Final Version of Common Standards Unveiled

By Catherine Gewertz — June 02, 2010 8 min read
Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, left, addresses the audience alongside panelists Leah Luke, Wisconsin’s 2010 teacher of the year; Steve Rohleder, the group chief executive of Accenture’s Health & Public Service practice; and Michael Wotorson, the executive director for the Campaign for High School Equity, as the final set of common academic standards is released on June 2 in Georgia.
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The final set of common academic standards was released today, capping months of closed-door work to write them and months more to revise them with feedback from state education officials, teachers’ unions, and other education interest groups.

The project is an attempt to address the uneven patchwork of standards that results in differing expectations among schools, districts, and states and leaves many students unprepared for work or college.

Organizers of the Common Core State Standards Initiative held a press event at a Georgia high school this morning. A high-profile list of guests, including governors and education commissioners, spoke in support of the standards.

Calling the standards “second to none in the world,” Steven L. Paine, the schools superintendent in West Virginia, told the crowd that state education chiefs believe the standards can “collectively provide” an education worthy of all students.

The final document outlines what experts decided are the knowledge and skills students should have in mathematics and English/language arts. Convened last year by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which have worked in various ways to help states raise academic expectations, the writing and feedback panels included university scholars, state curriculum specialists, and teachers; testing organizations such as the College Board and ACT Inc.; the education group Achieve; and curriculum-design companies such as America’s Choice.

Drafts evolved as they were circulated among state departments of education, teachers’ unions, and groups focused on curriculum content, and then revised. The panels’ work still was criticized in some quarters, however, for affording too little chance for general public input, or for producing expectations that were too rigorous or not rigorous enough.

The first official public draft, released in March, drew more than 10,000 comments on a website set up by the NGA and the CCSSO.

The final document incorporates that feedback, officials said, as well as final rounds of input from states and specialized groups.

William McCallum, one of the lead writers of the math standards, said the panel made the section more usable, with better guidance for teachers, and gave the final version a clearer structure. He also said the writers tried to make the math standards more “assessible,” or easier to test. They also smoothed out the progressions from one grade to another, moving some concepts to earlier or later grades, he added.

And, according to Mr. McCallum, a professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona, the writers created a better progression toward Algebra 1 from grade 5 through grade 7. States that want to require students to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade can do so “with confidence they will be prepared,” he said.

In response to state demands, the final version of the English/language arts standards places more emphasis on reading and writing of technical materials such as government documents, said Sue Pimentel, a lead writer for that subject. The English/language arts writers also added world literature in grades 9 and 10, after getting feedback from the public and states that they wanted more global diversity, she said. And they made it easier to determine the complexity of texts, said Ms. Pimentel, the co-founder of StandardsWork, a Washington-based consulting group.

Changes were also made in the discussion of early childhood in the introduction, which now embraces play as a method of learning and the importance of educating the whole child, she said.

Away From Washington

The press event for the release of the final standards took place at a high school outside Atlanta. The choice of location and the list of attendees carried political messages that the organizers of the common-standards initiative hoped to send as states decide whether to adopt them.

Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., is 600 miles from Washington, a fact aimed at critics who see the common-standards movement as a federal intrusion into state education decisions. That perception was fueled by rhetorical and monetary support from the federal government. President Barack Obama backs the idea, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant competition, financed with economic-stimulus money, favors states that adopt the standards. No representatives of the federal government attended the event, though they have been present at some previous common-standards gatherings.

In addition, key groups that spearheaded the initiative all are based in Washington. Those groups have repeatedly pointed out, though, that the common-standards work is “state-led.” They note that it began after numerous state requests for such a project, and that the document has been shaped by the states’ review and feedback.

The list of attendees at Wednesday’s release event—with its inclusion of state schools chiefs, governors of both major parties, leaders of parent and civil rights groups, a corporate executive, an urban superintendent, and top officials of the two national teachers’ unions—conveyed a message of widespread buy-in, from the grassroots to the upper echelons, even as many questions still circulated in the states about whether to adopt the standards.

The standards are an example of “people pulling together” regardless of political party and geography “to do what’s in our national interest,” Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, a Democrat, said via videoconference.

“We governors believe education is the rightful responsibility of our states,” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, said at the event.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen, the vice president of the National Education Association, were also on hand to endorse the standards, with Ms. Weingarten calling the AFT an “unabashed supporter.”

She pointed out the role that the AFT and teachers had in shaping the standards—and will continue to have. The standards “are extraordinarily important,” yet only one piece of the puzzle, Ms. Weingarten said, adding that the real work begins with implementation.

Leah Luke, Wisconsin’s 2010 teacher of the year and an 18-year veteran middle- and high school teacher, praised the standards as a potent teaching tool. They are strong because “they model the best classroom practice of the end in mind,’ ” she said as the standards-writers smiled and nodded. “There is a logical progression of skills from the endpoint backwards down to kindergarten,” she said.

Ms. Luke, who has taught both English and Spanish, said she was also excited that the language skills are no longer the province of English teachers alone, but are to be shared with teachers of science, social studies, and other subjects.

Urban superintendents also voiced their support.

Andrés Alonso, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore school system, spoke on behalf of the 50-plus urban superintendents who also signed a statement of support through the Council of the Great City Schools. The city superintendents, he said, think the work is “not simply about access [to quality], it’s not simply about equity, ... it’s fundamentally about excellence. Excellence has been denied too long to too many of our students.”

Representatives of subject-matter groups also voiced their support.

The four major math societies, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, issued a statement in support of the standards. In an interview, W. Gary Martin, a professor of mathematics education at Auburn University who reviewed the standards on behalf of the NCTM, called it “notable” that the standards had evolved over the duration of the project to the point that the groups could endorse them. In particular, they had been concerned about reasoning and mathematical thinking, but he said they saw substantial improvement in that area.

Not Good Enough?

Still, acceptance of the standards is not universal.

“They aren’t terrific,” said R. James Milgram, one of a handful of the nearly 30 members of the core-standards validation committee who refused to sign off on the document. “What they are is far better than the vast majority of standards in this country,” Mr. Milgram, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, said in an interview yesterday. “But they do not match up well with international expectations, and they are not quite as good as the best of the state standards, in California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Indiana.”

Regardless of the content, Jay P. Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said he’s wary of any move to adopt a single set of standards for all.

“The initial attraction to the standards movement is that ... people tend to be convinced that their vision of education is obvious and great and the best way to go, so they start imagining everyone else will agree,” Mr. Greene said. “It’s good people who want good things for the world coordinating their actions to get things adopted. There’s nothing evil about it. It’s just bad policy.”

Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia signed pledges of support to help develop the common-core initiative, but that did not bind them to embrace the resulting document. Kentucky, Hawaii, Maryland, and West Virginia have adopted the standards tentatively, based on earlier drafts. But now that the document is final—and with the Race to the Top requiring state action by Aug. 2—dozens of states will face adoption decisions in the next couple of months.

Eric J. Smith, Florida’s education commissioner, acknowledges that the legislature and other policymakers still have to weigh in, yet he’s confident his state will adopt them. “We’re ready to move forward,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week


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