Special Report

Advocates Worry Implementation Could Derail Common Core

By Catherine Gewertz — April 23, 2012 11 min read
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In less than three years, the Common Core State Standards have vaulted over three key hurdles, surprising more than a few naysayers. In June 2009, governors and education chiefs in 46 states pledged their support for the idea. A year later, panels of experts unveiled the completed standards. By last November, all but four states had formally adopted them.

Now, the standards face what experts say is their biggest challenge yet: faithful translation from expectations on paper to instruction in classrooms.

The implementation stage brims with possibilities both promising and threatening, depending on one’s perspective.

To some critics, the standards carry the specter of lock-step curriculum imposed by outsiders. To others, they represent a step down from some states’ top-notch standards, or an overemphasis on skills at the expense of content. The standards’ most ardent backers see them as a brilliant distillation of what students urgently need to master to thrive in college and work, and as a door-opener to better teaching.

Whether opponents’ nightmares come true, or advocates’ hopes are borne out, will depend largely on how the standards are put into practice.

“The biggest potential pothole, by far, is failed implementation,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that has been tracking the standards and counts itself as an advocate. “It’s a huge, heavy lift if we are serious about teachers teaching it, kids learning it, curricula reflecting it, tests aligned with it, and kids passing those tests.”

The common standards in math and English/language arts took shape in only a few years, but the sentiments that prompted them have longer roots.

Since 1983, when the report A Nation at Risk warned of U.S. education’s growing “mediocrity,” attempts to create a shared set of academic expectations have surfaced and disintegrated. An advisory panel under President George H.W. Bush recommended national standards and tests, but the idea collapsed in the aftermath of controversy over history content. President Bill Clinton proposed national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics, but Congress demurred.

States crafted their own standards—often incorporating pieces of the voluntary national standards—but the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state tests administered for the No Child Left Behind Act called the quality of many states’ standards into question. Momentum built for better-quality expectations applied to all children.

“It’s historic that in this country, with our better-than-two-century-old tradition of local control, state leaders would agree on common standards like this,” said Jack Jennings, the founder of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based policy and research organization that has tracked common-standards implementation. “It’s a departure, but it’s not abrupt. It’s a departure that builds on the last 20 years of debate and experience.”

That agreement hinged on a concept that was pivotal and deliberate, given previous political controversies: that the initiative was to be led by the states. Panels of experts wrote the standards with input from states’ education departments, subject-matter organizations, teacher groups, and others.

Federal Intrusion?

But critics contend that states didn’t drive the common-standards effort as vigorously as did foundations and Washington-based organizations that embraced the idea. The “state-led” descriptor came in for additional skepticism when the federal government began offering incentives to adopt the standards.

6 Key Shifts in Common Standards


1. Informational Text

Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts.

At the elementary level, the standards call for a 50-50 balance between informational texts and literature. They shift the emphasis to 55 percent informational by middle school, and 70 percent by high school. Such reading includes content-rich nonfiction in history/social studies, science, and the arts. Informational text is seen as a way for students to build coherent general knowledge, as well as reading and writing skills.

2. Citing Evidence

Reading and writing grounded in evidence from text.

The standards place a premium on students’ use of evidence from texts to present careful analyses and well-defended claims. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge or experience, the standards envision students’ answering questions that depend on reading the text or texts with care. The standards also require the cultivation of narrative writing throughout the grades. The reading standards focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information, arguments, ideas, and details based on text evidence.

3. Complex Text

Regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary.

The standards build a “staircase” of increasing text complexity to prepare students for the types of texts they must read to be ready for the demands of college and careers. Closely related to text complexity—and inextricably connected to reading comprehension—is a focus on academic vocabulary: words that appear in a variety of content areas (such as “ignite” and “commit”).


4. Focus

Focus strongly where the standards focus.

Rather than racing to cover topics in a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, significantly narrow and deepen the way time and energy are spent in the math classroom. The standards focus deeply on the major work of each grade so that students can gain strong foundations: solid conceptual understanding, a high degree of procedural skill and fluency, and the ability to apply the math they know to solve problems inside and outside the math classroom.

5. Coherence

Think across grades, and link to major topics within grades.

The standards are designed around coherent progressions from grade to grade. Carefully connect the learning across grades so that students can build new understanding onto foundations built in previous years. Each standard is not a new event, but an extension of previous learning. Instead of allowing additional or supporting topics to detract from the focus of the grade, these topics can serve the grade-level focus.

6. Rigor

In major topics, pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and application with equal intensity.

• Emphasize conceptual understanding of key concepts, such as place value and ratios. Teachers support students’ ability to access concepts from a number of perspectives so that students are able to see math as more than a set of mnemonics or discrete procedures.

• Help students build speed and accuracy in calculation. Teachers structure class time and/or homework time for students to practice core functions, such as single-digit multiplication, so that they have access to more complex concepts and procedures.

• Use math flexibly for applications. Teachers provide opportunities for students to apply math in context. Teachers in content areas outside of math, particularly science, ensure that students are using math to make meaning of and access content.

SOURCE: Adapted From Student Achievement Partners

States, fiscally battered by the recession, stood a better chance of winning a share of the Race to the Top competition’s $4 billion if they adopted the standards by Aug. 2, 2010. As that date drew near, adoptions picked up speed. Thirty-four had adopted by that day, including two on deadline day itself.

Other moves by the federal government in support of the standards fueled the perception that they were an extension of the Democratic administration’s policy agenda. The U.S. Department of Education awarded $360 million in grants to two groups of states to develop tests for the new standards. To participate in those consortia, states had to have adopted the standards by the end of 2011. Additionally, the government’s offer this year to waive key requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act is easier to obtain for states that have embraced the standards.

Those moves sparked questions in some quarters about whether the federal government had overstepped legal restrictions on the role it can play in local education decisions.

“The message here seems to be that the federal government has the money and can make it available according to the conditions they set,” said Kent Talbert, a Washington education lawyer who co-wrote a recent white paper concluding that the federal government has overstepped its authority in pressing for common standards and assessments. “Once you agree to that, down the road everyone will have to do the same thing, with only a few differences here and there, because of the way standards interact with curriculum and assessment.”

Common-core advocates argue that one shared set of standards doesn’t dictate content or pedagogy, because content is not prescribed, and there are many ways to teach the specified skills. Officials who favor them, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have repeatedly said that states are free to choose whether to embrace or reject common standards and tests.

But echoes of the questions about the federal government’s role have rippled through a few state legislatures, where lawmakers are just beginning to examine the ramifications of adoption decisions made by their state boards of education. Such bills have called for repeal of the standards adoptions, or for keeping a close watch on their implementation.

Few progressed very far, but they sent up flares for common-core advocates. Mr. Duncan himself responded to South Carolina’s attempt to roll back the standards by accusing the state of lowering its academic expectations. In Utah, where lawmakers had raised questions about federal intrusion into local education decisions, Mr. Duncan responded to a letter from state schools Superintendent Larry Shumway by saying that “nothing in federal law or in current or proposed policies of the U.S. Department of Education in any way contradicts” Mr. Shumway’s insistence that Utah retains “complete control” of its standards and curriculum.

A persistent perception that the common core is federally driven, however, poses a potential threat to its widespread implementation, its advocates say. Mr. Finn, for instance, said that Mr. Duncan risks “loving it to death” by taking a high-profile public stance on the common core’s behalf.

Misgivings about the federal government’s role in the standards is but one potential danger zone lurking in their implementation. Grappling with teaching the skills demanded by the new standards is no small challenge.

New Vistas

Math teachers face having to teach skills to which they’re unaccustomed, since some concepts have been moved to lower grades in the new standards. They’re also being asked to focus longer and more deeply on fewer concepts and to emphasize conceptual understanding and practical applications of math. In many places, such as Howard County, Md., that has resulted in a flurry of activity as teachers brainstorm about how to design curriculum and pedagogy that embody the standards.

The English/language arts standards present challenges of their own. More than most states’ own standards, they insist on students building content knowledge and reading skill from independently tackling informational texts. They demand better analysis and argumentation skills, and they involve teachers from all subjects in teaching the literacy skills of their disciplines. Teachers in Kentucky, among other places, are experimenting with new templates that attempt to capture these key shifts.

Without good instructional materials, the common standards could be hamstrung, experts say. And the quality of the materials produced for the common core remains to be seen. Publishers large and small have jumped into the fray, offering an array of programs they say are “aligned” to the common core. States and districts are working individually and together to draft their own. Those who led the writing of the standards are crafting explanatory documents to guide teachers and publishers. Subject-matter groups are offering resources, and the two groups of states working on tests are creating, or planning, an array of supports including online banks of teaching tools.

Professional development remains a central area of concern as the standards are implemented, and many in the field say the success of the initiative rests on it.

“Teachers are not accustomed to teaching the way the standards envision,” said Barbara A. Kapinus, who helped shape the standards as a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association before retiring this month.

“We have a whole group of teachers out there who have come in in the last 10 years, under No Child Left Behind, who have been given scripts to follow and have marched kids through those scripts and through sequences of little, teensy skills. What we’re talking about with the [common] standards is a completely different kind of teaching.”

Preparing Teachers

Reaching the nation’s more than 3 million teachers with good-quality professional development is no small task, especially for states and districts whose coffers are depleted after several years of recession. And there is little sign that teacher-preparation programs are revamping their work to prepare newly minted educators for the new standards.

Most current teachers have read the standards for their grade level, think highly of them, and are willing to teach them, but few understand the profound changes in teaching that they will require, according to William H. Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor widely known for his studies of mathematics curricula. He is currently conducting research, through the university’s Center for the Study of Curriculum, on districts’ preparedness for the common standards.

“A majority of the teachers indicate that they think the new common-core standards are pretty much the same as what they have been doing,” Mr. Schmidt said in an email. “The difficulty I foresee is that, in spite of this openness toward their implementation, the data suggests that most teachers do not recognize how difficult that process will be.”

Particular challenges lie ahead for teachers of special education students and those still learning English as they try to build bridges that allow their students to respond to the new expectations.

The emphasis on mastery of complex texts and academic vocabulary, for instance, in addition to the typical grammar and vocabulary, is uniquely challenging for English-learners, advocates say. And experts say students with cognitive disabilities, in particular, could struggle with the standards. But the new guidelines also seem to be spreading techniques typically used for special education students, such as Response to Intervention and Universal Design for Learning, to a broader population.

Educators in big-city districts are grappling with how best to teach the common standards, since many urban students come from poverty and are academically underprepared. They’re trying to figure out whether they can adapt the materials they have to the new expectations or whether they must buy or produce new materials, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s 67 largest districts. At the same time, they’re attending to other pieces of their cities’ or states’ reform agendas, such as teacher quality and school turnaround work, all with deep cutbacks in their budgets, he said.

Nonetheless, the stakes are high to get the common standards right in urban districts. “It’s important that we get implementation right where there aren’t as many kids in need, but it’s vital that we get it right in communities where lots of students need extra help,” Mr. Casserly said.

Waiting for Tests

One of the biggest questions hanging over common-standards implementation is what will be on the tests designed for them. Some educators have reported reluctance to move ahead with curriculum because they don’t yet know what the assessments, scheduled to be fully operational in 2014-15, will look like. Others feel confident enough to move ahead based on what they can glean from the standards themselves.

Educators’ judgments about whether the tests truly reflect the standards will be crucial to sustaining the standards over the long term, said Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy.

“The biggest potential obstacle is the tests,” he said. “Because of their experience with NCLB, teachers want to know, what are the tests going to require? Will the tests back up what they are supposed to do with the new standards? If they don’t, then the entire effort is lost.”

The depth and breadth of the common standards’ reach remains to be seen. Given the size of the implementation challenge, even some of the core’s advocates anticipate a bit of unraveling. Fordham’s Mr. Finn gives the possibility of strong implementation in all 46 common-standards states a “one in 100" chance.

“Maybe two dozen [states], if we’re lucky, will take it seriously,” he said. “That will be a dramatic, positive good for the country. But only half the country.”

Mr. Jennings takes a more optimistic view.

“Nobody gets all the pieces right, ever, on anything,” he said. “It’s whether we get most of the pieces right for most kids and most teachers that will matter.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Success of Standards Depends on Translation for Classroom


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