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Common Core Standards: Are we on the right track?

August 12, 2013

Standards as a Rule to Measure Success in Learning

The infographic below appeared in a story, Just How Effective are the Common Core State Standards, on eSchool News this week.  Is the Common Core a lot of hype or will the initiative be successful in closing the achievement gap.  While we do not have 5 years of data to analyze, some analysts suggest that the standards are helping states who have strong educational systems become better, but states who are struggling to move the needle on education may struggle more helping their students master the Common Core.  The article takes a 10,000 foot view of the data that is available, but again I am not sure we have sufficient data to know definitively how this will shake out.
Is Core Curriculum Rotten?

For those of you who do not follow the developments in launching the Common Core Standards (CCS), here is a quote from their website that illustrates their goal.  The Common Core…

provides a consistent and clear understanding of what students are expected to know and be able to do.  In addition, teachers and parents should also be clear on what they need to do to help them. The standards have been developed to address ideas that are relevant to the real world.  They reflect the knowledge and skills that students need for success in college and careers. If students master the knowledge and skills outlined in the Common Core for language arts and math, they will be better positioned to compete in a global economy.

The reason for instituting a “common core” set of national standards was to bring into greater alignment the diverse curricula and expectations across the different states.  Before the Common Core, it was unclear whether the academic standards that students were expected to master in one state were anywhere near the same as what was expected in another state.  Learning outcomes for algebra in Maine could be considerably different from the outcomes in Georgia.

The idea was to develop a standards-based reform model that every state in the US would adopt.  The initiative was sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  As of January 15, 2013, only two states, Texas and Alaska,  were not signed on to be members of the initiative.  Nebraska and Virginia are members but have decided not to adopt the standards.  Minnesota rejected the Common Core Standards for mathematics, but accepted the English/Language Arts standards.  CCS were adopted in Indiana, but implementation has since been put on hold and the legislature is reviewing how Indiana will respond.  Legislation to repeal Common Core Standards has been initiated in Alabama, South Dakota, and Georgia.  There is a significant public debate taking place on the potential effectiveness of national standards as a route towards improving student learning, as well as a debate regarding whose responsibility creating educational standards should be, federal or state government.

Supporters of the CCS are hopeful they will boost the overall quality of education in the US.  However, it is important to put into perspective that the Common Core Standard movement is not the first national initiative to be launched with the anticipation of success.  In my educational career spanning 35 years, we have seen the launch of other national movements, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for one, that came on the scene with great anticipation only to fad into the background as our hopes were dashed by reality.  Could this be a result of a rush to judgment on what the causes for the decline in performance of our educational system are or could it be that we fail to understand the complex problem that exists?  Both may be true.  I would surmise that the problem is complex and that we have failed to be bold and courageous in addressing the route causes.  There is inherent inequity in our society, both economic and social, that serves as the fuel for the fire of discontent in our work to design a quality educational system for all students.

It is important to note that each state has had state standards in place since 2003 as part of NCLB.  Looking at a summary report on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Georgia’s 4th and 8th graders, overall 2011 scores for low-income students (non-ELL and non-IEP) and their gains/losses on both fourth- and eighth grade reading and mathematics exams from 2003 to 2011 puts Georgia at 27th out of 51 states (click here for Georgia results).

Georgia has a significant hill to climb to demonstrate that school districts understand the CCS, provide effective professional development for teachers and administrators, and successfully integrate the CCS into the existing curriculum.  Finally, will Georgia be ready to have statewide assessments prepared, aligned, and sufficiently challenging to adequately assess whether students have mastered the CCS.  From my perspective, the issue with regard to standards-based education is that since 2003 Georgia, as well as other states, have instituted state standards in all disciplines and have not shown significant progress in national assessments such as the NAEP.  Why has there been such little progress during a time when standards-based education was in place?   Are we to assume that a new standards-based initiative, the CCS, will be any more effective in moving the needle on student achievement?  I think the jury is definitely out on that question.  However, if we are going to be more successful this time around, then we must figure out why we have failed in the past.

There is value in a standards-based approach to education.  Most educators agree that standards are an important place from which to design curriculum.   All good design emanates from a set of standards.  The value of the CCS is that states will be guided in a consistent way as they design their curriculum.  The differences in the learning outcomes between states who follow the CCS will be much less than if there were no national standards.  However, many districts are requiring teachers to use curriculum materials (textbooks from companies like Pearson Education) produced by the same companies that are producing the testing instruments that will assess progress in mastering the CCS.  PARCC is being developed by companies like Pearson, who are having influence on the texts students will read based on a list of sample texts associated with the standards.  This “misguided” influence on school districts, schools and teachers limits their creative thinking, panders to the profit-making motive of the corporations involved in creating curriculum and tests, and narrows the professional decision-making authority of classroom teachers.  The question we need to ask is how will this positively or negatively impact student learning?  Do independent curriculum experts, teachers, have enough influence on the design of the standards, as well as their implementation, independent of corporate or political influences?  I think the answer is no.

Georgia has recently decided to pull out of the CCS test consortium, PARCC (Partnership of Assessment & Readiness for College & Careers)  (click her for AJC article).  The reason given by Governor Deal is that the test is too costly.  He may be right.  Nevertheless, it will cost the Georgia a considerable amount of money to redesign the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT), now being used to assess mastery of the Georgia Performance Standards, to effectively measure a student’s the mastery of CCS.  In fact, Georgia’s history with writing comprehensive and effective state tests to measure mastery is a checkered one (click her to see a recent AJC article).   Another reason for pulling out of the PARCC that was not stated in the article referenced above is that Georgia politicians and state educators are worried students will struggle significantly with a national assessment because Georgia’s implementation of the CCS has not been robust.  Look at the recent experience in New York state with regard to student performance on recent assessments aligned to the CCS (click her for WSJ article and Business Insider article).  The CCS are a rigorous set of expectations that are more process than content-driven.  Assessments that are more process or skill-based in their design, and require students to apply what they have learned, are not something that most students are prepared to take because most schooling is directed towards content acquisition.  Georgia’s decision to pull out of PARCC is misguided at best.  Why doesn’t Georgia put more resources into the effective implementation of CCS and effective instruction of the standards as a vehicle to help students learn how to apply their knowledge in novel and interesting ways?

I believe in a pro standards-based approach to educational reform but I believe teachers need to be at the center of the conversation, along with their school leadership.  We have to understand that national standards (CCS) are not a set of curriculum and “don’t teach.”  Teachers teach and they design curriculum built around standards.  So while we should support the CCS it should not be at the expense of supporting good teacher training, induction, and professional growth, as well as the support of instructional strategies that promote the teaching of 21st Century skills like collaboration, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving and communication.  The CCS initiative could just as likely promote ineffective teaching as it could effective teaching.  Good teachers have always done what the CCS suggest we should do, so the question is: how do we increase the likelihood that EVERY student has a effective teachers in an engaging classroom in which meaningful work is being done that has been designed from a set of standards.  The Common Core Standards can play a significant role in bringing about important changes in how we educate students, but it will take thoughtful educators and administrators to use the standards as a guide, analyzing and applying them in the best possible way.  Using the standards to complement the conversations within the school setting.

“Diversity is on the verge of extinction—diversity of curriculum, instructional practices, and assessment.  We are moving into an era that will link Common Core Standards with a Common Core curriculum taught by teachers who will assess student learning through a slate of Common Core exams and be evaluated with a rubric that uses scores on these exams as measures of teacher quality.”  The Dangers & Opportunities of the Common Core, Educational Leadership, December 2012, page 64.  We need to guard against total adherence to a set of standards that strangles a teacher’s creativity.   Good teachers have always found creative and interesting ways to reach and teach their students.  If teachers are at the center of the conversation then we are more likely to find a balance between a standards approach to curriculum design and the innovative spirit of a good teacher to engage the minds of our young people.

What are your thoughts regarding the impact of the standards-based movement in the United States?

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