Draft Common Standards Elicit Kudos and Criticism


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Education Brief, Education Week

By Catherine Gewertz
The first public draft of grade-by-grade common standards, released this morning, is being greeted with a mix of praise and skepticism, illustrating both the mounting consensus that the country needs to set higher expectations for all students and the many problems that complicate their adoption.
An earlier standards document, released last fall, outlined a set of “college and career readiness” skills that students should master by graduation. The document released Wednesday, from the same common-standards initiative, completes the picture by specifying the competencies students must have in each grade if they are to reach those goals. Merged now into one draft, the standards represent a sweeping—and controversial—attempt to describe the skills and knowledge every American student should have in English/language arts and mathematics to thrive in college or careers.
In 62 pages, the English/language arts standards aim to “lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century,” able to tackle complex works of literature and nonfiction, sift critically through the masses of information available online, and marshal evidence to build compelling arguments. The draft document describes how the standards break down into skills in reading, writing, listening, speaking, and language usage. It also details specific literacy skills students need to help them understand coursework in science and in history/social studies.

Three hundred pages of appendices offer examples of student work that shows “at least adequate” performance in the standards at various grade levels, and examples of texts that illustrate the complexity, quality, and range appropriate to various grade levels. They also set forth the research basis for the standards.
The 71-page mathematics standards attempt to avoid the charge of “mile-wide, inch-deep” treatment of the subject by carving out key ideas and emphasizing conceptual understanding of them, and placing a premium on students’ ability to explain math problems, not simply compute them. A 60-page appendix is a guide to designing high school courses that capture the content standards.
But the draft also states the limitations of the standards. The English/language arts document says, for instance, that it makes no attempt to tell teachers how to teach, or describe everything that should be taught.
Teacher Input Requested
Drafted behind closed doors by teams of academics, state education officials, and policymaking groups, and then circulated repeatedly and confidentially to scores of leaders and education advocates for feedback and revision, the standards are now open for public comment through April 2. They are posted at www.corestandards.org, a Web site created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the two groups leading the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which has the support of 48 states and President Barack Obama’s administration. Once public feedback is incorporated into this draft, a final version will be posted in late spring, NGA and CCSSO officials said.
Some teachers have participated in drafting the standards, but the organizers said they want many more to offer feedback during the public-comment period.
Chris Minnich, who is leading the common-standards work for the CCSSO, said he wants to know whether teachers find the standards “teachable,” and whether the grade-by-grade progressions of skills outlined in them make sense. Dane Linn, who leads the work for the NGA, said he would also like teachers’ ideas on curriculum materials and assessments that could be developed to reflect the standards.
Addressing one area of controversy about the standards, Mr. Linn said that the two groups do not plan to craft a national curriculum or assessments for the standards. Instead, he said, the groups might play “a catalyzing role” by helping coordinate the efforts of publishers, education organizations, school districts, or groups of teachers, for instance, to do that work.
“The last thing we want is a one-size-fits-all [curriculum or assessment],” Mr. Linn said.
But that is exactly what some see in the common-standards draft. Paul E. Barton, a senior associate at the Educational Testing Service’s Policy Information Center, said the standards reinforce the flawed idea that one shared set of goals suits all students.
“It conflates the idea of higher standards at the high school level with standardization of high school curriculum,” he said. “We need curriculum opportunities that recognize the diversity of students, how different they are when they enter high school, their different goals, learning modes, and ambitions.”
A better approach, Mr. Barton said, would be building a more varied menu of options for students by having educators and organizations develop a broad array of rigorous courses with matching exams for districts or states to adopt.
Skills Debate Resurfaces
The completion of the public draft sparked a repeat of earlier criticism from some quarters that the common standards demand skills such as critical thinking without the underlying subject-matter knowledge required to learn those skills.
Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based research and advocacy group, said the common standards are “skills-based standards without any real content to speak of.” He said he is worried that Massachusetts’ own standards will be “dumbed down” if the state adopts the common standards.
But Richard Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association, commended the draft for its potential to serve as a “cornerstone” of improvement in U.S. education. Too much focus on subject-matter knowledge in standards, he said, risks turning schooling into a mechanical use of facts, rather than a process of learning how to apply key skills to varying sets of facts.
The standards aim to prepare students for good jobs. But experts disagree on the extent of overlap in the skills and knowledge required by various kinds of careers.
Gary Hoachlander, the president of ConnectEd, a Berkeley, Calif.-based group that supports integrated career and technical education in that state, said that while the draft common standards are “an impressive piece of work” that defines desirable skills and knowledge, they contain little articulation of skills applicable to the marketplace.
“It’s difficult to see how career readiness significantly influenced the content here,” he said. “There is little attention or mention of examples that link more directly to the world of work, to the kinds of problems students will encounter out there, like examples of good technical writing. It’s a glass half full.”
Douglas B. Reeves, a widely recognized expert on standards and curriculum, who is based in Boston, called the public draft “a first-rate piece of work” with laudable rigor and clarity. He praised it for making explicit connections between grade levels and subjects, bringing “rare levels of rigor” to middle school, and placing more emphasis on nonfiction reading and writing in elementary school.
The “great gift” of the standards, he said, is their potential to bring focus to K-12 learning. But that could be squandered if states view the common standards as simply another layer on top of their own standards, curriculum, and assessments, he said.
Mr. Reeves urged the standards-writers to embrace and clarify an important message about teaching that the document itself contradicts.
“The draft says it doesn’t tell teachers how to teach, but it really does, and that’s a good thing,” he said in an interview. He explained in an e-mail: “Teaching methods that fail to support reading and writing at challenging levels are not matters of personal taste. The politically saccharine implication to teachers and administrators that ‘you can still do whatever you want to do, in your own professional judgment’ is disingenuous,” he said.
Embracing Pieces
The draft standards are coming in for mixed reviews from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Henry S. Kepner Jr., its president, said he likes the draft’s stated support for problem-solving, reasoning, and communication in math, but he feels those are not evident enough throughout the document. In some places, math concepts are introduced earlier than the NCTM would like to see, and in some places later, he said.
But overall, Mr. Kepner said, he thinks the draft is “on the right track.”
State education officials had varied reactions as well.
Karen Klinzing, who oversees standards development in Minnesota as the assistant education commissioner, said the common standards for English/language arts are at least as rigorous as Minnesota’s own highly regarded standards, but those for math “are not there yet.”
While the current math draft is a great improvement over earlier drafts, it still falls short in supplying enough algebraic reasoning in grades K-7 to enable all students to be ready for Algebra 1 in 8th grade, as Minnesota’s standards do, Ms. Klinzing said.
“We would have to go backwards to implement the standards as they are now,” she said of the math draft.
Martha R. Reichrath, Georgia’s deputy state superintendent of education, said that her review team found “significant gaps and holes” in the math section of earlier drafts, but saw that their feedback was heeded in subsequent versions, erasing those concerns.
Adopting the common standards “won’t significantly raise the bar for students in Georgia, not because [they] are weak, but because ours are so strong,” Ms. Reichrath said, since Georgia has been infusing more rigor into its own standards in the past seven years. Adopting the common standards would provide a stamp of approval that the state has “been on the right path all along,” she said.
Trecina Green, the director of curriculum and instruction for Mississippi, said she had heard “mixed reviews” of the common standards from her online conversations with education officials in other states. “Some people feel the common-core standards are just as rigorous as their own, and that’s the way to go, but some other states are feeling that the standards may be too rigorous,” she said.
Many of those conclusions could be refined by a detailed analysis of how the common standards compare with states’ own standards, she said. Mississippi will be able to determine how feasible the common standards are to adopt and implement once it does such an analysis, Ms. Green said. Her chief concern at the moment, though, is what changes, if any, adoption of those standards would require in the state’s assessments, she said.
Wholesale Restructuring
Some of those charged with translating the common standards into curricula are expressing interest, optimism, and yet caution about the new draft.
Kathy Augustine, Atlanta’s deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said she likes the draft document’s attention to adaptations needed for English-learners and special education students and its emphasis on students’ understanding ideas across disciplines and applying them in projects. But ensuring that all staff members understand the standards and how to implement them represents, she said, “a huge lift” that will take several years and likely require “restructuring from the classroom level all the way through central office.” Difficult though the task may be, Ms. Augustine said, she is “totally excited” to get started.
Penny E. MacCormack, who oversees curriculum development as the chief academic officer for the Hartford, Conn., schools, praised the standards draft for clearly articulating what students need to master in each grade to reach each college- and career-readiness goal, though she found that lineup clearer in English/language arts than in math.
And while she is “impressed” with the document, she said her team will have to see whether its agenda is too ambitious to fit into an academic year. The expectations for kindergarten, too, “beg questions” about what children must learn before they even arrive at school, she said.
And the question of how common standards will interact with states’ current assessments looms.
“No doubt my team will use [the common standards] to improve our work,” Ms. MacCormack said. “But we are being measured on state assessments. It isn’t possible to use them solely without keeping an eye to state assessments.”

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