Thursday, July 23, 2009


By Sean Cavanagh and Catherine Gewertz | EdWeek | Vol. 28, Issue 37

A draft of common academic standards, meant to bring greater coherence to the nation’s English and mathematics lessons, is drawing a mix of enthusiastic, ambivalent, and barbed responses from those who have seen it.

The working document, which was unexpectedly put out for public consumption yesterday, is meant to serve as the first step of a standards-writing process, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The crafting and review of those academic guidelines is expected to play out at least through the end of the year.

The draft that was circulated on the Web yesterday attempts to set “college- and career-readiness” standards for English and math—the skills students need to succeed in credit-bearing postsecondary courses and workforce-training programs.

Draft Common Core State Standards
Preamble Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
English Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
Math Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

From there, the NGA, CCSSO, and other organizations collaborating on the project will attempt to move back through the K-12 system, crafting English and math standards for earlier grades. Eventually, it will be up to state education leaders to accept or reject the final documents, after they have gone through several iterations, officials from the governors’ and chiefs’ organizations say.

Unlike some standards documents, the draft does not break out skills and knowledge by grade level—a level of detail that is expected to come, in some form, later. Instead, it spells out core standards, concepts, and principles in English and math in very simple terms, then provides more detailed explanations of what is meant by that guidance. It also offers sample texts for English, such as the Declaration of Independence, and sample problems, or “performance tasks” in math.

Forty-six states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have signed on to the common standards work so far, according to the NGA.

The draft document began drawing public reaction after it was unexpectedly posted on the Web site of Core Knowledge, a Charlottesville, Va., organization that advocates grounding students in a foundational and specific set of content across subjects.

Right or Wrong Direction?

Core Knowledge officials said they received a copy of the document, and since they knew of no restrictions on it, decided to post a link to it online. The organization offered a highly critical review, titling its summation “Voluntary National Standards Dead on Arrival.”

The English-language arts portion of the document offers too little guidance for teachers and parents on what specific literary texts should be taught, and places too much emphasis on skills rather than content, Core Knowledge officials argued.

“At first glance, these language standards are, despite the brave descriptors, very similar to the dysfunctional state standards already in place,” wrote Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch Jr. “Like most state standards, they naively take a formalistic approach to language ability. They assume that the ability to understand literary and informational language is chiefly a how-to skill, whereas it is chiefly a topic-dependent skill that varies with specific topic familiarity.”

Others had a more favorable reaction.

Alan J. Farstrup, the longtime executive director of the 80,000-member International Reading Association, in Newark, Del., rejected Core Knowledge’s critique, saying the draft “appeared headed in the right direction,” and praised it for not giving overly rigid guidance to English teachers and schools.

The language of the draft, in fact, says it “will not prescribe how” the standards are taught, but will allow teachers and students the ability to learn in “instructionally relevant contexts.”

“I’d hate to see [it] devolve into a prescriptive set of standards,” said Mr. Farstrup, who recently retired from his post at the IRA. The draft needs to “give clear guidance, but allow local characteristics and needs to be taken into account,” and the document was a positive step, he said.

“It’s way too soon to issue blanket condemnations, or blanket praise to a draft,” Mr. Farstrup added.

Leaders of the CCSSO and the NGA, which are spearheading the common standards work, agreed, saying the draft was far from complete.

Gene Wilhoit, the chiefs’ executive director, said the draft does not yet incorporate the input of the “feedback groups” assigned to review it, or of state schools chiefs and governors, who are also looking at it. That feedback is due by the end of the month, he said.

“We are still at a very early stage,” Mr. Wilhoit said. “We wanted to do that in order to make revisions in it [and] to move it to the second phase of work. Although we’ve done some solid work to this point, we know it’s an incomplete product,” he said, and having the feedback groups and state officials respond to it would “make it even better.”

More Drafts to Come

Once the NGA and CCSSO receive that input, the standards will also be put out for broader public comment, said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices. That revised draft is expected to be posted online at in mid-August; the two groups will seek comment from such organizations as the national teachers’ unions and groups representing math and English teachers at that time, and revise the document again, Mr. Wilhoit said.

The process of gathering outside opinions takes time, Mr. Linn noted, since one of the aims of the work is to back up the standards with research and evidence and to internationally benchmark them. NGA and CCSSO were not especially surprised the draft was leaked, Mr. Linn said, given that the organizations were actively seeking comments on it from outside experts.

One teacher who had read the draft, Jim Burke, a California high school educator, said he thought the document encourages students to think “creatively and critically about a variety” of written documents—essential skills in college and the workforce.

“I’m not against [covering] canonical texts, but what you see being asked of people in the workplace and the university is more reflective of flexible techniques, and practices, and standards,” said Mr. Burke, an English teacher in Burlingame.

The college- and career-readiness standards have been drafted behind closed doors by two committees of experts, one covering English, the other math. Members of those working groups consist mostly of representatives of Achieve, a Washington policy organization; and two groups known for their work on college-admissions tests, ACT Inc. and the College Board. The working groups will expand later in the year to include other experts, as the groups delve into K-12 standards, NGA and CCSSO officials have said.

In addition, the governors’ and chiefs’ organizations have established feedback groups of experts to review the draft college- and career-readiness documents.

Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University professor of education and business who focuses on college- and career-readiness, said he is concerned that the feedback groups are “not very deep” on representatives from community colleges and technical or vocational programs.

It is particularly important to have sound standards in those areas, Mr. Kirst said, since President Barack Obama is highlighting the role that such programs can play in ensuring that more Americans have some post-high-school education. He said the draft standards appear to presume, perhaps erroneously, that career and college skills are one in the same.

“There are many levels of postsecondary education that do career training, from technical schools to community colleges on up,” Mr. Kirst said. “Many of these technical programs require only three months to a year or more of training. It’s not clear that their standards are appropriate for that band of career-preparation programs.”

'Pleased and Optimistic'

Mr. Kirst also expressed doubt that the standards are equally well-suited for students headed to community college and those headed to four-year, selective universities.

“These [standards] may satisfy some elements of higher education, but there are over 4,000 institutions of postsecondary education in America, and the impression is that this is fine for all of them,” he added. “Those are so varied, from Harvard to the DeKalb Technical College in Georgia, that to say one set of standards fits that full range of postsecondary institutions is hard to substantiate.”

The math portion of the draft also drew varied responses.

Steven Leinwand, a principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington, said he was “pleased and optimistic” about the direction of the math standards, after seeing the early version. Mr. Leinwand has studied math curriculum in high-performing countries.

The researcher was particularly impressed that the draft appeared not to be organized around merely preparing students for precalculus or calculus, but instead emphasizes a broader set of math skills that students need to prosper in college and the workplace. Too many high school academic standards and curricula focus on “precalculus for all, to the detriment of most students,” he said.

Even so, the document was likely to yield strong reactions in the math community, where divisions over what math content is most essential have been playing out for decades, he said.

“There’s no question that people at both ends of the spectrum will have concerns,” said Mr. Leinwand, though he hoped the draft would also spark a “collective spirit of excitement and agreement,” which he says has become more prevalent in recent years.

Defining the Document

Henry S. Kepner Jr., the president of the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va., said the document heads in the “right direction,” though he also sees challenges ahead. One would be for the writers to explain who the standards are targeting, Mr. Kepner said. Are the standards meant to set a basic bar for all students, he asked, regardless of their post-high-school ambitions, or do they speak to the needs of the highest-achieving students, too?

“We have to be clear on that,” Mr. Kepner said. “We have to be careful with parents and administrators about what exactly this document means.”

Mr. Kepner, who serves on the math-feedback committee charged with providing input on the document, said he was given a draft of the document and had been looking it over.

Wilfried Schmid, a Harvard University mathematics professor, said he was surprised that the document was not organized around specific grades, with clearer expectations. While he found some of the draft’s language to be commendable, particularly its focus on paring down math curriculum and having students master it, Mr. Schmid also said it should have laid out a clearer “set of priorities—what matters most” in math. Mr. Schmid was a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a White House-commissioned group that produced a report last year on foundational math skills and preparing students for introductory algebra.

“I understand that there has to be some flexibility,” Mr. Schmid said of the draft, “but there also has to be some kind of sequence for what should be taught.”

But Mr. Linn said more grade-focused expectations were likely to come later in the standards-drafting process, as the expert committees move toward writing the K-12 standards. How closely those expectations are tied to specific grades, or spans of grades, he said, will be the decision of the writers of those standards, based on the research they collect.

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