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Are We on the Same Page?

A group of TC's own considers the pros and cons of a new initiative to create "Common Core" standards for the nation's K-12 students
Unlike most other countries, the United States has no national curriculum or learning standards for K-12 students. The reason is inherent in our name: we are a collection of states that, though united, insist on a strong measure of autonomy, particularly in matters that reflect cultural values.
Over the past 30 years, however, there has been a movement toward standardization in education. In the 1980s, in response to the landmark report A Nation at Risk, states launched a range of measures to improve student performance. During the ‘90s, they adopted their own learning standards, which for the first time guided decisions about curriculum, textbooks and teacher training. And in 2001, the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated that every American student achieve proficiency in math and English by 2014, and that schools show adequate yearly progress for sub-groups, including minorities. The law was hailed as the first federal guarantee that all children receive a quality education. However, NCLB left it to states to define proficiency—a feature many critics believe has prompted states to game the system, narrow their curricular offerings and “teach to the test.”
Still, the movement toward national standards has continued. In 2008, a report by the bipartisan organization Achieve found “a remarkable degree of consistency” in states’ college- and career-ready English and math standards for high school graduates. The report triggered a new Common Core State Standards Initiative, led by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA). Under this banner, a working group of experts is now developing core standards in English and math, both for graduating high school seniors and for end-of-year in each grade, that will be “research- and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations, and include rigorous content and skills.” As of September, 48 states had signed on to at least participate in the development of core standards. (A preliminary draft of the standards was made public in September, and can be viewed at
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is nudging states on board with the promise of $350 million for better tests to assess progress against the new standards and the stipulation that only states that ultimately embrace the new core standards will receive other federal funds.
In August, TC Today interviewed a small group of TC-affiliated experts about the Common Core Standards Initiative. Excerpts from their comments follow below. The participants were Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College and founding director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE); TC alumnus David Johns, Senior Policy Advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; TC alumna Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents; Dolores Perin, TC Professor of Psychology and Education and a reviewer for the Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) standards; Aaron Pallas, TC Professor of Sociology and Education; Michael Rebell, Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity, based at Teachers College; and Jessica Wolff, the Campaign’s Policy Director. (An interview with Rebell and Wolff, who have published two books on NCLB, appears at
In the accompanying story appearing on page 38, TC alumnus Kevin Jennings, Assistant U.S. Secretary for Education, for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, provides an additional perspective.

Is the core standards initiative a good thing? What are your hopes and concerns?
Susan Fuhrman: The notion that society should agree on what we want kids to know, and at what level, is a major step forward. Before the standards movement, curriculum was entirely a local matter. Textbook and test publishers worked to create comprehensive approaches that would work with any curriculum. So when we compared ourselves internationally we saw our students getting an education that was a mile wide and an inch deep. Also, when my colleagues and I at CPRE looked at state reforms in the ‘80s, the most noticeable thing was their lack of coherence. A state would require higher levels of math for graduation, but the graduation test given to students only required them to use eighth grade math. Or there would be higher standards for teacher licensure but lots of loopholes for people with no background at all. So coherence in policy, anchored around standards, was a real step forward.
However, I don’t think that promise has been achieved. States’ standards have been vague, too numerous and often not terribly helpful. Testing has become the main feature of standards-based performance, driving what’s taught in the classroom instead of the other way around. The reforms have played out to focus on accountability and much less on an equally serious and important part of the original conception, which was capacity building.
My hope is that these new common core standards will be just the starting point—that they will provide an organizing principle for American education by laying the groundwork for better curriculum, assessment, textbooks and professional development. I would also hope for standards in disciplines beyond reading and math.
Merryl Tisch: Apples-to-apples comparison is the ultimate form of accountability. It’s the best way to figure out whether the investment we’re making is bearing fruit. New York and Massachusetts have the highest standards, so we’re looking toward standards of that quality being the goal. In no way do we want lower expectations for the kids of New York State. We’ve signed on to the conversation, but the determining factor is, will the standards be rigorous enough? 
David Johns: I am encouraged by the current conversation, and I don’t know how we can avoid moving in a national standards direction. In an era of data-driven decisions, having state standards that are not aligned to college and career expectations or among states limits the information policymakers can access when making decisions about federal investments in education. Acknowledging that the current conversation is a continuation of a 30-year movement toward standardization, the number of states that have signed on to the initiative led by the NGA and CCSSO is encouraging, but it will be critically important to ensure that the policy is crafted in ways that drive meaningful reform.
Rigor and relevance are central. Senator Kennedy always said a rising tide lifts all ships. It’s great to enter this conversation as a representative of Massachusetts, which has some of the most rigorous standards in the country. But in Mississippi, in Washington D.C., kids graduate with skills two grade levels behind their peers elsewhere. So the challenge will be crafting standards aligned to real-world challenges and expectations that also account for the academic, and in some ways, life circumstances of children throughout the country. 
Dolores Perin: The real innovation here is that the new standards will try to account for every student in K–12, with exit criteria for both workforce and college entry. That’s realistic, because not everyone goes to college, and meanwhile the labor force is crying out for replenishment as Baby Boomers move on. The majority of workplaces require pretty intense problem-solving skills and independent work. So, preparing students for the workforce is just as difficult as for college, and combining standards for both makes sense. 
Michael Rebell: It’s a major breakthrough that so many states have indicated an interest in working together on common standards, but to some extent, this is déjà vu. Since Goals 2000 [a Clinton-era effort that unsuccessfully promoted national standards], it’s been understood that if we are going to improve education and build on the states standards movement, we have to have coherence in the standards to which our children are aspiring. But there was resistance because of the concept of local control, and because when it came to social studies, English and literature, there was controversy about what the standards would be. So the standards have been left up to the states, and states can water them down when they need to make their accountability figures look better. It’s become a farce, and everyone knows it. But we do have a lot more movement now towards common standards, with many business and education groups signing on, so I’m hopeful.

How would Common Core standards change testing, and what issues would that raise?
Jessica Wolff: The relationship of standards to the assessments used to measure progress against them is very important. Standards can help ensure high-quality curriculum for all students, but their relationship to assessments can break down that potential if the assessments aren’t high quality, if the assessments test too narrowly, or if they end up driving teaching too much.
Michael Rebell: Setting the cut scores is the biggest problem with assessments right now. Each state is not only able to create its own tests, but also determine what the passing score will be. And if states are under pressure to make yearly progress, as they are now with NCLB, they will be very jealous to determine what’s proficient and what’s not. Right now, the range of these cut scores, and of what proficiency is, is mind boggling. 

Aaron Pallas: I don’t think we know yet whether the Common Core standards will truly promote learning or become just another layer of bureaucracy. Standards are intertwined with how we measure them, and even if you identify what you want kids to know, there aren’t good measurement tools.
For example, the current focus on proficiency levels distorts testing results. Here in New York, the percentage of kids who are proficient suggests there have been huge gains in children’s learning. The Mayor and the Chancellor claim striking reductions in the achievement gap because the rise in minority students who are proficient is bigger than the rise among those who are white. But the bar is low, and moving a small number of kids above it can substantially increase their proficiency rate, even though they’ve only improved by a few percentage points. Imagine that the threshold for passing a state assessment is getting 60 percent of the test items correct, and that at the time that you start keeping track, whites are scoring 90 percent, on average, and blacks are scoring 55 percent. If the black average moves up a little over time, many more black students will be judged proficient, but you haven’t closed the gap very much.

Why not use the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to test against core standards, since it’s administered in every state?
Aaron Pallas: NAEP is the closest thing we have right now to a common assessment. But NAEP might ask only 45 of, say, 100 things that fifth graders need to know for math. And only a sampling of kids will be given the tests. So NAEP can tell you how a population is doing over all, but it can’t tell you whether a given kid is proficient. For that, you would need to increase the amount of testing per student, including developing more challenging test items that can’t be reduced to choosing an answer on a multiple-choice test. Developing and scoring assessments in which students construct a response costs more than putting a bubble sheet through a scanning machine. And it’s politically unpalatable, because the perception is kids spend too much time preparing for tests as it is.
Michael Rebell: There are two problems with NAEP. First, it isn’t based on state standards, so the skeptics about using NAEP broadly say, “They’re not testing what kids are learning in our state, because we’re teaching a different aspect of history or a different kind of literature than in other parts of the country.” But the more serious problem is that NAEP isn’t given to everyone. It’s a random selection of students, and it also doesn’t count, because neither the schools nor the students are identified. So there are no consequences.
There also are real questions about the cut scores of NAEP. NAEP’s definition of proficiency is too high, not too low. That’s had a perverse effect, because the percentage of states meeting NAEP proficiency standards is generally so low, even in higher-performing states, that we always look bad in comparison to other countries.

So how to test effectively for meaningful skills and knowledge?
Susan Fuhrman: We need a billion-dollar investment in assessment, a moon-shot that will bring to bear what technology really has to offer. Then we will be able to cover more areas of the curriculum and have much richer assessment techniques, such as simulations.
Michael Rebell: A well-designed assessment should reveal what concepts kids know and what they don’t know. And if we are really concerned with proficiency, we need to dig deep on what that means. We need to go beyond abstract numbers. What does 70 percent represent? Is 70 percent of the knowledge of a field adequate? In some areas, that may in fact mean you’re reasonably proficient. In others, such as critical thinking, maybe you need to demonstrate 90 percent proficiency. Hopefully with $360 million from the federal government, they can hire the best and the brightest and get the job done.

How would or should Common Core standards affect what goes on in the classroom?
Susan Fuhrman: When you say you are going to bring all children up to the same high standards, then you have to think about the kind of instruction that entails. That’s led us to say that we must take students who are at different levels of learning and bring them along. And that requires tailoring instruction more to each child’s learning—by which I mean a very fine-grained knowledge of where a kid is and where a kid needs to go, so that you can adjust your instruction accordingly.
We have a lot of that work going on at TC, such as in the area of young children’s math understanding—work that can inform the development of curriculum, professional development and embedded assessment using new technologies. We and others must flesh out the new standards with curricula that specify desired pathways through subject matters—sequences, grounded in cognitive development, of increasingly sophisticated concepts and knowledge applications. We must design formative assessments that will inform teachers’ decisions about how to adapt instruction to different students’ needs. Our policy people must contribute to our understanding of approaches that various states take and perhaps advise states about standards and assessment policy. We are very cognizant, as is the President, of the contribution of poverty and other challenges to children’s school difficulties. And we are interested in working with local schools and focusing on comprehensive services to children. Many of our health and psychology people are interested in that.
Dolores Perin: My wish list for any standards would include alignment of criteria for exit from one grade to entry to the next. That’s essential, but it’s complicated. It means teachers need to plan collaboratively across the grades. It requires better teacher preparation and more resources for schools and parents. And it’s not just money. It’s the quality of teacher education and of support for teachers in schools. If a teacher has 30 students, it’s hard to differentiate instruction to meet everyone’s needs.
I’d also like to see literacy skills applied to different content areas. That would require connecting English Language Arts instruction with the rest of the curriculum. Most ELA instruction is based on reading literature, but it’s challenging for students to apply literature-based literacy skills to the dense expository writing one finds in, say, a science textbook. I teach a writing interventions course for pre-service teachers here at TC that focuses on this. Teachers learn strategies widely documented in the reading and writing literature and apply them directly to science and social studies texts students are actually getting in high school. There’s evidence this helps even the higher-performing students. But to do it effectively, ELA teachers need to know what other teachers are teaching and what texts they’re using—and that rarely happens after fourth grade, because students go off to different classrooms. So teachers need to monitor and observe one another.
David Johns: As a classroom teacher one of my primary responsibilities was to find ways to overcome the diverse educational and life experiences that my students came to school with to ensure that when they left my classroom they were each prepared for the challenges they would face next year and throughout the rest of their academic careers.
From a legislative perspective, to be effective, common core standards must support the alignment of policy and practice in ways that improve teaching and learning, especially for low-income and disadvantaged children and youth. The Senate HELP Committee is currently working on the Investing in Students for a Stronger America Act. This bill, similar to H.R. 3221—a bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives—will make significant investment in high-quality early-learning programs, interventions for struggling high schools and support for innovation at community colleges. This legislation responds to the President’s goal of reclaiming the world’s highest rate of college attainment by 2020 in ways that recognize the need to align systems and increase efficiency.

Would teacher preparation need to change under new core standards?
Merryl Tisch: The path to greater accountability for student outcomes is through greater accountability of teacher prep programs. All the data show that a student’s ability to learn is mediated primarily through teacher quality. So we’ve got to ask, What does it mean to be well qualified? What’s the next iteration of professional development, both pre-service and in-service?
I know a lot of really outstanding practitioners in education schools, but I think they’d admit that teachers prepared in their institutions often need to be re-prepared once they enter urban centers. So—how to demand rigor in programs and also demand relevance? I believe in research-based decision-making, but pre-service development needs to be guided by practical realities.
Jessica Wolff: Other professions acknowledge the limits of academic preparation in developing new people in their profession. In medical school or law school, the first years of your work experience account for the growth you need to have on the job and the skills you can only get on the job. There isn’t the expectation that when you finish your academic preparation, you’re instantly going to be fully expert in your field. The education profession can do a lot more to make sure newly trained teachers get mentoring, induction and additional training when they first come into the classroom.

Does the emergence of core standards indicate that the federal government is superseding states in setting education policy?
Susan Fuhrman: No, but what I think will be very fascinating is the availability of all the money right now at the federal level, and how that enables the Secretary and the Department of Education to draw in states and exert more leverage than in the past. The Secretary is clearly telling states they have to permit linking student scores to teacher evaluations, lift caps on charter schools and revise other aspects of their policies in order be eligible for federal dollars.
Merryl Tisch: New York State spends huge amounts of money each year, so I can’t see us giving up our authority to conform to federal guidelines on exit exams. I don’t believe a common core set of standards would dictate rewriting the Regents as we know them. High-performing states will still set their own benchmarks for excellence.
Aaron Pallas: Other countries—mostly centralized ones—have better exit standards than the United States. Decentralization here has resulted in an un-standardized curriculum and a lack of shared understanding of what schools are trying to do. But decentralization is one of the features of our American system. It’s legitimate for people to have differences over values questions such as the teaching of evolution or the teaching of sex education. If you have a centralized government, there’s not much room for debate. Here, everyone can have a view about what should be taught, and the federal government has rarely intervened at the state or local level.
David Johns: The bottom line is that there have been big changes since October of last year. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided much-needed resources to state and local education systems at an extremely critical time, and Congress is continuing to contemplate ways to provide additional resources. As an example, the Senate legislation currently being developed by the Senate HELP Committee seeks to provide additional resources to states, community colleges and schools ready to take on the challenge of making the investments necessary to ensure that our current and future workforce possesses the skills and experiences needed to be successful in the 21st century global economy. While the conversation around common standards is not novel, the federal government and states are working together in new and exciting ways to meet today’s challenges. The NGA and CCSSO initiative is a promising example of these efforts. 

Published Friday, Dec. 4, 2009