(Guest Post by Williamson M. Evers & Ze’ev Wurman)
A consortium to develop a set of “research-based and internationally benchmarked” college and career-ready standards in mathematics and in English-language arts (ELA) was established earlier this year by the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), in partnership with Achieve, the College Board, and ACT.
This consortium was presented as a voluntary effort by the states, and in this way, it claimed to avoid the statutory prohibition of a federally-imposed national curriculum. So far 48 states (all except Alaska and Texas) have joined the initiative, and the consortium released its first draft of its proposed high-school “college and career readiness” standards late this last September. Nonetheless, the Texas chief state school officer calls this project an effort “by the U. S. Department of Education” to impose “a national curriculum and testing system” and “a step toward a federal takeover” of public schools across the nation.
However, all is not well with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), as the effort has come to be known. In fact, many of the early concerns about such a national effort have materialized. They have to do both with the process and with the content.
In terms of process, the identity of the actual authors of the “college and career readiness” standards was kept secret for a long time and, when the names were finally published, it became clear that CCSSI had included few subject-matter experts among them. Only after early ones were leaked to the public in July did CCSSI finally publish its official draft “college and career readiness standards” for ELA and mathematics in September. CCSSI finally also published the names of the members of its various committees, but these seem to keep growing in number and their membership changing.
CCSSI’s timeline calls for supplementing its “college and career readiness” standards with grade-by-grade K-12 standards, with the entire effort to be finished by “early 2010.” This schedule is supposed to include drafting, review, and public comment. As anyone who had to do such a task knows, such a process for a single state takes many months, and CCSSI’s timeline raises deep concerns about whether the public and the states can provide in-depth feedback on those standards–and, more important, whether standards that are of high quality can possibly emerge from the non-transparent process CCSSI is using.
The situation is, not surprisingly, worse on the content side. The proposed English-Language Arts “college and career readiness” standards (which we are told are not high school graduation standards) are largely a list of content-free generic skills. Rather than focusing on what English teachers are trained to teach (quality literature), the drafters seem to expect English teachers to teach reading strategies presumed to help students to cope with biology or economics textbooks.
In mathematics, the standards are perhaps even worse. While essentially all four-year state colleges require at least three years of high school mathematics, including Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry or above, CCSSI’s standards require only Algebra 1 and few bits and pieces from Algebra 2 and Geometry. In other words, students who graduate from high school having taken only math coursework addressing those standards (and presumably having passed a test based on them) will be inadmissible to any four-year college around the country.
This ill-advised rush to have national standards ready by early 2010 is driven by the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top (RttT) $4 billion competitive-grant fund. Its final regulations, published in November, give a strong advantage to states that develop and adopt “common standards,” and, in these hard economic times, states will not be easily able to justify declining to pursue this money.
In late November, 2009, the Texas chief state school officer complained—quite justifiably on the face of it—that Texas is being discriminated against by the RttT criteria because it chose not to join the wild rush to the standards. And indeed a wild rush it is. A bill introduced at the beginning of December in the California legislature to qualify the state for the RttT money proposes adopting CCSSI’s standards sight unseen. Not even a complete draft of the grade-by grade standards has been finished yet.
Yet, if the President and Congress are going to use carrots and sticks to create national standards, we need to look for a way out of the current Common Core morass. The federal rules for the RttT money could not and do not explicitly require the adoption of CCSSI’s standards. Instead, the rules provide a general requirement: States are to participate in a “consortium of states” that is developing a common set of K–12 standards which are “internationally benchmarked” and tied to “college and career readiness” and that includes “a significant number of States.”
Given the low goals of the “college and career readiness” standards proposed by CCSSI– to judge by its September draft–it makes sense to set up an alternative consortium. That consortium would be composed of states whose standards have been highly rated by academic experts– like California or Massachusetts — together with states like Texas and Alaska whose reluctance to jump on the Common Core bandwagon has been clearly vindicated.
The new consortium would endeavor to create better and more rigorous academic standards than those of the CCSSI. These alternative standards will be truly internationally benchmarked. With over twenty per cent of the American population, such a consortium of states would easily qualify as “significant” as well. Such states might even be joined by other states that do not want to embrace the intellectually impoverished and internationally uncompetitive Common Core standards.
Drab and mediocre national standards will retard the efforts of advanced states like Massachusetts and reduce academic expectations for students in all states.
Yes, it is late in the game. But this should not be an excuse for us to accept the inferior standards that at present seem to be coming from the rushed effort of CCSSO and NGA.
Williamson M. Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for policy. Ze’ev Wurman is a former senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education.