Final Version of Core Standards Assuages Some Concerns

By Catherine Gewertz — June 07, 2010 6 min read
Leah Luke, Wisconsin’s teacher of the year, joins other supporters of the common standards at an event last week at Peachtree Ridge High School in Georgia.
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The final set of common academic standards was released last week, 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 announced the final documents at a press event at a Georgia high school on June 2. 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 the standards will help state education chiefs “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, the writing and feedback panels included university scholars, state curriculum specialists, and teachers; the education group Achieve; testing organizations such as the College Board and act Inc.; and curriculum-design companies such as America’s Choice.

Drafts evolved as they were circulated among state departments of education, teachers’ unions, and subject-matter groups, 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 writers tried to make the final version more usable, with better guidance for teachers, and a clearer structure. They also tried to make the math standards more “assessible,” or easier to test, and they smoothed out the grade-to-grade progressions, moving some concepts to earlier or later grades, he added.

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

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. That team of writers also added world literature in grades 9 and 10, and 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 to reflect the concerns of the early-childhood community, so the standards now note the importance of play as a method of learning and of educating the whole child, and early-grades expectations better reflect variations among young children in skills development, she said.

Away From Washington

The choice of location for the event 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.

In addition, key groups that spearheaded the initiative are all based in Washington. Those groups have repeatedly pointed out, though, that the common-standards work 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 speakers at the event—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.

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 video conference.

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

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. Ms. Weingarten pointed out the role that teachers had in shaping the standards and called the AFT an “unabashed supporter.”But the standards, while “extraordinarily important,” are only one piece of the puzzle, Ms. Weingarten said, adding that the real work begins with implementation.

‘Logical Progression’

Leah Luke, Wisconsin’s 2010 teacher of the year, 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, an 18-year veteran 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 55 urban superintendents who 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.”

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 to the point that all four 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.

Still, acceptance of the standards is not universal. R. James Milgram, one of a handful of the 29 member core-standards validation committee who refused to sign off on the document, said the math standards still don’t measure up to those in California, Minnesota, Massachusetts or Indiana.

“What they are is far better than the vast majority of standards in this country, but they do not match up well with international expectations, and they are not quite as good as the best of the state standards,” Mr. Milgram, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, said in a phone interview.

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 adopted the standards tentatively, based on earlier drafts.

Two more states, North Carolina and Wisconsin, adopted them in final form. Now that the document is final—and with Race to the Top requiring state action by Aug. 2—dozens more states will face adoption decisions in the next couple of months.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Final Version of Core Standards Assuages Some Concerns


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