College & Workforce Readiness

Common Core Brings K-12, Higher Ed. Together

By Catherine Gewertz — March 01, 2012 9 min read
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If college and university faculties do not embrace the common-core standards as solid indicators of college readiness, what do the standards mean?

That was one of the big questions hovering over a national forum here last week about how precollegiate and higher education can work together to use the new English/language arts and mathematics standards as the basis for stronger curricula, instruction, teacher preparation, and college success.

The three-day gathering was organized to showcase Kentucky’s push to bring its K-12 and higher education systems together to improve students’ preparation for further study after high school. Twenty-two states sent representatives, mostly from the higher education sector, to hear about projects that contribute to what University of Maine Chancellor Richard L. Pattenaude called “Kentucky envy.”

The forum was organized by the agencies that oversee K-12 and higher education, including teacher preparation, in Kentucky, and national groups representing K-12 and college leaders, such as the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Participants discussed many projects that reach across the traditional precollegiate-postsecondary divide. An example is Kentucky’s newly crafted set of “college-readiness indicators.” All state universities and colleges have agreed to use those sets of cutoff scores on the ACT, the SAT, or state-designed online placement exams to let students skip remedial work in college and enroll directly in credit-bearing entry-level courses. Only a handful of states, such as California, have similar agreements.

Pivotal to such initiatives is the idea that secondary schools and colleges must see eye to eye on what strengths students must have in order to enter college or technical programs with a strong foundation. The idea is central to the Common Core State Standards and to tests being designed to reflect them.

Many Questions

The difficulty of securing that shared vision, however, was woven through many of the discussions at the Feb. 27-29 forum. At a session about the common assessments, which are being designed by two consortia of states with federal Race to the Top money, consortium representatives asked for input to help shape the tests tied to the common core.

Allison Jones, who is overseeing higher education engagement for one of the groups, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, asked the participants what their institutions’ faculty members need to see in the tests if they are to have confidence that they truly are proxies for college readiness.

Proof that the eventual cutoff scores connote the same kinds of readiness as the ACT and the SAT college-entrance exams, said a Louisiana higher education administrator. Multiple scores showing students’ skills in various areas, rather than just one cutoff score, another participant said. Evidence that the new tests will be better than current, widely used placement tests, said a math professor from Oregon. Confirmation that the tests thoroughly capture the standards on which they are based, said a participant from Indiana.

Open questions about how well the coming assessments will reflect college-level skills go to the heart of the standards’ potential value. Representatives of higher education were on the panels that designed the standards, and the presidents of the higher education systems in the states that are designing the tests have pledged to help shape assessments that can be used as course-placement tools.

But whether college faculty members can ultimately support what the tests aim to say about students—that they are qualified to go right into credit-bearing entry-level classes—remains to be seen.

Even as they posed tough questions to leaders of forum sessions, participants found much to admire in the work Kentucky and other states described to make partners of K-12 and higher education. Much of that work has been fueled by the broad embrace of the common standards, which were unveiled in 2010 and have been adopted by all but four states. Kentucky adopted them two years ago, before any other state, and did so in an unusual, joint move by its K-12 and higher education boards. (“Kentucky Is First State to Adopt Common Academic Standards,” Feb. 24, 2010.)

“We are sitting here talking, K-12 and higher ed. together, because of these standards,” said Kelly Nelson, a consultant to the Indiana higher education commission.

Kentucky’s push for precollegiate and postsecondary partnership is driven also by a sweeping 2009 legislative mandate called Senate Bill 1. That law demands that K-12, colleges, and teacher-preparation programs work together to make sure students are well prepared for their futures. The combined effects of that legislation and the common-standards adoption were vividly illustrated in presentations during the forum.

Bridging a Gulf

The Education Professional Standards Board, which oversees teacher certification in Kentucky, has decided to require training in literacy instruction for all candidates seeking elementary, middle school, or high school certification, said Allen E. Kennedy, who serves on that group’s board. .

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who attended the event, said the state had also toughened requirements for entrance into teacher-preparation programs.

A year and a half ago, Kentucky formed a statewide system of regional leadership networks that facilitate monthly conversations among teacher leaders and state-chosen content specialists in mathematics and in English/language arts, along with college faculty members in those subjects. Similar meetings are held for school and district leaders.

Intended as a vehicle for implementing the common standards and improving teaching, the networks bridge traditional gulfs between K-12 and higher education, said Karen Kidwell, who oversees them at the state education department.

Leslie D. Burns, the chairman of the English education program faculty at the University of Kentucky’s college of education, said that through those networks, he meets with K-12 teachers regularly to develop instructional units that integrate the common standards’ demands for skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Cherry Boyles, the instructional supervisor in Kentucky’s Washington County schools, said she and colleagues work closely with the faculty of nearby St. Catharine College. “We are seeing faculty from the college involved in [professional development] for our teachers,” she said.

Western Kentucky University teamed up with the Shelby County school district to create a monthlong, half-day summer program for rising 8th and 10th graders with shaky reading skills. The university and local high school created a reading list that tilted heavily to nonfiction, to reflect the common standards’ emphasis on informational texts.

Nearly half the students who attended improved by the equivalent of one year of instruction, and teachers who were trained in the program learned useful new approaches to teaching literacy, said Kerry Fannin, the 6,500-student district’s assistant superintendent.

Murray State University created a program that hosts meetings of its faculty with K-12 teachers in three nearby districts. Over dinner, they talk about college-level expectations in writing and share student work, said Debbie Bell English, a lecturer who directs the Purchase Area Writing Project there.

A Bumpy Road

Reaching across traditional divides, however, is fraught with stumbling blocks. Even as scores of educators meet to discuss the standards, “agreeing on a common interpretation of those standards” is a work in progress, Ms. Kidwell said.

“We have multiple deans, departments, people, department chairs that all have their own ideas of what college readiness means,” said Dan Ash, a former higher education administrator who now oversees research for 55,000 Degrees, a Louisville-based group aimed at improving college completion.

Many forum attendees noted the big shift required of teachers to teach the new standards. Participants in a session about the mathematics standards identified “teachers’ skills and content knowledge” as one of the biggest obstacles to implementation. Because some topics now must be taught in lower grade levels, teachers will have to “brush up on stuff they might not have been doing,” said Michael Shires, a former math teacher who is now the principal of Lindeman Elementary School in Erlanger, Ky.

“Some of the new content will create the need for new pedagogies,” said Seth Hunter, a math specialist on loan to the Kentucky education department.

“There is a lot of mathematical growth that has to happen very quickly, and I’m not even sure it’s manageable,” said Jonathan N. Thomas, an assistant professor of mathematics education at Northern Kentucky University.

Many candidates in teacher-preparation programs are “mathematically fragile,” showing great difficulty with fractions, “and we’re talking about doing fractions, not even teaching them,” Mr. Thomas said. Yet he wondered whether professional-development programs for in-service teachers would be well received if they were geared to content instead of instructional strategy.

Another challenge to K-12 and higher education collaboration on the common standards centers on skills not required—or only implicitly required—by the standards.

David T. Conley, a University of Oregon professor whose work argues for broader definitions of career and college readiness, told the forum attendees that there is a need to “assess beyond the common core” to ensure that students are learning key skills for postsecondary training.

Besides core-content knowledge Mr. Conley said, students need to demonstrate important thinking skills that help them apply what they know. They also need to show that they’ve mastered learning strategies such as goal-setting and monitoring their own progress, and the “privileged knowledge” required to make the transition to college, such as understanding its admissions and financial-aid requirements.

Mr. Conley urged attendees to resist using one score in an either-or approach to readiness, but to think instead about “profiles” of readiness, an approach that allows for different types and levels of readiness depending on what a student is aiming to do.

“Don’t assume all students need the same kinds of knowledge to succeed,” he said.

Missing Skills

Precollegiate and postsecondary education have “a long, long way to go” before they turn out students who meet employers’ and professors’ needs, said Debra Humphreys, the vice president for communications and public affairs at the Washington-based Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The association’s research shows that employers, for instance, find recent college graduates deficient in teamwork skills and effective oral and written communication, she said. Particularly important to college faculty members, she noted, are skills in inquiry, research, analysis, innovation, and the ability to integrate knowledge from varied disciplines.

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Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at www.luminafoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Common Standards Bring K-12, Higher Ed. Together

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