Standards Chat

Common Academic Standards: Is There Common Ground?

Forty-seven states have joined a national effort to adopt common academic standards in math and language arts—work that’s being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But if previous attempts to get states to adopt common standards are any indication, challenges loom ahead.

Common Academic Standards: Is There Common Ground?

Tuesday, September 29, 2 p.m. Eastern time

Forty-eight states have joined a national effort to adopt common academic standards in mathematics and language arts. Lending momentum to that work, which is being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are vocally pushing states to act soon. But if previous attempts to get states to adopt common standards are any indication, challenges loom ahead. Our experts discussed the broad disparities in academic expectations persisting across states and districts, the latest common-standards movement, and what it means for educators, policymakers, and students.

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Dane Linn, education division director, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices

Alan Farstrup, former executive director, International Reading Association

Michele McNeil, assistant editor, Education Week, moderated this chat.

Live Chat: Common Academic Standards: Is There Common Ground?(09/28/2009)


1:31 Edweek Producer: Jennifer: Hello everyone, we’re now accepting questions for tomorrow’s chat. Thanks!

1:30 Edweek Producer: Jennifer: Today’s chat: “Common Academic Standards: Is There Common Ground?” will begin in half an hour. Thank you for joining us.

1:52 Alan Farstrup: I am online! Alan


Michele McNeil:

Hi everyone. Welcome to today’s chat on common standards. My name is Michele McNeil and I cover federal education policy here at Education Week. But I’ve also written several articles about the common standards effort that’s now underway for 48 states – so I’m especially eager to hear your questions. So please, feel free to ask questions throughout the chat and we’ll get to as many as we can.


Michele McNeil:

Before we get to the first question, I’d like to ask our guests to introduce themselves. Dane, why don’t you go first?

2:02 Michele McNeil: I think Dane might be having some technical difficulties, so Alan, if you’re ready, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.

2:03 Alan Farstrup: I’m Alan Farstrup, recently retired Executive Director of the International Reading Association. The Association worked closely with NCTE in the early 1990’s on standards for English Language Arts and am very concerned and interested in the current developments regarding common standards.

2:03 Michele McNeil: Thanks Alan for joining us today.

2:04 Michele McNeil: Dane?

2:05 Dane Linn: Sorry, having technical difficulties.

2:05 Michele McNeil: While we’re waiting for Dane, let’s throw the first question at Alan. This one comes from Lee, who wants some historical perspective.

2:05 [Comment From Lee]
common standards - why did it take so long? and what are the major objections?

2:06 Dane Linn: My name is Dane Linn, director of NGA’s education division. We focus on a range of policy issues aimed helping governors make informed decisions. NGA, in partnership with CCSSO, is leading the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

2:07 Michele McNeil: Thanks Dane for joining us.

2:07 Alan Farstrup: In reality the concept of common standards has been around for a long time, harking back to the Clinton era Reading Excellence initiative and beyond. There is disagreement, however, on what is meant by the term Common Standards.

2:07 Michele McNeil: Dane, why do you think common standards has taken so long?


Dane Linn:

The political and education landscape have created the conditions have led states to come together to support and engage in the development of common standards.

2:09 Michele McNeil: Alan, do you think things are that different now, then say when you were involved in standards in the 1990s?


Dane Linn:

I’d like to respond to this question as well.

2:10 Michele McNeil: Go for it, Dane.

2:11 Alan Farstrup: Yes! But there is still work to be done to help us reach a more shared definition of what we mean by standards. Some would have a standard be an absolute, something easy to measure while others - myself included - would prefer standards that represent important concepts, ideas or abilities that are prerequisite to good, critical thinking and problem solving.


Dane Linn:

There are several specific reasons governors are interested in the Initiatve. For one, there’s an opportunity to create greater efficiencies by having states leverage their resources as opposed to going it alone. Secondly, the performance of U.S. students on international assessments suggest that we have a long way to go on catching up to top-performing countries (See NGA/CCSSO/Achieve report “Benchmarking for Success” on our website). And lastly, NCLB has laid some ground work for standards based education.

2:13 Michele McNeil: Lee has a good follow-up question. Dane, do you want to take this?

2:13 [Comment From Lee]
Please follow-up on Alan’s point--Is there are broadly accepted definition of what “common standards” means?


Dane Linn:

NGA and CCSSO define common as stnadards that will be shared among participating states. We have outlined several criteria for making these decisions which include 1) evidence-based, 2) internationally benchmarked and 3) fewer, clear and higher.

2:15 Michele McNeil: Sam has a good question about why we should have common standards. Alan, can you tackle this?

2:15 [Comment From Sam]
What is the advantage to students and teachers of having national standards?

2:16 Michele McNeil: Dane, you talked about the advantages and reasons on a broader level. Do you want to follow up on Sam’s question, too, about the benefits to students and teachers?

2:17 Alan Farstrup: I applaud the NGA for again taking this on since it is important for students to know what the expectations are for their work in school and beyond but let us not get too focused on the horse race aspect of comparative assessments. We tend to assess what is easy to assess and not always what is important to know about students’ knowledge and skill. Students need to be similarly challenged no matter where they happen to be going to school so common standards can help us to develop curricula that are more consistent across states and regions while also having clear and challenging expectations.


Dane Linn:

Sure. Bringing states together on the development of common state standards will help U.S. students better compete with students from around the world. Granted, it takes more than standards, but it’s important that we get the expectations right.

2:18 Michele McNeil: Lynette has a question about the quality of latest version of the standards put forth by NGA and CCSSO. Alan, what do you think of them?

2:18 [Comment From Lynnette Van Dyke]
It is my understanding that the second draft of the standards has been released for comment, and that these standards have been developed primarily to serve as the basis for a system of high quality assessments. Accordingly, they are internationally benchmarked for rigor and organization of standardes of highperforming countries and states. In addition they have incorporated 21st century skills. Given you have reviewed the standards, please comment on your perception of quality. Thanks.

2:20 Dane Linn: Lynette, this is a very good question. I want to make sure that everyone who has joined us understands that the draft currently on-line includes the college and career readiness standards. We are just now starting to develop the K-12 standards which will be released in January 2010. We welcome everyone’s comments. ALL COMMENTS MUST BE SUBMITTED BY OCTOBER 21, 2009.

2:22 Alan Farstrup: It is also important to give good teachers good guidance and to have standards that set expectations while at the same time providing teachers the ability to use their skill and experience to meet the needs of individual students and communities. The latest draft from NGA and CCSSO are a good step forward but in my opinion they are still very heavily oriented toward assessment and not as much toward teaching and the importance of good teachers being able to adjust and adapt to individual needs. The development and comment process is important and it is vital that we all give feedback so the developers can continue to hone these standards.

2:22 Michele McNeil: Dane, why don’t you tackle this very relevant question from Ann Marie, who wants to know about the states that won’t sign onto the common core initiative. I know there are currently two now, Alaska and Missouri.

2:22 [Comment From Ann Marie]
Please explain what happens to the states that refuse Common Standards. Are they punished via $$??

2:22 Michele McNeil: Correction, Alaska and Texas are the only two states not signing on.


Dane Linn:

Happy to respond. But, let me first pick up on an important point that Alan raises. It’s going to be critical that we help governors and state chiefs understnad the importance of addressing the preparation of teachers and developing a system of professional development. That said, districts will play a critical role in developing and implementing effective curriculum aligned to these standards.

TX and AK are the two states who have not joined the initiative. There are no penalities for not joining the initiative.

2:26 Michele McNeil: Thanks. Dane, could you tackle a question from Tricia, who wants to know about what it means for states to officially “adopt” these standards. Can you explain?

2:26 [Comment From Tricia]
What is your understanding of what they are meaning by the word “adopt”? Do they mean verbatim? By alignment?

2:28 Alan Farstrup: Great shared, common standards should NOT be used to punish states, teachers, schools or students in my opinion. I my experience has been that when harsh penalties are imposed that there will be more resistance to common standards, standards that are needed so that all students have opportunities to learn and perform and higher levels, independent of where they happen to be. It is very important that common, high standards inform teacher preparation programs, not to put them into intellectual straight jackets but to inspire them to provide realistic and rigorous experience and knowledge to new teachers. This will also apply to ongoing professional development.

2:29 Alan Farstrup: (My apologies for my sometimes awkward or mistyped messages as I am participating from Germany on an unfamiliar keyboard.)

2:31 Michele McNeil: Dane, can you shed light on Tricia’s question -- about what it means to “adopt” standards?


Dane Linn:

Each of the participating states signed a Memorandum of Agreement. The participating states agreed to seriously consider the adoption of these standards. Once the standards have been validated by the independent validation committee, NGA and CCSSO will ask their members and other key state leaders whether they intend to adopt them. States that decide to adopt must adopt the core in its entirety. However, they may add an additional 15 percent should they want to exceed the expectations outlined in the core standards.

2:31 Michele McNeil: Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Nancy has a question about that. Alan, can you take a stab at it?

2:31 [Comment From NancyEH]
Will Common Standards help or hinder the effort to keep students from dropping out of school?

2:33 Alan Farstrup: I would like Dane and others to speak about the pros and cons of federal or national government engagement in the standards development and implementation processes. What in particular would differentiate the efforts of NGA and the CCSSO from earlier more purely federal approaches?

2:34 Michele McNeil: Dane, why don’t you tackle Alan’s question.

2:34 Michele McNeil: And Alan, do you want to get to Nancy’s dropout question in the meantime?

2:36 Alan Farstrup: Regarding the drop out issue, I do feel that well crafted, broad and clear standards can help motivate schools, teachers and students to do a better job. Drop outs too often have a difficult time seeing good reasons for staying in school so clear standards can help them to comprehend and value schooling while thez also help educators to strengthen and focus their instruction. Of course, there are social and familial issues, as well as economic factors that generate drop out tendencies and I fear that common standards may not help much in this regard....


Dane Linn:

Most of the funds that support education come from the states who have the constitutional responsibility to educate their citizens. In this process, states are leading the effort versus previous attempts by the federal gov’t to develop national standards. The fact that 48 states signed up to participate underscores the support for this effort vs. a federal approach.

2:38 Michele McNeil: Dane, Frieda wants to know about South Carolina’s status in the common core initiative. They’ve joined in now officially, correct?

2:38 [Comment From Frieda Foxworth]
I thought that South Carolina was also holding out. Has SC agreed to this initiative?

2:38 Dane Linn: Frieda, we’re thrilled that SC has joined the effort.

2:39 Michele McNeil: I want to throw this out to both Dane and Alan. Can you both speak to how and where special education students it into the common standards initiative, to answer Bobbie’s question?

2:39 [Comment From Bobbie Coulbourne]
Could one of you please comment on how students with disabilities and recieve services from special education fit into these assements?

2:43 Alan Farstrup: Bobbie, THis is a tough but very important question. Well crafted common standards must, in my opinion address this issue directly by incorporating language that is inclusive of the needs of students with disabilities. Importantly ALL teachers must be engaged with supporting these students and their pre and in-service professional development must prepare them well for such work. In other words both teaching and assessments must be designed to accomodate the needs of special needs students without lowering expectations or adapting in ways that obscure the important skill and achievement areas such as reading or math.


Dane Linn:

Great question Bobbie. It’s very important that both students with disabilities and ELL students are considered as we develop the standards. As a former special education teacher, I have worked to make sure these voices are being included on the front end. Through both the AFT and NEA, we have met with teachers to hear their responses to the draft documents including those who teach these populations. We are also including individuals with expertise in sp. ed. and ELL on our work groups and validation committee. That said, we need to make sure these students don’t get lost in the shuffle as we move toward implementation.

2:43 Michele McNeil: Dane, Jeff has a clarifying question.

2:43 [Comment From Jeff]
At what grade levels will the standards be delineated (e.g., K-5, 6-8, 9-12 or at each grade level)?


Dane Linn:

Jeff, you’ve asked the million dollar question. At this point, we have not made a decision. Our K-12 work groups which will include researchers, content experts and educators will help NGA/CCSSO make this decision in the near future.

2:45 Michele McNeil: And Alan, Lee seems to be asking an important question about the relationship between curriculum and standards. Can you take this one?

2:45 [Comment From Lee]
common standards present common learning/teaching objectives. What about actual lesson content? some teachers create excellent lessons while others do not - do you think it’s useful/necessary to develop common lessons (that also address learning styles) as a resource for teachers?


Dane Linn:

I’d also like to respond to this question Michele.

2:46 Michele McNeil: Sure, Dane.

2:48 Alan Farstrup: Thanks, Lee for this important question. One of the big concerns from teachers when dealing with previous standards initiatives has been that of scripted programs. We need to be very cautious about scripted or strictly mandated lesson plans or even outline because then teachers may be faced with evaluations based on their fidelity to such scripts or plans and not upon their real results with real kids. We need to stay strongly focused on positive outcomes, on what kids can really know and do, not on how well we adhere to standard language or narrow bands of strategies in mz opinion.

2:48 Dane Linn: While we have no intent on developing common lessons, it will be critical to provide teachers with the tools and resources that are aligned to the standards. So, if you’re a classroom teacher, the state bears some responsibility for helping teachers with access to the tools (e.g., textbooks, on-line instructional materials) that are substantively aligned (vs. key word matches) to the standards.

2:49 Michele McNeil: Kim wants to know about how these new standards will relate to other sets of standards that are out there from subject-matter groups. Dane?

2:49 [Comment From Kim Merlino]
How will the common academic standards relate to the national standards from NCTM (math) and NCTE/IRA standards (reading, language arts)? Will they replace them?

2:51 Dane Linn: Kim, you’ll be glad to know that we have been working with national groups such as NCTM, NCTE and IRA just to name a few. There’s been a lot of work done by these organizations and others around the world that has informed the development of the draft college and career readiness standards. We will continue to use these works as NGA/CCSSo begin developing the K-12 standards.

2:51 Michele McNeil: Amy has a good follow-up, Dane.

2:51 [Comment From Amy]
Why aren’t more university subject matter experts (mathematicians) and community college professors involved in the writing of the standards? Community college professors see the highest remediation rates.

2:52 Alan Farstrup: Kim, I think that formerly published standards have an important role to plaz in that they provide important alternative perspectives on what is needed in excellent schools and classrooms. For example, the IRA/NCTE standards of the earlz ‘90s were necessarily broad in scope and were not designed to micro manage the classroom. Many of these earlier efforts also need to be brought up to date in light of new knowledge and evolving policy contexts. Importantly the voices of school based educators need to be heard as the standards are developed and implemented.


Dane Linn:

Amy, there are many college professors who have been tapped to be part of this effort. In addition, the American Association of Community Colleges is working with several other orgs (higher ed.) to bring together college faculty to react to the draft. For the reaons you’ve noted (and especially since 60 percent of all college students begin at the community college) it’s critical that we involve them in this process.

2:54 Michele McNeil: Eloise asks an important question about what’s next -- in other words, will we need a common test for these common standards? Alan, is that an important next step to think about?

2:54 [Comment From Eloise P.]
The common standards website is already indicating the need for assessments to follow. Let’s be frank: what we’re really doing here is opening the door to a national test, aren’t we?

2:54 Alan Farstrup: Amy, I fully agree that the voices and experience of university and college teacher educators need to be taken into account.


Dane Linn:

Eloise, Secretary Duncan has set aside $350 million for those states that adopt the standards to develop a set of common assessments. In our conversation with states, many have indicated that the standards alone will not drive teaching and learning. In addition, a STATE LED common set of assessments has the potential to also create greater efficiencies and free up resources for better professional development.

2:58 Alan Farstrup: The concern about a national, especially a federal set of tests is a huge issue and it is very widespread. We, again, need to be sure we are not spending all of our resources on testing and relatively little on the classroom, on teaching. Carefully crafted standards need to be focused as much, if not more, on teaching and outcomes. “You don’i improve things just by more and very expensive testing.” As an old poltician once said, “You don’t fatten the hogs by weighing them!”

2:59 Michele McNeil: Let’s end our chat with this question from Dennis. Alan and Dane, can you both give a quick parting thought to help Dennis with his question?

2:59 [Comment From Dennis]
How do you reconcile common standards with different needs for different students? Are common standards minimum competency standards?

2:59 Dane Linn: Agreed.

2:59 Alan Farstrup: OK!

3:02 Alan Farstrup: I don`'t believe common standards should be treated as minimum compentencies. They should represent our highest aspirations what we expect students to learn and be able to do. They should be something we aspire to, not just hope to meet . Great standards can set high goals, let us not water them down to be minimal expectations!!

3:02 Dane Linn: The common standards are based on what students need for college and career readiness. We encourage and expect many students will graudate high school with some college level work behind them already. The implementation of these standards provide an opportunity to examine the current delivery system. Some students may need more time to meet the standards.


Michele McNeil:

Thank you both. I think our time is up. I want to thank Dane and Alan for being such great guests today, and for offering a broad perspective on this issue. And, a thanks to all of our visitors out there who joined in. I appreciated the thoughtful questions.


Michele McNeil:

This chat and all others are archived at, so feel free to check out that page for a transcript of today’s conversation.


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