The time for the Common Core State Standards is now. With U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent announcement that the federal Department of Education will relax enforcement of the No Child Left Behind Act in states in exchange for the adoption of rigorous college and career standards, it is safe to say that many states will simply formalize their commitments to the standards as part of their waiver requests, opening the door to the full implementation of the standards. That could—and should—be a good thing.
However, a survey released earlier this year found that barely half the school districts in states that have adopted the common standards have begun the intensive process of aligning their teaching to the standards. And, no one seems to be asking whether colleges and universities are considering the standards and how they relate to college-level work. This is more important than ever, particularly given the level of authority granted to postsecondary institutions to approve the standards in the NCLB waiver-request guidelines. For that reason, states will need to move quickly to get postsecondary institutions on board with the common core. In addition, state legislators and other community leaders who have been standing on the sidelines of the common-core debate are finally going to have their say.
But the implied connection of the common core to federal accountability requirements may empower many to question the standards as a further imposition of government control. To build broad commitment to the standards, there should be proven models that show how the common core can facilitate greater alignment between postsecondary education and K-12 education. The result would be a reduced need for remediation for struggling students, increased college-success rates, and faster degree attainment.
How Do We Know This? The English Curriculum Alignment Project, or ECAP, in San Diego offers some important lessons for the thousands of school districts nationwide that will be held accountable by the common-core standards by the 2013-14 school year. ECAP, which launched in 2004 and with which we are both familiar, is an intensive, groundbreaking effort to align what is taught in high school with what students will need to know and be able to do in college.
Simply having a standard in place is no assurance that higher education and K-12 teaching are aligned to the standard and to the expectations for college-level work."
Together, high school teachers and college faculty members participating in ECAP looked through years of transcript information made available through the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success. Examining student performance over time, San Diego educators learned that students who took advanced English courses through 12th grade needed the same level of remediation in community college as students who stopped taking English courses after 10th grade.
Disturbed by this finding, teachers dug deeper for the source of students’ collegiate struggles. After sharing lesson plans and curricula, they discovered that high school teachers taught mostly literature, focusing on characters and story lines in classic works of fiction. Meanwhile, English instructors at the community college involved in ECAP were teaching students about argumentation and writing clearly to inform, persuade, and describe—key skills needed to succeed at work, think critically, and contribute to the community.
Recognizing this startling disconnect, San Diego teachers worked to better align their teaching with college expectations. Standards-based high school lesson plans were developed that helped students organize content and write clearly with a deep understanding of genre, audience, purpose, and argument. The thoughtful blend of the literary and rhetorical values of the English-literature classroom and an emphasis on rigorous writing, reading, and critical-thinking skills put students on track for success in college and career. It is an approach right in line with the common-core standards, which put greater emphasis on writing and nonfiction.
Avoiding a ‘Rude Awakening.’ We shouldn’t underestimate the task of getting our high school and college-level teachers to connect their work to the common core and of routinely monitoring student-performance information. State leaders also need to understand that it will take hard work to foster collaboration between K-12 and higher education. The distance between adopting the standards at the state level and actually putting them into practice in the classroom can be measured in how well the work of teachers from both levels of education fits together. Simply having a standard in place is no assurance that higher education and K-12 teaching are aligned to the standard and to the expectations for college-level work.
We’re in for a rude awakening if the work of implementing the standards is not done now in states. The shock will hit after the first set of results is announced from the implementation of the two common-core-aligned assessments being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. States that are caught flat-footed by these results will face a perilous political environment that could undermine the common core before it even has a chance to transform classrooms across the country.
The enthusiastic and imperative work of translating the broad standards into daily lessons should be given the same meticulous attention that developing the standards and gaining state approval received. Gathering the necessary input and support required a herculean effort by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve.
We must not waste this golden opportunity to create a standards thoroughfare between K-12 and higher education. It is the necessary next step in collectively raising our standards for student success and developing the next-generation education system we need to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Standards: A Golden Opportunity for K-16 Collaboration