A Look at the Promises and Challenges of Common Standards—UPDATED

By Erik W. Robelen — July 24, 2009 6 min read
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As the Washington education policy community was abuzz yesterday over the leaked first draft of common standards being developed through an effort led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, the CCSSO’s executive director discussed the enterprise—its promise and challenges—during a forum at the National Press Club.

“The jury is still out on whether the United States of America can come together around common standards,” Gene Wilhoit said at the event hosted by the Educational Testing Service. ETS has just released a report to help inform the common-standards push, which I wrote about yesterday. At the same time, Mr. Wilhoit argued that despite previous failed attempts, “we have a much stronger readiness for reform than we’ve ever had, a much stronger incentive for states to move ahead, and an intolerant environment for continuing the way we’ve always operated. Those are pretty strong drivers.”

All that said, he noted that there’s a long way to go, even after the development of the new standards is complete, which is expected by December.

“It’s one thing for states to sign up for a commitment to help us develop these standards,” he said. The real key, he added, is what happens after that.

“One is developing the political will to pass these standards in the states,” he said. Other critical steps, he said, include having states “adjust their learning programs to support” the standards, redesigning state assessment systems to align with the standards, and ensuring educators are prepared to help students meet the standards. “All of those things are going to be important in the months and years that follow,” he said.

Mr. Wilhoit indicated that the list of states participating in the event is about to grow. Currently, 46 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have signed on to the process. The holdouts are Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas. While not naming names, he said two more will soon join.

Also speaking at the event, Bethany Little, the chief education counsel for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who chairs the Senate education committee, signaled that her boss and many other members of Congress are supportive of the effort.

“Congress is very aware of what’s going on, very interested,” she said, “and a lot of people are very excited.”

And yet, she cautioned that “it’s important to be realistic about what common standards will do, and what they won’t do. They’re not going to answer all questions … provide all solutions.”

“Most important,” she said, “what I think common standards won’t do is fix low-performing schools.”

In her remarks, Ms. Little also emphasized that common standards need not be a recipe for uniformity across states. “We shouldn’t pretend that having some set of standards requires all teachers in the country to teach the same way and for the curriculum to be standardized as well. There are lots of ways to teach the standards.”

For his part, Paul Barton, a senior associate at ETS who wrote the report that was the starting point for yesterday’s discussion, reiterated a number of points from the paper, including the challenges the initiative to develop national standards faces. These range from confronting the wide variations that exist across current state standards to coping with the extra attention and pressure from interest groups, as the effort inevitably fans the flames of controversy around such longstanding and heated debates as how best to teach reading and math, and how to handle evolution in science class, he said.

“When we try to settle [big] differences at the national level,” he said, “we elevate the stakes, and we open the door for national-level organizations to bring pressure and counterpressures to bear.”

UPDATE: From Sean Cavanagh:

Staying on the common standards theme, Wilhoit this morning touched on the effort to focus on “fewer, clearer, and higher” standards—and the pressure that comes to include this or that additional topic or concept—at a panel discussion on Capitol Hill this morning.

The state chiefs’ official said the committees drafting the standards were intent on keeping the document as focused as possible, and grounded in research on the skills necessary for college and the workforce.

Yet Wilhoit also acknowledged to the audience that “it will be hard to hold on to these attributes, because people are pushing to have more and more” included. The forum was hosted by the Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of groups that seek improved education for minority students. The group staged the forum to discuss the implications of the standards movement for minority students, and how advocates for them can become more involved.

Keeping a manageable, focused set of standards is crucial, or the document could morph into a version of state standards, which in some cases are “overwhelming” and indecipherable for teachers, as well as parents, Wilhoit told the audience. Too many of those state documents are jammed with information, and “not by a slight margin,” Wilhoit added, calling those standards “not even in the ballpark.”

The Common Core, which is now focused on crafting college and career ready standards for math and language arts, has not delved into specific grade-by-grade guidelines, a process that is expected to begin later this year. Wilhoit said the group could look at either grade-specific standards, or “learning progressions,” which generally refer to expectations for how students’ skills and knowledge should increase over time. (Learning progressions have received an increased amount of attention from academic scholars in recent years, as we’ve reported.) In many cases, it’s probably desirable to limit the number of major concepts in one grade to between four and six, Wilhoit argued.

Wilhoit was joined at the event by U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, who said there was backing on the Hill for the Common Core work. “We don’t need to lead this effort,” Bingaman said of federal lawmakers, “but we need to support this effort.”

Other panelists included Michael Wotorson, the executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity; Brent A. Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens; Denise Forte, the director of education policy for the House Committee on Education and Labor; and David Beaulieu, the director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University.

Wotorson said the Common Core effort could have a major impact on minority students’ achievement, though he hoped that the various organizations that represent them can have a voice in the process. “Too often, the students being held to these lower standards tend to be students of color,” he said, and it was “absolutely critical” that the views of advocates for minority students be included.

Some of the panelists seemed to share Wilhoit’s desire for relative simplicity in the document. Wilkes said many state standards were lengthy and confusing to teachers, and especially for parents. The goal should be to have academic standards that could be “posted on the refrigerator door” the way you might a football schedule now, he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.


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