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Laying a common foundation for success
Living up to the challenge presented by the Common Core will be tough, but the United States will finally have a foundation enabling all students to learn what they need to know to be ready for college or careers by the time they graduate from high school.
By agreeing to common expectations, states have made it possible for

By Robert Rothman
Like much of early America, railroads in the early 1800s were local affairs. Train lines were built mainly to carry goods between towns where canals did not reach, so each region of the country built its own rail lines. As a result, the rail gauges — the width between rails — varied widely. These variations made it impossible to connect rail lines and thus conduct commerce across regions. During the Civil War, President Lincoln recognized that this limitation hurt the war effort as well because it made it impossible to transport military material and goods across train lines. So, he proposed a standard track width for the planned intercontinental railroad. The standard gauge made it possible to connect lines and led to an explosion of railroad building. The number of track miles tripled to 90,000 between 1860 and 1880 and doubled again to 190,000 by 1900. With that expansion came the growth of whole new industries that could only be born through interstate train travel — for example, the auto industry, which depended on steel from Pennsylvania, rubber from Ohio, and coal from West Virginia, all shipped and put together in Michigan. Thus, the idea of a common standard made the United States the world’s largest industrial power. A similar story is playing out in education. For decades, the American elementary and secondary education system has operated somewhat as the railroads did before Lincoln’s day, with each state setting its own expectations for what students should know and be able to do. These standards might have satisfied individual state needs, but they made it difficult for students to move from state to state. And the state standards impeded the kind of innovations — in testing, textbooks, and teacher education — that might be possible when states pool their resources or create a national market. To address that problem, nearly every state, with little fanfare, has adopted the Common Core State Standards for student learning in English language arts and mathematics. These standards spell out the knowledge and skills all students are expected to acquire in order to be prepared for college and careers by the time they graduate from high school. For example, the standards state that, at the end of high school, students should be able to “Analyze 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.” While that standard might seem challenging, it is the kind of thing students need to be able to do to succeed in college and the workplace. And now, for the first time, nearly all students in the United States will be expected to learn it, regardless of where they live. By setting common expectations, then, states have made
ROBERT ROTHMAN ( is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C., and author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011).
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students everywhere to graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education.

A sophisticated primer


it possible for students everywhere to graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education. Whether that possibility is realized will depend on whether states and school districts can make the transformations in instructional practice the standards suggest. But, there are reasons for hope. The standards are clear and make sense to teachers. The fact that nearly all states have adopted them make possible cross-state and national efforts in professional development and curriculum that could not have existed before. And, perhaps most important, two consortia of states are developing new assessments to measure student performance against the

The No Child Left Behind Act made variations in state standards conspicuous.

standards. These assessments promise to move away from conventional fill-in-the-bubble formats to provide much better measures of student abilities to think critically and solve problems. Because of the strong influence of tests on instruction, these assessments are also likely to encourage a tremendous shift in teaching and learning in nearly every classroom in the United States. Humble standards can lead to great innovations.
What are standards and why do they matter?

Most countries have some form of educational standards. In the U.S., the idea began to take off in the late 1980s. At the time, advocates believed student learning would improve if states spelled out specifically what all students should know and be able to do and lined up all aspects of the education system — teacher preparation, curriculum, testing — to those expectations. That way, all oars would be rowing in the same direction. Unlike other countries, where national ministries of education promulgated academic standards, here in the U.S. standards were the hybrid product of national organizations developing nonbinding statements of what students should learn in each subject and states adopting their own standards for students that only sometimes were based on the national documents. These efforts were spurred by legislation enacted during the Clinton administration, which gave grants to states to encourage them to set standards and then required states to set standards as a condition of federal aid. By the end of the 1990s, all but one state (Iowa) had developed standards. The result of this effort was mixed. For one thing, the standards varied in quality from state to state, and, in some cases, state standards were either long
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lists of topics, too many to cover in a single year or too vague to provide much guidance to teachers. Teachers tended to continue what they had been doing rather than try to use standards to design new courses of study. At the same time, in many states, the other pieces of the puzzle — new textbooks, professional support for teachers — did not materialize, so teachers lacked the support they needed to change their practice. Thus, even in states with standards considered strong, such as California, a lack of resources limited their effect. Tests also played a major role in affecting the influence of the standards. In theory, the tests should have measured what the standards expected, but, in practice, that didn’t happen. Tests tended to measure what was easiest to measure — relatively low-level knowledge and skills, rather than the more complex abilities the standards called for. As tests grew in importance, with significant consequences attached to the results, teachers quite naturally placed more attention on what was on the tests than to what was in the standards. National standards could have alleviated much of the variability in state standards, but national standards became hotly contested politically in the 1990s, dampening their effect. The federal government had issued grants to national organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences, to develop standards in key subject areas, and states were expected to use the standards in developing their own. But, there were fierce battles over some of the national documents. The biggest flashpoint was over the U.S. history standards. The National Endowment for the Humanities had issued a grant to a national organization based at the University of California, Los Angeles, to develop the standards. But, the day before they were scheduled to be released, Lynne V. Cheney, the former NEH chair who had issued the grant, took to the Wall Street Journal to denounce them as a monument to political correctness. The U.S. Senate followed suit, voting 99-1 for a nonbinding resolution denouncing the history standards. The Republican-led Congress also killed an agency created by the Clinton administration that would have assessed state standards against national benchmarks. A later proposal by Clinton to establish a voluntary national test in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade mathematics also died amid opposition from Republicans, who feared the nationalization of what had traditionally been a state and local function. National standards appeared dead.
Drive for common standards

Nevertheless, the need for national standards became more and more apparent. First, the No Child

Left Behind Act made variations in state standards conspicuous. That law, enacted in 2002, required all students to reach “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014, but it left it up to states to create their own standards and tests and to determine what constituted proficiency. The law also required all states to administer National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the federal testing program. Results soon appeared showing that in some states nearly all students reached proficiency on state tests, while only a handful reached that level on NAEP; in other states, the proficiency levels on the two tests were similar. These findings suggested that some states were setting standards too low. NCLB also sparked criticism of the tests that states were using to measure student performance. Teachers and others complained that too much time was spent preparing students to fill in bubbles on low-level tests. They were more interested in creating higher standards and better measures that would promote higher-level classroom activities and higher levels of learning. The rise of globalization also made it clear that higher standards were needed and that boundaries between states were becoming less important. What did it matter if Alabama and Massachusetts each set its own standards when students from both Birmingham and Boston were competing against those from Bangalore and Beijing? The results from international assessments that began to be issued in the early 2000s, moreover, showed that U.S. students performed well below their peers from other countries, lending greater credence to the idea of high national standards. For example, in 2003, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st of 28 industrialized nations in mathematics on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Yet, while the need for national standards grew more evident, those with scars from the political battles of the 1990s realized the effort had to be done differently than it had been done earlier. States needed to take the lead and work collectively.
New expectations

Alaska and Texas — signed the agreement. State leaders said they recognized that they could achieve a better product if they pooled their resources, rather than worked separately. The process was designed to differ significantly from the standards-setting efforts of the 1990s. Perhaps most important, the leaders set the goal of developing standards that would ensure that students who graduated from high school would be ready for college or careers. To that end, the standards setters based their decisions on evidence of what knowledge and skills were essential for postsecondary success. That criterion helped minimize some of the political compromises that had weakened state standards.

The writers of the Common Core standards were guided by a simple mantra: “fewer, higher, clearer.”

To keep the effort at the state level, two organizations of state leaders — the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — took the lead. The groups called a meeting at an airport hotel in Chicago in April 2009 to announce the effort and release a memorandum of understanding, under which states would commit themselves to it. Under the memorandum, states would agree to take part in developing the standards, but not necessarily to adopt the final product. Fortyeight governors and state education chiefs — all but

The writers of the Common Core standards, who included some of the nation’s leading subject-area experts, were guided by a simple mantra: “fewer, higher, clearer.” That is, they wanted to produce a document that was leaner than many state standards and would provide the focus and coherence that many of the state standards lacked. They wanted standards that would be higher than the expectations embodied in many state standards, and, in fact, would be as high as those embodied in the standards of highperforming nations like Finland and Singapore. And they wanted standards that would be clear, so teachers could understand the goals students would be expected to reach and redesign their classrooms to help students attain them. The final version of the Common Core State Standards, released June 2, 2010, at a ceremony at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., represented in many ways a sea change in American education. The standards set out bold expectations that, if realized, would raise the level of learning for many young people. All students would be expected to understand content deeply, but also to be able to apply their knowledge to think critically and solve complex problems. For example, one of the most significant departures from much current practice in the English language arts standards is the expectation that all students would be able to read and comprehend complex texts. Evidence cited by the standards writers showed that the level of complexity of materials used in entry-level college classes and the workplace had increased in recent years, but that the language used in high school materials had actually grown easV94 N3 59

ier over time. The Common Core standards expect all students to demonstrate that they can understand harder and harder texts every year. The standards also place a great deal of emphasis on the ability to reason from evidence. The standards writers found that many teachers expect students to rely on personal experience or opinions in showing how they respond to writing or write papers on their own. Many essays required for school, for example, are personal narratives with no audience beyond the teacher — “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” But, college professors and employers expect young people to be able to marshal facts in support of a position, and so the standards expect all students to be able to draw on relevant evidence, to cite it appropriately, and to use it to make a case — and to write effectively and correctly while doing so. While the Common Core standards hold a great deal of promise for improving education across the United States, they face a number of challenges that could mute their effect.

The mathematics standards likewise call on students to be able to demonstrate that they understand mathematics and can use their understanding to solve problems. Standards in early grades expect students not only to be able to apply familiar algorithms, but also to show that they understand what these algorithms represent and how to apply their understanding to the way mathematics is used in the world. For example, 6th graders are expected to “solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume.”
Quick adoption, move toward implementation

The standards in quick order gained wide acceptance. A few states did not even wait for them to be released to adopt them; Kentucky did so in February, four months before they were final (although the state board of education reserved the right to review the final product). Within weeks of the release, 30 states adopted the standards, and by the end of 2010, 43 had done so. A few more added their voices in 2011, bringing the total to 46 states and the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense schools adopted them in 2012. The federal government used the Race to the Top process to push along the adoption, but states were eager to sign on to the effort. Although there have been a few attempts in states to reverse the adoption decision, all have failed as of this writing.
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But, adoption was merely the first step in the standards process. The actions taken since adoption to implement the standards in classrooms and to support the implementation through new materials and training for teachers have been and will continue to be far more significant. They will determine whether the Common Core State Standards, like the railroad standards of the mid-19th century, have the power to transform education. The most significant step has been the development of common assessments to measure student performance against the common standards. The U.S. Education Department jump-started the development effort by awarding $330 million to two consortia of states that are creating tests that promise to be major advances from current practice. These tests, scheduled to be implemented in 2014-15, are expected to ask students to perform tasks, such as conduct research and write lengthy essays, that will measure their deeper learning competencies and also encourage teachers to have students conduct extended projects and write extensively — experiences they will need in college and the workplace. Although the effort holds enormous promise, the consortia are under an extremely tight timeline, and whether they will carry out their ambitious plans remains to be seen. Other cross-state innovations are under way, thanks to the Common Core standards. The fact that nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards means textbook companies no longer have to tailor their products to individual states. They can sell to a nearly national market. A century and a half after President Lincoln envisioned a national railroad, the education system is becoming transcontinental. Many innovations are taking place at the state level as well. For example, Kentucky, the first state to adopt the Common Core standards, has put in place perhaps the most extensive implementation plan. In carrying it out, Kentucky has undertaken a wide range of activities to ensure that all teachers understand the standards and what they ask of students, and has backed these up with materials and resources to make it easier for teachers to make the changes in classroom instruction the standards require.
Challenges ahead

While the Common Core standards hold a great deal of promise for improving education across the United States, they face a number of challenges. These challenges could mute their effect, just as the effect of state standards was limited. But, the Common Core offers some advantages the earlier standards lacked. One significant challenge is financial. Implement-

ing the standards costs money — to develop new tests, buy new textbooks and other materials, and train teachers. But the standards were adopted at one of the worst fiscal times for states in American history. States are trying to upgrade their education systems at a time when they are cutting budgets across the board. Yet, the prospect need not seem so bleak. For one, the fact that nearly all states have adopted the standards makes possible some additional cost savings, through economies of scale. Online professional development units need not be confined to a single state; teachers in 46 states should be able to access them. As the efforts by two state consortia to develop new assessments aligned to the Common Core standards have shown, cross-state development can produce a much better product at a lower cost than states could produce operating independently. Moreover, the expense of implementing standards does not all require new money. States spend money every year on tests, textbooks, and teacher training; now, they can direct their spending on materials and training related to the new standards, rather than to existing standards. Technology offers a way for states to save money. Tip Takead_Layouttraining: In the past, providing profesteacher 1 8/16/12 8:46 AM Page 1

sional development for teachers has meant convening teachers in a central location and hiring substitutes, and commissioning an expert to instruct teachers as a group. With technology, all of this can be done online. And this might be more effective as well; if teachers can log on and go through a unit on, say, reading comprehension, at a time when they are teaching the topic, they are more likely to retain what they have learned than if it is taught outside their regular teaching responsibilities. In the end, the common nature of the Common Core State Standards is likely to be their most important contribution. The result, if sustained, will be a major advance for equal opportunity. Well before most other countries, the United States opened access to education and made universal public schooling common. With the advent of the standards movement, states began to define what that education should be. Now, there is near-nationwide agreement on what that definition is, and it is higher than ever before. All students, regardless of their background or where they live, are expected to learn what they need to know to be ready for college or careers by the time they graduate from high school. The tough part is next: living up to that challenge. But, the foundation is in place. K

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