National PTA Backs Common Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
June 25th, 2009

The National Parent Teacher Association has released a statement supporting the NGA and CCSSO effort to craft common national standards–a potentially powerfully ally.  “It’s possible that having an organization that can reach parents in communities of all sizes across the country could help build support on the ground for the multi-state effort, as other factions weigh their options,” notes Edweek’s Sean Cavanagh.

What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got?

by Robert Pondiscio
June 2nd, 2009

What do the high performing nations of the world have that the U.S. lacks?  Rich, deep academic content, according to a new report

“Each of the nations that consistently outrank the United States on the PISA exam provides their students with a comprehensive, content-rich education in the liberal arts and sciences,” writes Lynne Munson, the executive director of Common Core in Why We’re Behind, a study that compares America’s educational quality to Finland, Hong Kong, South Korea, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands and Switzerland.

The nine nations studied differ greatly in how they deliver their broad, rich curricula.  “Some have a national curriculum and standards but no tests,” Munson notes.  “Others have both, and some leave everything up to the states. Interestingly, no state-based nation in our sample currently has a national curriculum or standards, though one is attempting to develop some.”

So what is the common ingredient across these varied nations? It is not a delivery mechanism or an accountability system that these high-performing nations share: it is a dedication to educating their children deeply in a wide range of subjects.

It’s not possible to prove with absolute certainty that there is a cause and effect link between the content taught in high-performing nations and their performance on the PISA exam, Munson notes.  ”But, considering these nations’ enormous geographic, demographic, cultural, and governmental differences what other explanation could there be?”  Common Core’s report calls for more research into the relationship between content and achievement. “This research should be done now because if what this report suggests is true—that a comprehensive, content-rich curriculum is the key to high achievement—than we have a lot of work to do here in the United States,” she concludes.

What do we have that better performing nations lack?  Data, perhaps.  And if we’re reading it right, it’s telling us we need to start spending a little more of our ed reform capital looking at what our children are actually doing in class, and a little less time on structural issues.  If you want to fatten the calf, surely we can do better than our present steady diet of thin gruel in between all those weighings.

Standards, Content and Caveats

by Robert Pondiscio
June 1st, 2009

Texas, South Carolina, Alaska and Missouri are the only states not on board with the effort to create voluntary national education standards.  The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) officially announced the effort this morning.  From the news release:

By signing on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, governors and state commissioners of education across the country are committing to joining a state-led process to develop a common core of state standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12. These standards will be research and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills.

 The Washington Post’s Maria Glod turns in a curtain-raiser on the effort, making it sound as if we should expect a whole lot of process and not a lot of content.  “By July, groups of experts already at work are expected to unveil ‘readiness standards’ for high school graduates in reading and math,” she writes. “ Then, with each grade considered a steppingstone toward that goal, they will set out the skills students must master each year to stay on track.”

Skills, readiness, staying on track.  You get the picture.  Edweek’s Michele McNeil has more on the tick-tock of the adoption process:

Both the NGA and the CCSSO plan to create a ‘validation’ committee made up of independent national and international experts in content standards to review and comment on the drafts. The experts will be nominated by states and organizations, but ultimately chosen by those two organizations. Once the standards are agreed to, it will be up to the states to get them adopted. The signed memo stipulates that the common core must represent at least 85 percent of a state’s standards, and that the common core needs to be adopted within three years.

Until we see what they come up with, there’s every reason to be skeptical that we’re going to get meaningful content standards.   ”There will be no prescription for how teachers get there, avoiding nettlesome discussions about whether phonics or whole language is a better method of teaching reading; whether students should be drilled in math facts; or whether eighth-graders should read “The Great Gatsby” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Glod writes.   It’s entirely likely the entire exercise will amount to nothing more that replacing 46 sets of squishy, non-specific standards with one set of squishy, non-specific standards.  But if we end up with a single yardstick — one set of national assessments — the transparency in state-to-state comparisons will be worthwhile.  Alas, that may end up as the only reason to be excited about national standards.

Catching Up On National Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
May 1st, 2009

The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on common national standards earlier this week.  EdWeek’s Alyson Klein was there.

Key state officials, congressional leaders, and the president of the one of the national teachers’ unions all agreed [at the hearing] that the United States needs to move toward common academic standards to stay competitive in an increasingly globalized economy—and that states must be the vehicle for the change. What was not as clear is what the federal role should be in adding momentum to the effort already under way in about 40 states to move toward a set of standards that is more uniform and rigorous.

“We’re placing a very big bet on the states,” Klein quotes committee chair George Miller as saying.  “My sense is that we’re placing the bet in the right place to get this done.”

Cold Front Moves Through Hell

by Robert Pondiscio
April 17th, 2009

Thought it would never happen?  It’s not freezing over yet, but the temperature is falling fast.

Representatives from 37 states are meeting in Chicago today, Edweek reports, for “what organizers hope will be a first, concrete step toward common guidelines in mathematics and English-language arts.” Michele McNeil has the scoop:

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers—the Washington-based groups that are co-sponsoring the meeting—want to build a prototype of high school graduation standards by summer, and grade-by-grade academic standards in math and language arts by the end of the year.  The undertaking would start with rigorous math and language arts standards that are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations and made available for states to adopt voluntarily. Following the meeting states ready to support common standards are to be asked to put their commitment in writing within weeks.

“I’ve been in education for more than 35 years, and we’ve had major meetings that have called for progress before, but I see [this] meeting as the first step to really taking aggressive action,” Eric Smith, Florida’s education commissioner tells McNeil.

Brrr.  Is it cold in here?  Or is it just me?

Arguments For and Against National Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
March 17th, 2009

Mike Smith says he ”somewhat skeptical” about national standards.  A senior adviser to Ed Secretary Arne Duncan, who favors them, Smith gave the keynote at a Library of Congress Forum on American Education in the 21st Century Monday.  Taking care to say he was speaking only for himself, not Duncan or President Obama, Smith noted his biggest concern is that “you can’t keep ideology or politics out of the ball game,” according to Ed Week’s Mary Ann Zehr at Curriculum Matters.

He put in the category of “weak” arguments the idea that the nation needs common standards because, as matters stand now, all 50 states set different proficiency levels. The argument is weak, he said, because the proficiency levels can be standardized. Another bad argument for common standards, he said, is that even though policymakers and educators acknowledge they don’t know much about what constitutes high-quality standards or assessments, they claim it would be beneficial to create a single, nationwide system.

But Smith also said standards could foster a common curriculum. “The potential to develop a common curriculum is the ‘core reason’ that he supports the advancement of common standards,” Zehr reports. 

Read the rest on Mary Ann’s blog; Ed Week’s Politics K-12 also weighs in on Smiths “eyebrow-raising” speech.

A Sobering Assessment of National Standards

by Robert Pondiscio
March 6th, 2009

The Fordham Foundation’s Checker Finn is a longtime proponent of national standards, but he sounds a strong cautionary note in the latest Education Gadfly.  “Evidence is mounting that those who take curricular content seriously may not like what we find at the end of this road,” Finn writes, ”and I worry that America could be headed toward another painful bout of curriculum warfare.” 

Checker details seven worries. He’s suspicious that unions, especially the NEA, are getting on board the bandwagon and the conflation of academic standards with “21st Century Skills.”  He also frets that if common standards is limited to English and math, “it may further narrow what’s seriously taught in school–with a malign effect on states that have a decently rounded curriculum that gives due weight to science, history, even art.” His biggest concern is what he calls institutional instability.

The United States of America in 2009 lacks a suitable place to house national standards and tests over the long haul. Who will “own” them? Who will be responsible for revising them? Correcting their errors? Ensuring that assessment results are reported in timely fashion? Nobody wants the Education Department to do this. There’s reason to keep it separate from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and its governing board. Yet the awkward ad hoc “partnership” now assembling to pursue this process could fall apart tomorrow if key individuals retire, die or defect, if election results change the make up of participating organizations, if the money runs out, or if their working draft runs into political headwinds like the “voluntary national standards” of the early 90s. This is no way to run something as important as national academic standards for a big modern country.

Can this idea be salvaged?  Yes, if we can figure out how.  “Use available tools and models to simplify and expedite this process,” Finn argues.  “The U.S. doesn’t need to start from scratch. Several states have fine standards.But don’t pretend to prescribe the whole curriculum….A common standard is the skeleton of learning, not all the flesh. It outlines the core skills and knowledge that young Americans need to acquire and should be accompanied by a reasonable assessment system to determine, at various grade levels, how well they’ve learned those things.”

All Aboard!

by Robert Pondiscio
March 3rd, 2009

“National standards—once the untouchable third rail’ of American education policy—now have the backing of the nation’s governors, a growing number of education leaders, and the U.S. secretary of education,” writes David Hoff in the new issue of Education Week.

A Path to National Standards Opens Up

by Robert Pondiscio
February 26th, 2009

Ed Week’s David Hoff broke a significant piece of news over at NCLB: Act II the other day.  At the National Governors Association’s meeting last weekend members approved a policy statement that could lead to national education standards:

The statement hasn’t been released to the public yet. But governors told me that it advocates putting state leaders in charge of a national effort to establish a “common core” of standards defining what students should know.  The statement dovetails with the report released in December by the NGA, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc., a group of governors and business leaders. That report called for a process of benchmarking the standards of high-achieving countries to determine what content they consider most important.

Hoff sees the stament as newsworthy because “it adds momentum to the move toward national standards” and notes it “sailed through the NGA without any controversy or significant debate.”  Fordham’s Flypaper thinks Hoff’s exclusive would have been front-page news were it not for the economy.  “Think about it,” says Mike Petrilli, “the governors are open to throwing out their own standards—the heart of their education accountability systems—in favor of frameworks that would have reach from coast to coast. This is a big deal!”

National Standards Critical to Low-SES Schools

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2009

At Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham damns Randi Weingarten’s call for national standards with faint praise, noting he’s not against the idea, but calling it a distraction from the core problem the country faces today:

A system of public education that dramatically and dangerously under-serves low-income students and students of color.  And it doesn’t under-serve them by a matter of degree but substantially.   That’s much more a political problem than a substantive one and while better standards and more fine-grained measurement are important, their absence is not why we are where we are today and we should not lose sight of that

I respectfully disagree with Andy.  The lack of a coherent curriculum is one of the principal ways in which underperforming low-income schools fail their students substantially.  Given what we know about the connection between content knowledge and reading comprehension, those who are concerned with low-SES schools should be the ones shouting the loudest for national standards.  Factor in the extraordinarily high mobility rates among low-income students of color and national content standards become an essential prerequisite for closing the achievement gap. 

Standards are not a panacea.  Process standards are notoriously vague and difficult to assess and are little more than aspirational statements (“All students will write in clear, concise, organized language that varies in content and form for different audiences and purposes,” for example, is not the most helpful standard when planning lessons.)  But strong national content standards tied to reading assessments to ensure the content is actually taught would be the quickest way to avoid gaps and repetitions in the critical elementary school years and boost achievement over time.  National curriculum standards would also free novice teachers, who are overrepresented in low-SES schools, an opportunity to focus on how to teach instead of what to teach.