’ limited roles so far primarily to Common Core’s initial focus on the transition from high school to college. As the standards effort moves into earlier secondary and elementary grades, the groups’ role will likely increase, said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices.

“This process is going to be an inclusive one,” he said. Subject-matter organizations, he said, “will be included in many different ways, some more formally than others.”

At the same time, Mr. Linn added, Common Core leaders are determined to draft standards based on the best available research about effective math and reading curricula, rather than the opinions of any single organization.

“It’s important to us to create a range of views,” he said, but at the same time, “the focus has to be on the evidence.”

This past weekend, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared to add momentum to the Common Core effort when he announced that he would allow $350 million in federal economic-stimulus funds to go to states to help them craft tests to match the proposed standards. The spending would come from a pool of stimulus money known as the Race to the Top fund. (“More Details Emerging on Race to the Top Fund,” June 15, 2009.)

The United States has a long tradition of local control over curriculum. Attempts by the federal government to establish national standards, even on a voluntary basis—most recently during the Clinton administration in the 1990s—have met with resistance on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

Groups such as the NCTM have filled the void. The organization in 1989 published “Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics,” a set of voluntary standards, which was updated and revised in 2000. Those documents have shaped math instruction in U.S. classrooms for nearly 20 years. Teachers and curriculum specialists organize lessons and professional development around the standards.

Perhaps more importantly, the NCTM’s blueprints have also influenced individual states’ math standards and tests and the development of curricula and textbooks put forward by publishers and academic scholars.

Along the way, the NCTM has absorbed significant criticism from parents and others, a camp that contends that the organization’s guidelines promote “fuzzy math” and nontraditional strategies at the expense of basic skills.

The math teachers’ group won praise from many of its detractors, however, with the 2006 publication of “Curriculum Focal Points,” which sought to define a set of priorities for math curriculum in pre-K-8. The association is scheduled to release a similar document for secondary math later this year.

Standards and Measures

The NCTM and other subject-matter groups also influence teaching in other ways—publishing classroom resources, staging conferences and professional-development workshops, and churning out position statements and other documents for their members.

The IRA and the 50,000-member National Council of Teachers of English jointly published their own set of standards in 1994, “Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing.” The two organizations’ published a separate set of voluntary standards for academic content, titled “Standards for the English Language Arts,” in 1996.

Kent Williamson, the executive director of the NCTE, based in Urbana, Ill., said his group, like the reading association, regards Common Core as “exciting,” though he is disappointed the organization has not been asked to do more.

“We have something positive to contribute, and we haven’t been consulted so far,” he said, though he was optimistic that could change.

The role of subject-matter associations, however, raised hackles during the standards push of the 1990s. Clinton administration officials initially commissioned the NCTE to draft voluntary language arts standards, but then cut off funding, citing overly vague content. (The NCTE later partnered with the IRA, and they completed the project on their own.)

Many other groups’ stabs at writing standards for their subjects ran relatively smoothly. But an effort to draft history standards sparked controversy when critics, including Lynne V. Cheney, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which underwrote the project, complained that the content was too critical in its view of U.S. history and biased against the West in world history. The history documents were revised.

Mr. Williamson said one lesson from that era was that “top-down reform doesn’t work” in drafting standards. Without the involvement of professional organizations, he said, teachers might come to regard the Common Core process with the same level of mistrust with which many view the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Quest for ‘Evidence’

So far, the NGA and the CCSSO have asked working groups made up of representatives of three different organizations to write the standards: Achieve, a Washington-based group made up of state policymakers and business leaders; act Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit organization that runs the college-entrance exam of the same name; and the College Board, the New York City-based sponsor of the sat admissions exam and the Advanced Placement program. (“46 States Agree to Common Academic Standards Effort,” June 8, 2009.)

Mr. Linn, and the CCSSO’s executive director, Gene Wilhoit, said those organizations were chosen because of their extensive work on the K-12-to-college transition. The governors’ and state schools chiefs’ groups also plan to name members of a “validation” committee, nominated by states and organizations, shortly. NGA and CCSSO officials could not say who would serve on that panel, though Mr. Wilhoit said members would be expected to be familiar with the work of the NCTM and other organizations.

“We’ve gotten to this point in standards development because of the work of these groups,” Mr. Wilhoit said. “I would see a continuing role for NCTM and IRA, in terms of providing direction for the future.”

After tackling reading and math, the Common Core effort is likely to turn to science and social studies, the NGA and CCSSO officials said last week.

But Mr. Linn and Mr. Wilhoit also drew a distinction between the professional associations’ voluntary standards and the Common Core endeavor.

Previous standards have been forged largely through a “consensus process” based on expert opinion, Mr. Wilhoit said. The goal of Common Core is to continually seek to “apply evidence to the process” of crafting reading and math standards, he said. Focusing on that goal, rather than seeking a “single answer” about standards from any one entity, could help Common Core avoid some of the controversy that emerged during the 1990s, Mr. Wilhoit said.

But identifying high-quality evidence is no easy task. The math and reading communities have endured years of fractious debates over what constitutes rigorous evidence about effective curricula. The available evidence, moreover, strikes many experts as lacking.

For instance, members of the White House-commissioned National Mathematics Advisory Panel, convened by President George W. Bush’s administration to study effective classroom strategies in math, reviewed 16,000 research publications before releasing a final report last year. At the end of that process, several of its members bemoaned the paucity of high-quality research in the subject.

Mr. Wilhoit of the ccsso acknowledged those uncertainties. But he said Common Core would nonetheless pursue solid research “to the degree we can” and acknowledge where it doesn’t exist.

Representatives of the math, reading, and English teachers’ associations said, meanwhile, they see their involvement in Common Core as crucial for another reason: The many thousands of educators they represent are going to have to embrace the new standards, if they’re going to have an impact.

“Standards only take you so far,” said the NCTE’s Mr. Williamson. “What matters are highly developed teaching and skills, and having an array of strategies. ... That’s really our role, to help the teacher improve.”

NGA and CCSSO officials seem to agree. Mr. Wilhoit said Common Core’s influence could be “very powerful” if it has both the political backing of state leaders and buy-in from teachers.

“The implementation of these standards will matter more than anything else,” Mr. Linn said, which is why professional organizations, will need to be involved “in many different ways.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Subject-Matter Groups Want Voice in Standards

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