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National teaching standards could spark dramatic changes in schools

The Obama administration is supporting an effort to establish national standards spelling out what students should know in English and math.

Sec. Arne Duncan testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee about the reauthorization of the Education Act on Wednesday.
Sec. Arne Duncan testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee about the reauthorization of the Education Act on Wednesday.

Pity the modern American classroom teacher: Not only is she the scapegoat du jour for everything that’s wrong with education today, she is also responsible for finding a way to cram the fruits of that politicking into her lesson plans.

She’s to be forgiven, then, if she’s too busy — or cynical — to notice that, for once, the powers that be might actually be streamlining their expectations.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, or CCSSO, last week released the first draft of an unprecedented, unified set of national standards spelling out what students should know in English and math. If the Common Core State Standards are adopted later this spring after a public comment period, they should spark dramatic changes in textbooks, curriculum, and testing materials.

Outside of education policy circles, the effort to redesign the standards largely has flown under the radar. In the past the very notion of a single set of standards has been too hot a political potato for any real discussion, but the current effort appears to enjoy broad support.

President Obama has made it a central feature of his proposed education plan. In addition, the proposal earned the endorsement of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts throughout the country, as well as numerous education think tanks on both sides of the political aisle.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Minneapolis School Board member Pam Costain.

Pam Costain
Pam Costain

The Minnesota Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In a news release, Gov. Tim Pawlenty criticized the proposed eighth-grade algebra standard as lower than Minnesota’s. “In a hypercompetitive world, Minnesota should not adopt less rigorous standards than we currently have in place,” he said.

Ideological squabbles
Right now, educational standards are set by individual states. The resulting patchwork not only varies in terms of rigor, but has saddled many k-12 teachers with standards that have more to do with ideological squabbles in a particular statehouse than with ensuring that every child leaves school with the critical thinking skills, creativity and flexibility needed to enter college or the workforce.

The proposed unified English standards range from such basics as expecting kindergarteners to read at least 25 words such as “the” and “of” and “to” by sight to requiring high school students to compare and contrast multiple interpretations of a single theme.

Instead of specifying individual works, the standards give examples of appropriate texts. Ninth and 10th graders might dissect Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit  451,” while 11th and 12th graders might be expected to analyze Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The U.S. Department of Education supports the initiative but has not participated in coming up with the standards. “It really has been a state-led process,” said Kara Schlosser, CCSSO’s communications director. “The idea is to give us an economy of scale for helping students to achieve at high levels.”

Texas and Alaska are not participating in the effort. Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has called the effort a first step toward a federal takeover of the schools. Fearful that some of the proposed standards may be a step back, Alaska is taking a wait-and-see approach.

In some states, the most obvious effect of the new standards will be to raise basic expectations. Because President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative left it to states to decide their own standards but penalized them when students failed to meet them, benchmarks have slipped in many places.

In Minnesota, where standards are already relatively rigorous, the more likely impact will be to encourage a shift away from “teaching to the test.” Instead, instruction should prepare students to apply their knowledge in real-world situations, said Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Consortium for Postsecondary Academic Success, which has worked on Minnesota’s standards.

By way of example, Pekel explained that by the time they have mastered rudimentary math, elementary-school pupils should understand that the numbers on either side of the equal sign are equivalents.  American kids drilled in rote memorization don’t always grasp the concept of equivalency, he noted; some think the equal sign means “the answer goes here.”

This gap in critical thinking skills is why U.S. students lag behind their peers in many European and Asian countries on tests that require them to apply content knowledge to real-world problems, Pekel added. “It’s very clear that if kids can recall discrete content knowledge but cannot apply it, if they don’t understand the core concept that underlies it, as they move up the ladder and subjects get more complex, they’re going to be in trouble,” he said.

The initiative may also pare back the number of standards teachers in some states are trying to meet by making sure those that remain are truly relevant. “Having too many standards constrains teachers,” Pekel said. “That’s a huge body of content they have to cover.”

Support among teachers
A Title 1 reading specialist at the Interdistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis, Peter Sage said his colleagues are generally in favor of the recommendations. “I’ve always thought national standards are a good idea, especially given the mobility of our population,” he said.

Kids from low-income families that are forced to move a lot are among those who challenge teachers the most. State-to-state uniformity would make it easier for new teachers to pick up where the old ones left off, Sage said.

School districts vary widely in how much latitude — and support — they give teachers in determining what curriculum and methods to use to teach the current standards. The draft outline of the new standards makes no effort to tell teachers how or what to teach to impart the skills it lays out. Nor will the two groups leading the effort tell textbook publishers how to measure student attainment of the standards.

Pekel speculated that the recommendations would have a particular impact on the testing industry. Subject matter knowledge is relatively easy to measure via a standardized or multiple-choice test, he explained. Assessments measuring critical thinking and creativity probably will have to be scored by hand.

While federal education officials played no role in developing the proposed standards, the Obama administration has been quick to offer inducements for participation. States that applied for Race to the Top funding got points on their highly competitive applications for agreeing to adopt the standards, for example.

Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have also made the Common Core Standards a key feature of the administration’s long-awaited plan for overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the legislation whose most recent incarnation was No Child Left Behind.

Tied to Title 1 funding
Under Obama’s proposal, Title 1 funding for disadvantaged students will be tied to a state’s adoption of college- and career-readiness standards. States that chose not to use the proposed unified standards would be able to qualify for Title 1 money if they work with a qualified institution of higher education to develop their own benchmarks.

Indeed, the Obama administration’s support seems to have sparked much of the criticism the standards  have received so far. The ranking Republican on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, Minnesota’s Rep. John Kline, is one of a number of lawmakers who have voiced concerns that tying adoption of the standards to federal funding is coercive.

Public comment on the proposed standards is being invited through April 2. After the standards are finalized later this spring, participating states must formally adopt them, either via their board of education or their legislature. (Minnesota abolished its board in 1998.) The two groups driving the process may then turn their attention to revising standards for science and social studies.

Assuming they are adopted, the changes may not be felt in the classroom for up to three years, educators say. And it will be years after that before it’s clear whether the standards will indeed help ensure all students leave high school prepared to enter college or the workplace.

“In the end, having great third-grade test scores is not what America needs,” Pekel said. “If you want to prepare individual citizens for success in this economy, we absolutely have to have these things in place.”

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.