(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.