Standards

In National First, Kentucky Adopts Common Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — February 11, 2010 5 min read
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Kentucky has become the first state to adopt common academic standards that were drafted as part of a nationwide initiative to establish a widely shared and ambitious vision of student learning.

With a unanimous vote this month, the Kentucky board of education approved the substitution of the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts for the state’s own standards in those two subjects.

Then, in a rare joint session, the panel met in Frankfort with the two boards that oversee teacher licensure and public higher education in the state and adopted a resolution directing the staffs of all three agencies to begin incorporating the standards into their work. That will mean determining what changes are needed so that the common standards are reflected in the preparation and testing of new teachers, the design of professional development for current teachers, and the way the state provides K-12 curriculum guidance to districts.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association are spearheading what is known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The K-12 standards crafted as part of that initiative are still in draft form, with a final version expected by early spring. (“Reviewers Urge Standards Fixes,” Feb. 3, 2010.)

In making their decisions, the Kentucky boards relied on late-stage drafts that have been circulating among state officials for review. But their decisions direct their staffs to implement the final version of the common standards once it is completed. The state will also wait for the final version to begin the normal 30-day regulatory-review period, officials said.

Legislative Mandate

The state education department plans to train teachers on the common standards this summer so they can begin teaching to them next fall. It plans to administer assessments designed for the common standards in spring 2012.

Gov. Steven L. Beshear, a Democrat, attended the joint meeting and expressed support for the boards’ votes, as did the two chairmen of the state legislature’s education committees. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are strong supporters of the common-standards initiative, and have said states will have a better chance at federal stimulus money in the Race to the Top competition if they pledge to support the work. All states but Alaska and Texas have done so.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO, said in an e-mail that Kentucky’s adoption of the common standards reflects “a united state leadership unlike any I have seen.”

“They are pulling together in very impressive ways,” said Mr. Wilhoit, a former commissioner of education in Kentucky.

The unusual level of cooperation among the three boards is required by a bill passed last year by the Kentucky legislature. A sweeping revision of the state’s standards and accountability system, the measure mandates, among other provisions, that the education department, the Council on Postsecondary Education, and the Education Professional Standards Board collaborate on new standards that are narrower and deeper, and better aligned with college expectations.

The collaboration could lead to a larger role for higher education in supplying ongoing professional development for the teachers it trains, said Robert L. King, the president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, which sets policy for the state’s 24 public two- and four-year colleges.

“We’ve been articulating a much broader relationship [with teachers] that goes beyond the time they are students in our classrooms preparing to go into teaching,” he said.

The council has already been providing professional development, in math and English/language arts, to classroom teachers through two university-based centers, Mr. King said. He is now discussing with state Commissioner of Education Terry K. Holliday ways to scale up that operation, including training teachers in working with the common standards.

“I believe higher education can play a very positive role in this respect,” Mr. King said.

Mr. Holliday said he sees the common-standards adoption as an important next step in Kentucky’s work pioneering standards-based education. The state adopted its own standards as part of a nationally watched 1990 legislative overhaul of its education system.

“Kentucky led education reform in the early 1990s, and we’re very committed to continuing to do that,” Mr. Holliday said.

Bringing the state’s 47,000 teachers up to speed on the new standards, and helping them translate those ideas into curriculum for the classroom, will take time and money, educators said.

Lu S. Young, the superintendent of the 7,600-student Jessamine County district, said she is excited about the common standards’ potential to facilitate teachers’ sharing—even across states—of great ideas about instructional strategies and units of study. But she cautioned that the standards can’t be implemented well without the time and training to enable conversation, planning, and curriculum-writing in local districts.

“Teachers need time to reach agreement on what the standards mean for day-to-day instruction,” said Ms. Young, who chairs a panel that advises the state education department on curriculum, instruction, and assessment issues.

Financial Limitations

Democratic state Rep. Harry Moberly, one of the co-authors of last year’s bill mandating the new standards, said the education department and higher education council have requested money for training on the common standards. Lawmakers will consider it as they weigh a fiscal 2011 budget, he said, but their ability to deliver might be “somewhat limited” because of the economic downturn. He expressed hope for the funding, saying he considers implementation of the common standards “momentous” in the state’s bid to prepare students to compete in a global economy.

Some Kentucky teachers have grave reservations about the common-standards initiative. Brent McKim, the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, a 5,700-member affiliate of the National Education Association, said he doesn’t believe the standards will resolve the problem of having to teach too much material in too little time.

“They haven’t used a design that takes into account the amount of time we have available,” he said. “We’re jumping on a bandwagon we should not be jumping on.”

But the president of the statewide teachers’ union disagreed. Kentucky teachers have been feeling that the current state standards are “way too broad and not nearly deep enough,” said Sharron K. Oxendine, the president of the 41,000-member Kentucky Education Association, also an NEA affiliate. She hopes that by attempting to take a “fewer, clearer, higher” approach, the common standards will enable teachers to cover critical key areas in more depth.

“Any time a large group of people go through a huge change like this, it’s obviously going to be very difficult at first,” Ms. Oxendine said. “But I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to say this is what we’ve needed for so, so long.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Kentucky Is First State to Adopt Common Academic Standards

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