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Transparency of Common-Standards Process at Issue

By Sean Cavanagh — July 30, 2009 8 min read
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As the most concerted effort to create common academic standards in more than a decade rolls forward, the process has drawn criticism from those who say that too much of the nitty-gritty work is taking place behind closed doors.

The organizations leading the effort—the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, both headquartered in Washington—have assigned a pair of working groups to oversee the initial writing of the documents.

Those two panels have produced draft standards for college and career readiness in mathematics and English language arts. More-detailed guidelines for grades K-12 are expected to come later. Yet those groups’ deliberations have so far been deemed “confidential” and closed to the public by the NGA and CCSSO, which say there will be several opportunities for public input in the weeks and months ahead.

The Development Process: A Timeline

December 2008 — The Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, and Achieve release a report calling for states to adopt common, internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.

April 2009 — Representatives of 41 states gather in Chicago to discuss the possibility of common standards.

June 2009 — The CCSSO and NGA announce that 46 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, have signed memorandums of agreement to take part in the process of devising common standards.

July 2009 — Twenty-nine people are named to two “work groups” charged with writing the standards; 35 others are named to “feedback” groups to review and critique them. A “validation” committee will later review the work, the NGA and CCSSO say.

July 2009 — A draft of the groups’ college- and career-readiness standards is leaked on the Web and draws mixed reviews from subject matter experts.

(Projected)

September 2009 — The governors’ and chiefs’ organizations hope to have the college- and career-readiness standards approved by the validation committee.

December 2009 — Draft K-12 standards in language arts and math are to be publicly released.

January 2010 — K-12 standards are to be approved by the validation committee.

Early 2010 — States will submit timelines and processes for adopting the standards.

SOURCES: Education Week; Common Core Standards Initiative

Complaints about lack of transparency are common during the crafting of standards, curricula, and education policy reports at all levels. The criticism of the new standards effort—a process in which 46 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, have agreed to participate—comes after a draft of the document was leaked on the Web last week; that working version alternately drew praise and censure from those who read it.

NGA and CCSSO officials say the views of the public and outside experts will be taken seriously—and that such dialogue is, in fact, already occurring. The organizations have created a pair of “feedback” panels of experts, who along with state officials and outside organizations are poring over the draft. In addition, NGA and CCSSO officials say they are actively reaching out to state leaders and others for additional input.

Next month, a revised draft is scheduled to be put online for public consideration, said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices. The public also will have a chance to offer its views when the standards are presented to states, which will have to decide whether to adopt them, Mr. Linn noted. In most cases, that process will be directed by state boards of education, he said.

“There are multiple ways for individuals to be a part of this process,” Mr. Linn said in an interview last week. “We’ve created a structure that allows for a lot of public input.”

Outside Opinion

Yet, some parents and education organizations have questioned how much influence they can exert over a document that, so far, has been crafted behind closed doors.

The working groups of standards writers are made up mostly of representatives of Achieve, a Washington policy organization; and the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT and the New York City-based College Board, two organizations probably best known for developing college-admissions tests.

“The concern is that they’ll write it, and once it’s written, it’s set in stone,” said Barry Garelick, a Virginia parent who takes a strong interest in math standards and instruction. His view has been echoed by others, sometimes in commentaries on the Web.

While he was glad to see the NGA and CCSSO this month release the names of the experts writing and reviewing the standards, Mr. Garelick said, “We’re still concerned about why isn’t this process more open.”

Some of those who have been worried about the writing effort also credit the NGA and CCSSO with taking recent steps to allow more outside opinion.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview that “there needs to be a lot more transparency” about the drafting of the standards.

But the union leader said she had a “very productive” meeting with NGA and CCSSO officials recently and was cautiously optimistic that the process was opening up. Making it more public will increase the odds that teachers embrace the standards and help implement them, Ms. Weingarten said. The AFT plans to review the current draft and offer its opinions, she added.

Draft Common Core State Standards

Preamble

English

Math

“We need to make sure that this is a process that happens in real time, not 20 years from now,” said Ms. Weingarten, who has been advocating common academic standards.

Similarly, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Henry S. Kepner Jr., who earlier this summer raised concerns that his group’s past standards work was being ignored, said last week that the NGA and CCSSO had become more committed to gathering outside opinions. Mr. Kepner, whose Reston, Va.-based organization has 100,000 members, is serving on the math feedback panel tasked with reviewing the working draft.

“They have become much more open and engaging,” Mr. Kepner said of the NGA and CCSSO. “We’re establishing, I hope, a very trusting relationship.”

‘The Price We Paid’

A number of participants in the last major movement to create voluntary national academic standards, during the 1990s, described those processes as more open that the one being undertaken today. But those observers also noted the former efforts, which played out in across different subjects and were in some cases underwritten by the federal government, took several years to complete, and were marked by strong divisions over curriculum and content.

The drafting of history standards, for instance, “was about as open and democratic and transparent as possible,” recalled Gary B. Nash, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who co-directed that effort during the 1990s.

The initial writing of the history document was carried out by task forces of teachers and academic scholars, said Mr. Nash, who later co-wrote a book that described the undertaking. Members of the public were allowed to attend those initial meetings, Mr. Nash recalled, though he believed few people did. Much broader public discussion, and input from historians and curriculum experts, came later, during open meetings on the drafts, he said.

Yet Mr. Nash acknowledged that a wide-open process was at times difficult to manage. “Having [so many] organizations involved and having it be transparent is certainly not the most efficient way to get to the finish line,” he said. “It was the price we paid for trying to be inclusive.”

English standards were drawn up in a similarly open fashion, recalled Alan E. Farstrup, the retired executive director of the International Reading Association, which co-led the effort along with the National Council of Teachers of English. Teams of writers and reviewers went through numerous public drafts and revisions, he said.

The effort being directed by the NGA and CCSSO, Mr. Farstrup said, did not strike him as being “significantly different” in terms of its openness than the procedures that guided the work by English experts in the 1990s. While Mr. Farstrup said he saw public vetting of the document as important, he also said such input could occur during the review of the drafts to come.

“You can’t have a draft of anything developed by a committee of the whole,” Mr. Farstrup said. “It simply doesn’t work.”

Both the history and English standards drafted in the 1990s garnered praise and criticism. While each drew support from various subject-matter experts, detractors said the history document presented too negative a portrayal of the United States and the West; the English standards were accused of lacking a substantive focus on content.

Scott Montgomery, a deputy executive director at the CCSSO, said this week that his organization and the NGA have talked about “keeping [the process] as open as we could,” while also seeking to build consensus around a working document.

Ilene M. Berman, a program director in the NGA’s education division, added that from the outset, the goal has been to have a state-led effort, and as such, the views of policymakers at that level would be strongly considered.

“There is a built-in process for state and other input,” Ms. Berman said.

A Request for ‘Evidence’

The NGA and CCSSO collect money from states through membership dues, as well as revenue from other sources. But the common standards work is being paid for through the NGA’s Center for Best Practices, a 501(c)(3) entity that is funded primarily through grants from the federal government and private foundations as well as through contracts, according to the governors’ organization. The NGA regards the working groups’ efforts to write the standards as “working meetings” and closed to the public to protect “the integrity of the process,” the NGA said in a statement.

It’s common for tension to exist between government agencies and other organizations wishing to conduct certain business in private, and requests that such work be made more open, said John Wonderlich, the policy director for the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government, particularly through technology.

Opening up a process tends to invite more discord, he said, while privacy can make it easier to get things done. While there was probably not any legal standard that would compel the NGA and CCSSO to write the document in the open, Mr. Wonderlich said, a strong case could be made for them doing so voluntarily.

Education standards, because of their potentially broad influence, are “clearly something that the public has a right to know about,” he said.

But Mr. Linn, of the NGA, predicted that drafts of the standards would receive close scrutiny from both the feedback panels and the public. The NGA and CCSSO want to create a document based on “evidence,” shaped by model academic standards and research about important college and workforce skills, he said.

The draft circulated last week cites several such documents, including standards from individual U.S. states and high-performing countries, as well as studies and reports. Individuals and organizations are being encouraged to submit their own evidence, if they disagree with those documents, Mr. Linn said.

The end goal is to create a “structured process,” he said, in which views of the standards are informed by research. NGA and CCSSO officials expect that those drafting the standards will receive valuable insights from the feedback groups, state officials, and the public, which the working groups would take seriously.

“We want the feedback to be used,” Mr. Linn said, adding that the reviewers “represent a range of views on English language arts and math.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Transparency of Common-Standards Process at Issue

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