Thursday, April 28, 2011

Common Questions About the Common Core Standards

June 13, 2011 Update: North Dakota's adoption of the math and reading standards makes '46 states' that have fully adopted the CCSSI.

May 11, 2011 Update: A key question surrounding the Common Core initiative is whether it truly represents the aspirations of states or stands to be another heavy-handed approach from above that will damage education.  For one answer to this question, please consider this statement from Mitch Chester, who is the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education.

Note: See companion piece to this post titled "A United State Standards of Education for America" linkable in Popular Posts at left.

Forty-four and counting--  that is the number of states whose education policy leaders have fully adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which may just be the most widespread education effort yet to garner little media attention for its lack of sensationalism.

Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, and Illinois-- each deserving of its own "Educational Lighthouse" label-- have all signed on to a "bottom up" effort to create quality standards for our nation's schoolchildren.  Assuming you, too, have been affected by this news embargo on political cooperation, here is a Q & A on the CCSSI, for you to learn more about the grassroots educational undertaking that is sweeping the country.

1. What is the initiative about?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to establish a voluntary set of shared standards for English language arts and mathematics. They were designed by a diverse group of teachers, experts, parents, and school administrators to reflect both the aspirations and the realities of students.  The standards were informed using evidence and experts from across the country and around the globe, and they will ensure graduating seniors are prepared for college, the workforce, and to compete in the emerging global marketplace.

2. Why is having common standards important?

Common standards breed consistency from school to school and state to state. Common standards allow for sharing experiences, meaningful student performance comparisons, and the better serving of needs for all students.

Standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but they do provide teachers and families a road map of knowledge and skills their students should have, from which teachers can build the best lessons and environments for their classrooms.

3. What has been and will be the Federal Government's role in the CCSSI?

The federal government was not involved in the development of the standards. Since individual states choose whether to adopt these standards, CCSSI is in no way, shape or form a part of the current, or any potentially reauthorized, No Child Left Behind law.  In fact, as can be seen from the material in question 6 below, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been outspoken about the punitive nature of NCLB as it stands, but he is ebullient about the prospects for innovation that CCSSI provides.

Even though the federal government had nothing to do with the CCSSI development, and cannot use them to enforce compliance or do school interventions as in the case of the current rendition of NCLB, it does appear the USDE will assign weight to an individual state's participation in CCSSI through the second round of recently authorized Race to the Top grants and the biennial Title 1 monies it appropriates.

Naturally, this intent to withhold financial support concerns many policymakers, Minnesota's included.

4. One undesirable consequence of the NCLB Act has been its pushing of educators to "teach to the test".  Won't CCSSI just encourage more of the same?

No-- CCSSI is meant to build, align and support good curriculum, and yes, quality assessments will be a part of that equation, but a given district or school's performance will not be held against them as in the case of NCLB.

Remember: CCSSI is about rewarding for innovation, not punishing for failure to comply. As you read this, hundreds of professional development teams, curriculum groups, foundations, and private companies are busily constructing instructional packages they hope a given district or state will adopt under CCSSI.  Such an expansive effort could not possibly result in students having to pass through the narrow straits of a standardized test.

5. What is Minnesota' position on the Common Core State Standards Initiative?

In June 2009, the Minnesota Dept of Education took an "active role" in the state-led initiative, on the belief that it could help other states create "consistent academic standards as rigorous as Minnesota's."

A September 2010 action by then MDE Commissioner Alice Seagren saw Minnesota signing on to the English Language Arts standards while refraining from Math on the basis that the state’s existing math standards were far superior to those in CCSSI.  In 2007 the state had revamped its own math standards by preparing students to take algebra in 8th grade.  In support of its decision to opt out of the CCSSI, MDE claimed the number of students scoring proficient in the math had increased 11 percent in the previoius three years.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute-- a nationally recognized adjudicator for 10 years on states' educational rigor & assessments-- gave Minnesota a "clearly inferior to the common core" in mathematics rating.

While key Minnesota officials supported the decision to stay out of the math standards of CCSSI for the time being, others cautioned that doing so might keep Minnesota out of an important national discussion.

An even more important dynamic in Minnesota's standards deliberations has nothing whatsoever to do with CCSSI and everything to do with a teacher evaluation bill currently making its way through the legislature.  While key legislators and education officials have vowed to base new school report cards and related teacher evaluations on the best available research about "student growth," the reality is that such a bill may only calcify the much disliked standardized state tests used for NCLB in math and reading.

On top of that, MN Senate File 1030 contains language expressly prohibiting the Commissioner of Education from adopting the CCSSI math standards and those likely to be developed in "science, social studies, technology and information literacy, the arts, and language arts" in the years to come.

6. What does US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan think of the Common Core initiative?

The Secretary likes it a lot.  You've probably caught excerpts of comments he has made since assuming the top education post.  Not one to mince words, his previous actions on alternative licensure & teacher evaluation have ruffled union representatives and his efforts to lift prescriptive NCLB requirements for schools has likely brought headaches to the number crunchers of his own department.

In Congressional testimony before the House Education Workforce Committee on 3/9/11, Duncan vigorously criticized the current NCLB law as one having "arbitrary state bars" that has created dozens of ways to fail and very few ways to succeed, before declaring:

"We need a common sense law that strikes the right balance between accountability and flexibility ... but NCLB got that backwards.  Instead of being tight on goals and loose on the means of achieving them, the law is loose on goals, but tight on the means ... We need to flip that, and states are already leading us in the right direction," the Secretary said.

With this viewpoint from the Secretary as context, listen to the 11-second clip in which the Secretary glows with admiration for the work states are doing in the Common Core initiative.

7. What is Iowa's position, a state with as much productivity from its field of education as from its globe-feeding cornfields?

Iowa ranks with MN in terms of reputation with student performance on the ACT exam and is arguably the home of academic assessment nationwide with ACT, Inc. and its Iowa Basic Skills Tests.  Curiously, it has also adopted the Common Core, but by assimilating them into a broader set of state standards.

Through a kind of tapestry approach to its standard development, Iowa may have just found the perfect way to maintain its own standards  and stay "in the game" for the procurement of federal funds.  According to this Iowa State Board of Education report, Iowa approved the new Common Core standards as part of its Iowa Core standards. After a comparison of the two was performed by Achieve, an independent non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., the Iowa Core and the Common Core were found to have a high degree of alignment.  As a result, the Iowa Public School System was able to embed the Common Core standards into its state standards plan going forward.

Using the Hawkeye state as an example, it might behoove Minnesota policy makers to say "we're in" for the purposes of maintaining federal funding support, and then augment its own state-developed standards with those of the CCSSI.

8. Could the hubris that goes with Minnesota's being the "Education State" and the "Do it Our Way" Legislative Republicans be the perfect political combination that keeps Minnesota from taking a major educational step that 44 other states' officials have already taken?

Quite possibly.

For a flavor of the next generation of assessments to align with the Common Core standards, check out these 9 amazing Webinars. 

You may also appreciate "A United State Standards of Education for America"-- a companion piece on this blog that conveys the Common Core perspective of Dr. Douglas Reeves, a leading expert on the initiative.  To locate, go to "Dr. Douglas Reeves" in the "Labels" column.

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