Full Standards System in States Several Years Away

Survey Finds Curricula, Tests, and Related Reforms Won’t Come Quickly
By Catherine Gewertz — January 06, 2011 5 min read
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Most states plan to revise professional development for teachers by next year to help them teach to the new common standards, but it will take two or more years to complete anticipated changes in curriculum, assessment, and other elements of the K-12 system to adapt to the new learning goals, according to a survey released last week.

The survey is the first national snapshot of where states stand in their plans to implement the new standards. It shows that more than 30 states plan changes in the curriculum they teach, how they train and evaluate teachers, and how they size up students’ learning. But few of those changes will be fully realized before 2013.

State feedback was gathered by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and policy group. Survey responses came from K-12 education officials in 42 states and the District of Columbia in October and November.

Thirty-six of the responding states had then fully or provisionally adopted the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts; as of last week, 44 have done so. Survey respondents also included 11 of the 12 states that won grants under the federal government’s Race to the Top program.

The survey results illustrate “the immensity of the task” of implementing the common standards, said CEP President Jack Jennings.

“It’s going to take a while, and it’s going to be very complicated to make these standards mean anything,” he said. “Yet if states don’t do everything, then they won’t mean what they should mean.”

Up First, Teacher Training

Of all the areas of anticipated change in response to the common standards, the one with the shortest timeline was professional development. Thirty-three states said they planned changes in this area, and 21 of those said they would complete those changes by 2012.

Change on the Way

Most states plan key changes in their education systems to respond the common-core state standards, but timelines vary.


SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

By contrast, 33 states also said they planned changes in curriculum guides or materials, but only 14 said those changes would be complete by 2012. Similarly, most responding states said they would change the way they evaluate teachers in light of the common standards, but wouldn’t complete that process for at least a couple of years.

The area that stood out for the longest timeline was assessment. Thirty-six states said they plan changes in testing, but three-quarters of those said they wouldn’t finish that work until 2013 or later. That could be, in part, because the two groups of states that won federal grants to design common assessments for the new standards don’t plan to have them ready until the 2014-15 school year. All but five states are participating in those assessment consortia. (“Tough Work Begins for Race to Top Assessment Winners,” Sept. 15, 2010.)

One theme that emerged from the survey was the potential of the Race to the Top program to facilitate change, including putting the common standards into practice. Most of the states that gave shorter timelines for implementing key changes were Race to the Top winners. That money flows as states grapple with budget shortfalls, raising questions about how much of the common-standards agenda—or any other education reform agenda—they can actually complete. And states in the survey identified fiscal problems as a particular challenge in implementing the common core.

But organizers of the Common-Core State Standards Initiative believe states can save money by working together to develop instructional materials, professional development courses, and other supports for the new standards. They also point to the potential savings in collaborating on assessment development.

“Money is definitely an issue right now,” said Chris Minnich, the director of strategic initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers, which organized the development of the standards with the National Governors Association. “We have to have states work together to realize the savings we’ve talked about all along.”

Because the common standards are intended to prepare students for college, the survey asked states what plans their higher education systems had to link themselves to the new standards. Some said their college systems planned to revise the academic or pedagogical content of teacher-preparation programs to reflect the common standards, but nearly as many said they didn’t know if such changes were planned. Most of the states said they didn’t know whether colleges would align their admissions or curriculum to the new learning goals.

That disconnect between K-12 and higher education troubles many policymakers, who note the alarming rates of remediation needed by new college students. Development of the new standards is one attempt to address that schism with a shared, rigorous set of goals that reflect higher education’s expectations. Another is the common assessments: Many higher education systems have pledged to work with states to use those tests to make course-placement decisions.

Mr. Minnich said the CCSSO has formed a partnership with several higher education organizations to help college systems and K-12 work closely together as the new standards and assessments are implemented.

The group is also facilitating discussions with states about gauging teacher effectiveness in delivering the common standards, Mr. Minnich said. States in the CEP survey identified that area as a particular challenge in implementing the standards.

States’ responses to the survey have limited meaning because anticipating change is a lot easier than delivering it, said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“Anticipating change doesn’t cause even one bead of sweat to come up,” he said. “It’s easy to offer a couple of days of professional development. But it’s when they have to make hard decisions, like on assessments, about where the cut points are and what they mean; that’s when there are problems. Things can be very popular at the aspirational stage, but when the rubber hits the road, that’s when people back away.”

Mr. Minnich said the survey responses show some of the challenges that lie ahead, but also that states are “taking [common-standards implementation] seriously.”

“Saying you’re doing something is the first step in the process,” he said. “At first, we had 48 states say they were going to adopt. Now, we have 44 that have actually done it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Full Standards-Based System Several Years Off


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