Todd Clark remembers his “aha” moment when Florida began rolling out the next generation of state academic-content standards to its teachers in 2007.
The updated math standards spelled out far fewer objectives than the ones they were designed to replace and were meant to encourage teachers to delve much more deeply into topics—a corrective to the “mile-wide, inch-deep” phenomenon seen in the existing state standards. But Clark, the state bureau chief for curriculum and instruction, says that one teacher’s comment at a hearing on the standards underscored for him the difficulty the state would face in aligning instructional practices to the new expectations.
“I had a 5th grade teacher come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Clark, I can cover all of these objectives by December,’ ” he recalls. “The way she saw it was that there was only enough material for her to cover half a year.”
It is difficult enough for teachers in just one state to exchange long-held practices for newer ones. But if all 50 states were to adopt a set of common content standards, the calculus could become even more daunting: There are about 3.3 million public school teachers in the United States, and even if the initial standards were to cover only math and English/language arts, the numbers affected could be significant.
The potential challenge is leading some observers to argue that other stakeholders must be engaged in attempts to reshape teacher training, craft new curricular materials, devise methods of gauging student progress toward any new standards, and audit classrooms to ensure that instruction is aligned with them.
None of those conversations will be easy, they say. But without such efforts, a set of common standards will risk becoming the educational equivalent of bric-a-brac—attractive but useless.
“The danger is that once 20,000-foot common standards are out the door, that’s the end of the process,” says Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a former director of the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. “If that happens, I think it will be a wasted effort.”
Like many other educators, Jennifer Morrison has been closely following the most recent common-standards undertaking, spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association, along with partners such as Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group that works with states to set more-rigorous content standards. Forty-eight states have joined in the initiative.
“The use of common standards is going to be determined by leadership, assessment, and professional development, and that’s where things are going to get political,” says Morrison, who was a classroom data and assessment specialist for 12 years. She now works as a consultant for ASCD, the Alexandria, Va.-based professional-development group formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
“Standards are just words. ... Deep down, people know that, right now, it’s not the standards that are the drivers in the classroom,” she says.
As many educators concede, teachers tend to be creatures of habit. Learning how to teach to a new set of standards will, at first, be just one of hundreds of activities vying for attention on the typical teacher’s list, along with lunchroom monitoring and after-school coaching.
That results in what Morrison calls “cherry-picking”: Rather than beginning by breaking down new standards into curricular units, many teachers try to match their existing curricula to the new standards, operating on a mix of their own interest, what’s likely to appear on the state test, and what they’re habituated to doing.
A typical reading standard, for instance, requires students to gain new vocabulary from context cues. But Morrison says that the implementation of such a standard tends to be anything but common.
“In 17 different classrooms, you will get 17 different vocabulary programs. One teacher will use the textbook the district adopted, and another teacher will use the vocabulary unit she’s had for 30 years,” says Morrison. “Teachers are often on topic, but they are not targeting the standard.”
Observers say massive investment in professional training will be needed to move the needle in that area. But, notes Richard Long, the government-relations director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association, no one knows precisely who will meet the funding challenge.
“Frankly, I’m hoping some of the foundations will step up,” he says.
As the primary stakeholders driving the development of common standards, states will likely be on the front lines.
Putting broad-based academic standards into day-to-day practice in the classroom can be a challenge for educators. To help bridge the divide, states have developed a variety of tools and resources that can help teachers better align their instruction to state standards and assessments. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, for example, make assessment frameworks available in both English/language arts and math. Nearly 40 states provide curriculum guides for teachers in those subjects, with most also offering sample lesson plans.
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2010
When Tennessee’s new math, reading, and language arts standards were unveiled in 2008, officials pulled out all the stops to try to reach every teacher, says Connie J. Smith, the assistant commissioner for the state’s division of teaching, learning, and accountability. Meetings to introduce the standards to every teacher in the state—in person and through satellite broadcasts—were supplemented with specialized content workshops hosted by expert subject-matter teachers.
That was crucial, Smith says, because the new mathematics standards introduced algebraic concepts at the middle school level.
Still, educators such as Morrison say that individual site-based professional development, embedded in schools, will be necessary to leverage changes in instruction.
“If teachers have to really focus on designing assessments that measure standards, they really see them in a whole new light,” Morrison says.
One crucial area is likely to be writing curricula that are aligned to common standards.
A recent paper by Whitehurst, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, reports that the effect sizes of certain curricula outpaced other types of interventions, including charter schools and changes to teacher-compensation structures.
One concern he has about standards is that they don’t always specify the content that students should be able to master at each grade level.
“Until that granularity is established, it will be hard to develop assessments and have professional development,” Whitehurst says.
To some extent, the United States’ decentralized way of dealing with curricula all but assures difficulties in reaching that outcome. The curriculum-development process is largely driven by state textbook-adoption processes, a system that critics say has caused the texts to expand as publishers try to match multiple sets of state standards.
In small states where few textbooks are aligned to standards, and in states that leave curricular decisions entirely to local educators, districts must use curricular “maps” to find and fill in the gaps between textbooks and standards, says Michael Lindstrom, the executive director of SciMathMN, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn. And the pressure to rely on textbooks is higher in districts that lack the staff or other capacity to craft curricula in-house.
“They almost don’t have enough colleagues in some content areas with whom to talk this stuff through,” Lindstrom says.
In the view of Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, teachers need extra help with curriculum precisely because no one stakeholder group ultimately has responsibility for ensuring all teachers can access rich curricula.
She argues that the drafters of common standards should, in collaboration with teachers and other subject-matter experts, write model lessons aligned to the standards that are detailed enough to guide conversations about curricula.
“There has got to be substance and content that is illustrative, a road map aligned to the standards,” Weingarten says. “There’s a big difference between a content-rich, sequenced curriculum and, ‘It’s 2 p.m., open your textbooks to Page 25 and ask kids to read the first paragraph.’”
So far, the partners involved in the CCSSO-NGA common-standards venture have shied away from specifying content at a curricular grain size.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative’s college- and career-readiness standards in English/language arts contain examples of texts and related tasks that students meeting expectations should be able to master. But they are not meant to serve as any kind of curriculum, says Ilene Berman, a program director in the NGA’s education division.
“Ultimately, that’s a local decision, and we respect that,” she says.
Others believe that the federal government could play a role. Whitehurst suggests that the Education Department could be allowed to encourage other entities to design materials aligned to common standards, and provide incentives for states and localities to adopt such resources. That would presumably not run afoul of prohibitions against federally imposed curricula, as long as the agency did not mandate or endorse particular materials, he says.
Still, the fear that model lessons of any sort could slide into a de facto requirement remains real.
Kendra Parks, a high school history teacher in Madison, Wis., says even the idea of common courses, which are being discussed in her district, makes some teachers nervous. In her view, standards should remain more abstract, while allowing schools and teachers plenty of room to determine the content that should be taught in order to meet benchmarks.
“I don’t know if this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing or an idea that is just really hard to make practical,” Parks says about common standards. “I think [the framers of common standards] need to be clear about what success looks like across different curricula.”
There are widespread differences in what teachers actually do in classrooms, even in states that are more prescriptive about curriculum. Little national data offer insights into what goes on once teachers close their classroom doors.
A handful of tools developed over the past decade, though, point to some ways of providing better answers. One such tool, the Surveys of Enacted Curriculum, relies on teacher surveys to provide basic information to districts on the level of alignment within their schools between standards and instruction.
About 12,000 teachers a year, in districts across some 20 states, now use the tool, developed by the CCSSO and state partners. But Rolf K. Blank, the director of education indicators programs at the CCSSO, and a technical advisor for Quality Counts 2010, says he is not aware of any state that has audited curricula or instruction across the board. (Massachusetts, which performed its own form of curriculum auditing, stopped that practice recently.)
Instead, Blank says, it is more common for a district to request such an analysis from a state or for states to home in on districts with apparent instructional problems—such as those in which many schools repeatedly miss annual testing benchmarks.
Several experts argue that a form of auditing could be one way to measure whether standards actually bring changes to instruction.
E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, criticizes most state standards for not spelling out in great detail the content students should be expected to master.
Hirsch believes that a common-standards effort still could produce better results for students if it is coupled with greater oversight of local curricula. He points to Finland, one of the top performers on international tests. In that nation, schools must spell out in great detail how their local curricula and instruction meet nationally set expectations.
“We pretend to give standards, but they don’t have any content or guidance,” Hirsch says. “The Finns pretend not to impose any content, but de facto what they get is commonality, because of their requirement for specificity.”
Morrison, the ASCD consultant, would like to see a more bottom-up system. For example, she says, groups of schools, and eventually whole districts, ultimately might devise common assignments and end-of-course tests. The schools could use the resulting data as an internal check on how well instruction aligns with standards.
Role of Assessments
In practice, the tool most states use to gauge outcomes is standardized testing.
But the predominantly multiple-choice assessments often don’t align with standards, in part because they aren’t well suited to measure higher-order critical-thinking skills, such as whether students can integrate information across several domains or apply knowledge.
As part of the federal economic-stimulus program’s Race to the Top Fund, the U.S. secretary of education has reserved $350 million to finance work by consortia of states to devise common assessment tools that better measure such skills.
Such consortia have proved viable. Four states have collaborated on exams for accountability purposes in the New England Common Assessment Program, and another consortium, as part of an endeavor with Achieve, produced a common test for Algebra 2.
In fact, some experts think that, although the development of new items to measure higher-order skills will be challenging, a potentially bigger question is how to agree on a common performance standard, or “cut score.”
“It is a political question about how much you need to know and be able to do to be proficient,” says Randy E. Bennett, a distinguished senior fellow at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service. “But it seems to me to make more sense to have one cut point than 50.”
Experts also say that, at some point, states will need to address the problem of lag time between the creation of new standards and of aligned tests.
A hard-learned lesson under the No Child Left Behind law, state officials say, is that updating standards sometimes requires teachers to juggle new standards with the old ones on which not-yet-updated tests were based.
Still others don’t expect refinements in how students are taught until common assessments and the data systems that accompany them are well in place.
Unlike with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests representative samples of students, such data could presumably be linked to individual students and teachers, allowing analysts to drill down into every student’s trajectory through school.
“What we’ll have is the same kind of haggling and arguing and noisy debates about curriculum offering more heat than light, until we have the data in place to show us what really works,” says Arthur E. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
“We are talking about moving giant bureaucracies and whole states,” he says. “So this is a place to begin. The next step will involve improvements in the way we get to the standards.”