Will the recently released draft of K-12 standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative provide a degree of coherence in academic expectations for students, teachers, and education systems that has not previously been available in American education? Or will this effort be one more failed reform, distinguished more by enthusiastic presentation than by successful implementation? The answer depends not merely on the standards documents, but also on the degree to which policymakers and leaders are willing to link the clear intent of the standards to the reality of the classroom.
We should first acknowledge that, in a nation committed to “local control” of education, any attempt to draft common standards represents courageous and difficult work. The standards-writers deserve our thanks, if not always our agreement. But while I applaud the rigor and specificity present in much of the standards document, I must challenge what seems to be its central premise: that standards are merely the “what” of education, while the “how” must be left to the discretion of individual schools and teachers.
In the introduction to the English/language arts standards document, for example, the writers declare: “Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the standards” [Page 2]. And they then say, “The standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do but not how teachers should teach” [Page 3]. Such statements undermine what is otherwise a document with a great deal of promise.
Consider the best features of the proposed common-core standards, which include a refreshing emphasis on nonfiction reading and writing at the elementary school level. The document suggests that 65 percent of elementary school writing should be explanatory or persuasive in nature, while most current elementary writing is dominated by fiction, fantasy, poetry, and personal narrative.
The standards also make clear that teachers in social studies and science are responsible for teaching and assessing reading, writing, speaking, and listening as well, a directive that is particularly important at the secondary level. Recent research suggests that while teachers are widely aware of the importance of evidence-based instructional practices in writing, they are not likely to apply them in secondary social studies and science classes.
The standards for grades 6-8 are particularly strong, and will for many schools represent a significant improvement in the preparation of students for high school. If taken seriously, they will lead to dramatic increases in the attention given to the teaching and assessment of reading and writing in these grades. The case for improved quantity and quality of nonfiction writing and reading at this level is supported with an impressive collection of research.
The standards-writers not only make clear the importance of greater rigor in our expectations of what student literacy should be, but also demonstrate convincingly that most students now fail to read and write at the levels suggested by these standards. Indeed, students are rarely asked to read and write with this degree of complexity.
The standards-writers deserve special commendation for their emphasis on kindergarten reading and writing. While I continue to hear the evidence-free argument that it is not “developmentally appropriate” for kindergartners to read and write, the standards document demonstrates with authentic examples that students can rise to the challenge. Writing, or failing to write, by the ages of 5 or 6 is not a reflection of brain development, but a consequence of adult expectations.
The false “what-how” dichotomy, however, threatens to reduce the standards-writers’ accomplishments to rubble. In their introduction, for example, they also say that “the standards do not mandate such things as a particular writing process or specify the full range of metacognitive strategies that students may need to use to monitor and direct their thinking and learning” [Page 2]. They might as well have written, “While the evidence suggests that obesity is a national tragedy with enormous personal and financial costs, we completely support your decision to dive into a smorgasbord of sugared water and junk food.” After all, recommending diet and exercise would be too close to mandating a “process,” something these standards eschew.
Any careful reading of the standards makes clear that process and content are essential components of effective education. The document very clearly does not regard every expression of professional judgment as equally valid. The writers, properly in my view, would require that 4th grade students “produce coherent and clear writing in which the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” [Page 18].
The document also provides very explicit requirements for persuasive, informative, and narrative writing at each grade level. The expectations for revisions, research, correction, and adherence to conventions all have clear implications for teaching methods and instructional leadership.
With a majority of states having agreed to embrace the common-core standards, this moment is too important to let slip away. Now is not the time to weaken before those who think that “local control” implies a constitutional right of indifference to evidence. Standards take us halfway up the mountain. If we are to reach the summit, then teaching and leadership, not equivocation and indecision, will take us there. n
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as From What to How