Sunday, July 25, 2010


Themes in the News for the week of July 19-23, 2010 | By UCLA IDEA Staff

07-23-2010  - Last week the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released “Common Core Standards.”  These academic standards are of critical interest to the nation’s schools, and their adoption can shape public education for years to come.

Academic standards are specific goals that say what students should be able to know and teachers teach at any given time. The pressures are great for states to adopt the new standards by Aug. 2. Under President Obama’s Race to the Top program, adopting states will have an edge to garner some of the $3 billion to be awarded in September.

The competition for funds has spurred more than half of the nation’s states to sign on, and others have shown interest in doing so within the next few days (New York Times).  Perhaps the federal standards will lessen the differences among individual states that are now all over the place when it comes to standards. Some are lax and minimal, while others set the bar very high, like California, which has some of the highest in the country. According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s evaluation of each state’s standards, California’s exceed the national standards in both math and English.

Déjà vu: 1990s.

If it’s not too late, policymakers would do well to remember the standards debates of the 1990s and the errors made then. Many analysts and educators pushed for reform that included three dimensions: curriculum standards that set learning goals, performance standards that specified the levels of student achievement, and opportunity to learn standards. This last category, Opportunity to Learn, would set and measure standards for the resources students need to reach their academic standards.

The logic for including Opportunity to Learn was simple:  you can’t understand how to help children learn if you don’t know whether they have appropriate textbooks and other learning materials, whether their teachers are knowledgeable in their subjects, whether their classes are overcrowded, whether there is a nurse, counselor, or librarian available, and lots of other opportunities that can be key to learning.

But these standards were dumped from education policy. Many leaders worried that exposing and fixing the dramatically insufficient conditions in schools would be too expensive or would shift resources from rich schools to poor schools. Others believed that inadequately resourced schools wouldn’t get their fair share under any circumstances, and in the meantime, the “opportunity gap” would become an excuse for giving up on holding poor children to high standards. Still others said, and say today, that resources mostly don’t matter.

So what remained then, and is on the table today, is curriculum standards plus assessments with the hope that sanctions, rewards, and choice, mixed with outcome testing, are sufficient. But the proof is in the California pudding.

Even with high standards, California ranks near the bottom in student achievement, and it’s no coincidence that California is also near the bottom in opportunities to learn. With high academic and performance standards coupled with low opportunity standards, California schools are set up for high rates of failure compared to other states where opportunities are higher and standards are lower.

So even as states now focus on the “race to adopt" national curriculum standards (San Francisco Chronicle), policy makers would be well advised to reclaim a vision of reform that ensures conditions are in place for students to learn what is deemed important.

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