The nation’s schools are going through a profound and quite rapid transformation – perhaps the most radical in the nation’s history. In an April 20, 2013, editorial, the New York Times referred to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as “the most important education reform in the country’s history”. Forty-five states have adopted CCSS.
Even before they have been fully implemented, the CCSS are serving as the foundation upon which a range of education reforms are being made. Throughout the 2012-13 school year educators have been scrambling to keep up with the changes. In New York, the State Education Department began providing samples of CCSS materials during the fall and winter.
Thus far, CCSS have been developed in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics. Science and Social Studies Standards are in development. New York’s 2013 ELA and math assessments were based on CCSS. Teachers and principals will be evaluated on the results of these new tests.
In order to be eligible for a piece of the pie from the $4.3 billion dollars in federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant money, states had to comply with certain criteria, such as the development of teacher evaluation systems that use the results of student assessments. States that chose to adopt the CCSS would receive extra points in their RTTT applications. (With limited funding, the U.S. Department of Education has achieved a higher level of compliance by dangling the RTTT dollars to all states driving them to adapt their state education systems to be eligible to compete for the money.)
Under the terms, all new assessments would have to be aligned with the CCSS, which are broad learning standards, not specific curriculum. State agencies and testing companies would provide information about the curriculum and assessments. In the case of New York, Pearson, an educational publishing and testing corporation, has developed the assessments. Some materials and examples have been provided via on-line resources.
In addition districts would be required to purchase other assessment materials for local assessments, but these would have to be on a state-approved list. While districts could develop their own assessments, these would need to hold up against rigorous measurement standards to prove that they are reliable and valid measures of testing. Most districts do not have the expert resources to make such a determination.
School districts, especially those in states that have been granted Race to the Top funds, have been struggling to comply with recently mandated requirements that require new curriculum, student testing tools and processes, teacher and principal evaluations, new training, and the expansion of data management systems. While Pearson and other publishing companies also sell instructional materials (textbooks, etc.) to support teachers and schools as they adapt their classrooms to the CCSS, the fiscal environment has made it difficult for districts to provide such funding.
Within the education community there have been concerns about these reforms, specifically, the top-down process, rate of change, unfunded cost, minimal time, effectiveness, participation of education entrepreneurs, and the unintended consequences on students and public education. However, others, especially those driving the change, see CCSS as having tremendous potential for preparing students for college or a career.
The focus of Part II in this blog series on the Common Core will address the potential of CCSS.
WHAT ARE THE PROMISES AND POSSIBILITIES?
The proponents of the CCSS have made certain claims:
• CCSS are “internally benchmarked” K-12 academic standards that will establish what students should have learned upon graduation for the K-12 system;
• CCSS will make students globally competitive;
• CCSS will provide greater collaboration among schools and among states;
• CCSS will have fewer standards but deeper learning for students;
• The CCSS will necessitate a greater focus on literacy across disciplines (science, social studies, and technology).
Operating on the assumption that the following do not occur in public schools, the developers of the CCSS call for the following instructional “shifts” in English Language Arts and mathematics:
ELA Shifts will result in the …
• building of knowledge and understanding via content-rich nonfiction texts;
• development of reading, writing, and speaking skills via an approach based on text evidence;
• increase of reading and writing with complex texts and higher level vocabulary.
MATH Shifts will result in…
• a focus on the standards;
• the development of thinking across grades with linkage to major math topics;
• the development of fluency, application, and deep understanding of concepts as well as skill development.
Possibilities & Promises
Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year, remarked that “Common core is the marlin that’s been out to sea and we’ve been reeling it in and it’s almost here. It’s just beside the boat – it’s huge, it’s beautiful and it has a lot of power. But how we bring it on board, how we handle it, that will require incredible skill, patience, vision, and expertise. Because, if we get that wrong and the fish starts flopping around, it has the power to destroy everything.”
Few can question the value of strengthening the reading and writing skills of our students. We want our students to be able to access text that will help them learn across all disciplines and prepare them for technical reading that many may encounter in college or the workplace.
There is certainly value in getting our students to think as mathematicians by understanding the concepts behind the algorithms and formulae. No one will argue that the application of math with a basis of strong fluency and conceptual understanding will make our students better prepared for a data-driven world that is becoming more technologically complex – in both work and societal contexts.
The 2012 National Teacher of Year is hopeful about the Common Core, but she raises the same concerns that many other educators across the nation and in New York have about them. How well are we “reeling in” the potential of the CCSS?
While it is difficult to argue with a vision that purports to enhance literacy and mathematical abilities and make students better prepared for college and careers, there are questions about the basis on which such claims have been made and the ways in which the CCSS and the associated reforms are being implemented. The following will be examined in subsequent blogs:
• Will simply “raising the bar” through differently designed and more difficult tests get students to “jump higher”?
• What is the research behind the claims that the CCSS will improve student learning? Have the new standards been field-tested over time?
• How will instruction have to change in order to teach the new standards? How well have educators been prepared for such a change? How much time have they been given for the changes? What resources have been provided to teachers and principals in order to make such changes?
• What have been the outcomes of previous improvements or changes in state standards? What is the evidence for their success?
• How have other nations, particularly those deemed as leaders in education reform, made changes to improve their schools?
• What are the costs for such changes? What are the projections for the return on investment for such a major change? (This is particularly important during a time when public school funding has been impacted by the economic crisis of a few years ago and the loss of state aid.)
• What are the concerns that educators in New York and across the nation have been raising about the consequences of the new reforms as they relate to the implementation of the Common Core?
• What are the alternatives proposed by those in the field that state and federal officials and politicians might consider in an effort to find compromise?
The implementation of the Common Core State Standards are estimated to cost New York’s taxpayers as much as $583 million dollars (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation) and the nation as much as $16 billion dollars when factoring in the cost of on-line testing that is scheduled to begin in 2014-15 (The Pioneer Institute).
It is hoped that those responsible for the decision to make such reforms – our political leaders and state and federal education officials – have made them on the calculus that any business owner would, which is that there are some pretty good assurances that there will be a return on the investment. This will be the ultimate assessment for all of us.