National Standards Post from Jim Stergios

(Guest post by Jim Stergios from the Pioneer Institute)

It will take more than Good Friday to bring the public comment period on the proposed national standards to a graceful end.  It will take a “turnaround” scenario, and Andy Smarick has shown us pretty clearly how much of a miracle that is in the education sector.

Friends have come out in favor of the public comment draft of the national standards.  The Fordham Institute, for example, came out with an analysis that gave the draft Common Core K-12 education standards an A- for math and a B for English language arts.  The implicit arguments were that the proposed standards are better than those in many states, and that we cannot let the moment pass (it “represents a rare opportunity for American K-12 education to re-boot”) because we could actually “get it right” (implement the standards effectively).

Fordham and others who have long lamented the low-quality of state standards are right: The proposed standards are better than those in some states.  And those states should jump at the opportunity if they so choose.  But the argument that this is a rare opportunity is not terribly different from the argument made by folks who held their noses and voted to pass the recent health care fix.  No, it’s not a great piece of legislation but maybe we can fix it later – the urgency of health care insurance is too much to let it pass by…

A bad idea is a bad idea.  They rarely turn out well, and that is especially so because the likelihood of “getting it right” is not appreciably better than the chances of getting NCLB right were. 

We are releasing today Fair to Middling: A National Standards Progress Report, a view of the standards from the perspective of the number of states that have actually done the hard work of crafting, over years, and implementing, over years, curricular standards that are significantly better than the proposed national standards. 

Perhaps we are used to better students so our grading is more severe – Sandy Stotsky, of good ol’  U or Ark, and Jim Milgram, emeritus at Stanford, give the proposed standards a “B-” in math and a “C-” for English language arts. The new study, Fair to Middling: A National Standards Progress Report, is the second in-depth analysis of the standards, and is jointly published by my organization, Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts and Pacific Research Institute in California.

Fair to Middling provides a detailed comparison of the March draft standards being proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) and standards currently in place in states recognized to have high standards—California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Texas.

Fair to Middling finds that in mathematics CCSSI’s March drafts may be better than the math standards in some states, but that they don’t match up well with the top state standards in this country or with the best international standards, because they

  • Include expectations that are too low by the end of the elementary grades
  • Delay the development of pre-Algebra skills that are a top priority in high-achieving countries and states, resulting in fragmentary treatment of algebra in the later grades
  • Include an idiosyncratic and unproven approach to geometry in grades 7 and 8
  • Feature a widely scattered and disorganized treatment of Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry

Progress has been made in addressing the deficiencies in the January draft of Common Core’s grade-level standards for reading and English language arts, but much more work remains to make its ELA standards as good as those in California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas. The authors write that the most serious problem with Common Core’s ELA standards remains its organizational scheme.

Fair to Middling finds that in English language arts, the March drafts continue to be weakened by the focus on ten culture- and content-free College- and Career-Readiness Standards that are incapable of defining readiness for college reading and generating coherent grade-level academic standards. Moreover, they

  • Are organized in a way that renders them unable to serve as a valid or reliable basis for common assessments from grade to grade.
  • Include a formula to Help English Teachers Judge the complexity of the literature they teach that is unusable by the average teacher
  • Include vocabulary Standards in Grades 6-12 that are a recipe for reading failure at the high school level.
  • Are not benchmarked against high-performing countries

The Race to the Top was fun in as much as it leveraged some state actions to lift charter school caps, but it is getting bogged down in some really bad ideas.  The focus on turnarounds, when so few have worked, is a sign of Washington seeking to move ahead without good empirical data.  The insistence on adoption of unproven standards of questionable quality is another sign that the effort is getting a bad case of the “encroaching” spirit of power.

The best ideas come from empirical evidence, so why is Arne Duncan insisting on union buy-in, turnaround scenarios and poor-quality standards?  Why not look at the states, like Massachusetts, which have topped the nation, which have narrowed race- and poverty-based achievement gaps. As ED Hirsch noted in 2008, “If you are a disadvantaged parent with a school-age child, Massachusetts is . . . the state to move to.”

The problem is that the administration’s current course on standards, if they do not undergo serious revision, will actually encourage states to turn their backs on proven reforms.  Given the quality of the current product, the process and its lack of transparency, the scoring, and so on, I have to admit that where I was open to national standards before, I am pretty soured now. 

Give us incentives to improve on NAEP or TIMSS, and just let us do the work at the state level.

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7 Responses to National Standards Post from Jim Stergios

  1. MOMwithAbrain says:

    I agree with the assessment on the math CCS by Stotsky and Milgram. I thought Fordham’s A- was a little inflated. I’m not a mathematician, however putting the CA standards side by side with the CCS, I thought the CCS lacked the quality of CA’s.

    I disagree though with Stergious on his analogy that it’s good to pass faulty legislation then go back and fix it. All we have to do is look to Mass. to see that their socialized medicine has serious problems.

    The CCS will be a big improvement for our state since I live in a state with “F” rated math standards.
    However I also know that political operatives are waiting in the winds to inject their agenda into these standards.

    Kevin Jennings, the controversial safe school czar has already said he’d like to use these standards to carry out his own personal political agenda.

    All we are doing is opening up the door to the problems we see in England. POlitical operatives can’t seem to help themselves.

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    So why can’t we just adopt Massachusetts as the national standards? Why reinvent the wheel?

  3. MOMwithAbrain says:

    I agree. Why didn’t the Governors in the states with the poor standards simply do that? Isn’t it odd that these Governors are escaping national criticism for first drafting poor standards? Now they shift their obligation, upwards?

  4. concerned says:

    I graduated in 1983 from a very small high school in rural Missouri. My school didn’t offer calculus, but we were all expected to learn authentic algebra. I placed into calc I upon entering a state university.

    I’ve been teaching HS math for 19 years now. The Common Core math standards fall short of what my rural school expected years ago. How can they possibly better prepare today’s students for college and career readiness in our globally competitive society?

  5. Read the U.S. Coalition for World Class Math’s feedback report on the March draft of the K-12 Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Down load the report at

    http://www.box.net/shared/4pir4yobzu

    The CCSSI should field test the common core state standards for a minimum of a year prior to wide-spread use.

    The CCSSI should actively support, promote, and help states establish consortiums to develop sets of standards.

    The CCSSI should declare the Massachusetts , California, and Indiana mathematics standards as acceptable alternatives to the common core state standards.

    In the math standards, “understand” should be replaced with more precise measurable verbs that will clarify the desired proficiency level.

    The math standards should specifically include standards that develop skills related to simplifying fractions, finding factor pairs, finding prime factors, finding common denominators, finding least common multiples or denominators, and finding greatest common factors to provide students with the necessary foundation for success in authentic algebra and beyond.

    The standards are a great improvement over the January draft in many ways, although they still fall short of being world class, thus not good enough for the students of this country.

    The common core state standards for math do not match up to the standards for MA, CA, and IN. The common core state standards are not world class. Anything less than world class is not acceptable for the students across the country.

  6. rse says:

    I think the Common Core Standards are an attempt to federalize the idea that it is unacceptable in a democratic society to have public schools emphasizing academic skills that ALL students are not equally good at. It’s the NSF math and science partnership philosophy gone national.

    The idea of math and literacy redesigned until they are accessible to all may be nonsense in fact but it is the official utopian nonsense promulgated by many of those involved with CCSSI.

    Over time the states adopting the standards will be reminded that they can be investigated by the Justice Department for civil rights violations if they do not use the discovery oriented texts like Everyday Math or Connected Math with their broader conceptions of “math”.

    That is the importance of keeping the vague “understand” in the math standards. It’s why it’s important to emphasize the visual and media in Language Arts.

    In the new America we will have “collaborative learning activities” with socialization and interaction of diverse groups is the primary goal of school.

    An emphasis on academic knowledge and skills inevitably leads to a hierarchy of the more and less able. Because those traits may not be equally distributed in the US across all races and cultures, they are officially no longer to be emphasized at all. That’s the new national policy and CCSSI federalizes that mindset.

    First they took over school districts like Atlanta. Then whole states like Georgia. Now with Common Core they are nationalizing this vision.

    The only acceptable academics in K-12 will be what can be done by all. Imagine if that vision governed our sports teams.

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