Governors, state school superintendents propose common academic standards


Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Education Brief, The Washington Post

By Nick Anderson
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; 11:39 AM

The nation's governors and state schools chiefs proposed standards Wednesday for what students should learn in English and math, from kindergarten through high school, a crucial step in President Obama's campaign to raise academic standards across the country.

State boards of education around the country are moving rapidly to take up the proposal, the leader of a national association said, with many in the South eager to act within the next few months.

"I think you'll get half of the states by the end of the year [to adopt the proposal], based on what they've said to us," said Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Arlington. Welburn said some Western states appeared to be more cautious.

The blueprint aims to replace a hodgepodge of state benchmarks with common standards. The president has aggressively encouraged the states' action as a key to improving troubled schools and keeping the nation competitive. Instituting new academic standards would reverberate in textbooks, curriculum, teacher training and student learning from coast to coast.

Fourth-graders, for example, would be expected to explain major differences between poetry and prose and to refer to such elements as stanza, verse, rhythm and meter when writing or speaking about a poem. Eighth-graders would be expected to use linear equations to solve for an unknown and explain a proof of the Pythagorean theorem on properties of a right triangle -- cornerstones of algebra and geometry.

"It's hugely significant," said Michael Cohen, a former Clinton education official, who is president of the standards advocacy organization Achieve. "The states recognize they ought to have very consistent expectations for what their students should learn."

There is no required reading list. But the plan lists dozens of classic works to illustrate a rising level of language complexity that students should be expected to handle. E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" is cited as an appropriate read-aloud book for second- and third-graders. President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address is listed as an informational text for ninth- and 10th-graders. The plan also pushes for students to be exposed to much more nonfiction in the social and natural sciences.

The proposal, obtained by The Washington Post in advance of its release, is considered a breakthrough after years of stalemate over the federal role in setting education standards. The George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations tried and failed in the 1990s to establish voluntary national standards, leaving expectations for students up to states. As a result, analysts say, many states have weakened standards in the past decade to help schools meet requirements of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

The proposal from the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, called "common core" rather than national standards, seeks to sidestep the federalism debate. The Obama administration played no role in drafting the blueprint.

Broad initial support
Every state but Alaska and Texas gave initial support last year to the effort. Kentucky last month became the first to adopt the proposal, acting on a late-stage draft before the public release. Experts predict that some states will resist taking that step but that many others and the District of Columbia will follow suit.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents major urban systems, called the proposal crucial for improving public education. "It's very clear to us that when the standards are high, it elevates the performance of kids and schools," he said. "Where they are low, it appears to serve as a drag on your ability to get faster gains."

On Feb. 22, Obama commended the governors' initiative and said federal aid for disadvantaged students should depend on whether states certify their standards are "college- and career-ready." That description matches the goal of the new proposal.

Afterward, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) predicted his state would adopt the common standards. He said that he was struck by the level of Republican support for the idea. "There was none of the sort of parochial throw-down, 'Don't tell us what our standards should be,' " O'Malley said.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) said his state is preparing to approve the common benchmarks. "We believe this in the best interest of education not only in Georgia but nationally," he said, "to have some standards that present an authentic, credible scoreboard by which we can know how we're doing."

It is unclear whether Virginia will embrace the proposal. State officials have repeatedly expressed confidence in their benchmarks, known as the Standards of Learning.

But one critic said the proposal, circulating for public comment before it is finalized by late spring, appeared to have unstoppable momentum. "I think it's a done deal because Obama attached all this money," said Susan Ohanian, a former English teacher and education policy blogger who lives in Vermont. She said standards deny teachers the ability to judge what should be taught and when. "If we don't trust teachers to do that, then we have no business leaving them in the classroom," she said.

Background
The standards project was funded by the governors and state schools chiefs, with backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and others. Drafters included experts affiliated with Achieve, ACT Inc. and the College Board. Reviewers included university professors and other educators.

The 70-page math proposal seeks to bring coherence, rigor and focus to instruction, said William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor of education and statistics who reviewed it. In many states, he said, math standards are "a mile wide and an inch deep," in contrast to standards in countries that have outpaced the United States in achievement in recent years.

Schmidt said the proposal would help the nation keep pace globally and open up academic opportunity. "In this country, the state you live in matters as to what kinds of mathematics you will be expected to learn at various grade levels," he said. "That's a profound issue of equality and equity."

The 60-page English language arts proposal, plus three appendices, seeks to build skills and knowledge in reading, writing, speaking and listening, with special focus on grammar, usage and vocabulary. E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of "Cultural Literacy," said the proposed emphasis on science and history texts would give students a stronger base of knowledge for reading.

Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute praised the examples of suggested texts from ancient Greece (Homer) to modern times (Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri). "It's full of terrific stuff, high quality, content-rich, the kind of thing you want your kids or grandkids to read in school," he said.

The standards are available at http://www.corestandards.org.

Related:
Stay Connected with NCSS:   Follow NCSSNetwork on Twitter FaceBook.png rss_0.gif