New York leaders have approved a new set of reading and math expectations for students, moving the state a step away from the Common Core State Standards, which are still in use in some 36 states.
The new standards retain many of the common core’s key features. They still emphasize learning how to read and analyze increasingly complex texts, and how to learn problem-solving algorithms and model with math.
Educators are still parsing out precisely what some of the changes will mean for day-to-day instruction. Accompanying changes in curriculum, training, and testing are still months and years away.
The change caps an incredibly tumultuous seven years of policymaking in New York, much of which was wrapped up in the state’s successful push to win a $700 million Race to the Top grant. Political pressure led the state to weaken, although not eliminate, many of the things it agreed to do as part of the grant, including rating teachers’ performance in part on student test scores. The common-core standards, which were rolled out quickly and with what even supporters say was insufficient training, have now yielded to pressure, too.
“The stress was causing New York to be almost dysfunctional, and one of the things I kept hearing over and over was that the standards were shoved on people and they didn’t have the opportunity to work together to understand their introduction,” state Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said in an interview. She came on board during the height of the debate, in 2015, and immediately embarked on a listening tour to get feedback about the standards.
About nine other states have also overhauled their common-core adoptions—many making only modest additions, deletions, and changes to the standards. But based on the state’s size alone, New York’s revisions will have a bigger reach than those made by other states; there are 2.6 million schoolchildren in the Empire State.
New York’s revisions can be chalked up largely to politics. Like most states, New York periodically updates its academic standards, but the state wasn’t under a requirement to do it this year.
But many other states are staring at possible revisions soon, since most states that adopted the common core did so in 2010 and 2011. Even states that never faced significant political pressure to replace the common core will soon be taking a good, hard look at them because of their mandate to revise academic expectations periodically.
That’s likely to mean that, over time the common core will become less common.
The New Standards vs. The Common Core
New York’s rewriting of the standards took two years, as groups of teachers and parents, organized into several subcommittees, went through every standard. The state also reviewed more than 4,000 public comments.
So, what’s new and different in the New York State Next Generation Learning Standards?
- Much of the content in the common core remains. To an extent, these standards and accompanying introductions are simply wordier versions of the common core. There is a new preface, a new introduction to the English/language arts standards, an introduction to the Early Learning Standards, and a glossary of the terms used in the standards. While these pieces aren’t standards, they are important because they serve as a guide to how the state thinks the standards should be used. The math standards are now in columns, with the standards on the left side of the page and clarifying examples on the right.
- The early learning introduction pushes hard for a play-based approach to implementation. It also uses the term “developmentally appropriate” 11 times in just a few pages. The product of a special task force, this document reflects concern among early childhood educators that play-based learning is too often sacrificed to academics and rote learning. Some research suggests that academic expectations in kindergarten have risen, but cognitive scientists also note that research doesn’t support the notion that children go through developmental stages that must be matched with different practices. In all, the term “developmentally appropriate” is not particularly well defined, so one question sparked by this introduction is: What message is being sent to teachers about the more academic portions of the early learning standards?
- In what may be the biggest change, the state has combined two of its English/language arts standards: reading for information and reading for literature. In the common core, these were two separate threads. This appears to be a response to critics who argue the common core was squeezing out literature in favor of nonfiction. It’s meant to convey that both are important and can reinforce one another, Elia said.
- Another change of sorts was made the common core’s text complexity requirements. You may remember that the original standards emphasize building both background knowledge and skill by having students read complex texts on grade level. They gave a target Lexile range for the end of each grade level. Now, New York has added long paragraphs in its introduction to each grade. They seem designed to clarify that the texts students use when they are learning how to decode can be simpler than the ones they use for other purposes. That is, teacher read-alouds should be more complex and should go about the work of building students’ background knowledge and vocabulary. (Still, groups like the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute don’t like how text complexity was removed as a stand-alone standard and placed instead in the introductory material for each grade level.)
- In English/language arts, some of the “anchor standards” have been excised or moved. In math, kindergarten gained some standards on exploring coin money and on pattern recognition. And there are some changes to middle-grade probability and statistics standards; many have been moved from one grade to another. Some standards that were repetitive from grade to grade were also excised.
- The document, as part of its glossary, also has a new verb: To “explore” a concept, rather than to “evaluate,” or “describe” or “analyze.” It’s used more in the earlier grades, and means that pupils don’t necessarily have to demonstrate mastery just yet. It’s unclear, again, what signal this is going to send to teachers about expectations.
- The state also decided to move some trigonometry material around, putting more of it into Algebra 2 and cutting it out of geometry. (The common core didn’t organize specific math high school course-taking sequences, so this reflects the state’s own decision about how to sequence these topics.)
- The most important take-away from all of this: It’s difficult know just what these changes are going to mean for instruction. When new standards are released, teachers tend to hold onto a lot of what they were doing before. The state is planning to help roll out the changes to districts through modules created by curriculum experts at its professional-development Teacher Centers. Tests that align to these changes, though, won’t be put in place until 2021. (That could be a lesson learned from a few years back, when the state’s common-core curricula wasn’t even complete before testing began.)
What do observers think of these changes?
Lisa Hansel, the editor of an early childhood journal at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, who knows the standards intimately thanks to a former gig at the Core Knowledge Foundation, generally praised what she’s seen of New York’s new iteration. She likes their more verbose nature and the focus on explanations instead of a choppy list of standards.
“They emphasize explaining their intent, and I think that’s a big improvement over anything that’s like a checklist,” she said. “The common core had some very helpful explanations, but they were not embedded in the standards.”
She also likes the early childhood introduction’s thrust—though she notes that teachers must be trained to be “careful observers and intentional in their interactions” to effectively develop children’s vocabulary and knowledge through play-based activities.
“A rich play-based learning environment is both highly effective for children, and more difficult to create, than a lot of those of us in the education realm seem to realize,” she said.
What Led to N.Y.'s Common-Core Overhaul?
New York State United Teachers—which was a powerful force in opposing the way New York rolled out its common-core curriculum—also expressed some cautious optimism about the rewrite, though it left open the door to further revisions.
“We thank parents and teachers across the state for the input they provided to the Regents and State Education Department on the new standards, yet there is still more work to do,” the union said in a statement. “The Next Generation Standards, like all standards, are living, breathing documents. NYSUT will continue to work to ensure our members’ input is shared at the state level.”
NYSUT, in general, contends that teachers didn’t have enough say-so when the standards were being vetted and adopted in 2010-11. But the union’s main target over the past few years hasn’t been the common core itself so much as the related tests that both determined school grades—and made part of some teachers’ annual evaluations.
Teachers and parents were also stressed out by how fast the new, harder tests were put into place, and by the drops in scores that accompanied the first round of testing.
The pressure point that caused Gov. Andrew Cuomo to finally agree to overhaul the state’s common core implementation was, arguably, the success of the testing opt-out movement, which was endorsed by NYSUT and some of its parent-group allies. Nearly one in five students in tested grades opted out in the 2014-15 school year.
Soon after, Cuomo convened a task force that later issued a report acknowledging a hurried rollout and not enough clarity and training for teachers, and eventually paving the way for the rewrite.
Photo: New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks during a TeachNY news conference in 2016, in Albany, N.Y.—Mike Groll/AP-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.