By Frank James
Long-standing fears that millions of U.S. students from elementary to high schools aren't being adequately prepared for college or the workforce and that state standards vary too greatly have spurred a movement for a national core educational curriculum and the release Wednesday of draft standards forEnglish language arts and math.
The release of the draft has been both welcomed and panned, with critics concerned that the standards could lead to a mass-assembly approach to general education or a greater reliance on standardized testing in education. The standards' creators are now seeking public comment and they'll probably get plenty.
Education Week explains how the standards were created:
Drafted behind closed doors by teams of academics, state education officials, and policymaking groups, and then circulated repeatedly and confidentially to scores of leaders and education advocates for feedback and revision, the standards are now open for public comment through April 2. They are posted at www.corestandards.org, a Web site created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the two groups leading the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which has the support of 48 states and President Barack Obama's administration. Once public feedback is incorporated into this draft, a final version will be posted in late spring, NGA and CCSSO officials said.
Some teachers have participated in drafting the standards, but the organizers said they want many more to offer feedback during the public-comment period.
Chris Minnich, who is leading the common-standards work for the CCSSO, said he wants to know whether teachers find the standards "teachable," and whether the grade-by-grade progressions of skills outlined in them make sense. Dane Linn, who leads the work for the NGA, said he would also like teachers' ideas on curriculum materials and assessments that could be developed to reflect the standards.
Addressing one area of controversy about the standards, Mr. Linn said that the two groups do not plan to craft a national curriculum or assessments for the standards. Instead, he said, the groups might play "a catalyzing role" by helping coordinate the efforts of publishers, education organizations, school districts, or groups of teachers, for instance, to do that work.
Here's how the members of the Common Core State Standards Initiative explain their purpose in the introduction of their draft for English language arts:
The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies and Science are the culmination of an extended, broad-based effort to fulfill the charge issued by the states to create the next generation of K--12 standards that help ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy by no later than the end of high school. The Standards set requirements for English language arts (ELA) but also for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in the social and natural sciences. Just as students must learn to communicate effectively in a variety of content areas, so too must the Standards specify the literacy skills and understandings required for eventual college and career readiness in history, social studies, and science as well as ELA. By their structure, the Standards encourage curriculum makers to take a comprehensive approach that coordinates ELA courses with courses in other subject areas in order to help students acquire a wide range of ever more sophisticated knowledge and skills through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
A bit later, their proposal provides some examples of what students who successfully meet the standards should be able to do:
* They demonstrate independence.
Students can, without significant scaffolding or support, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and clearly convey intricate or multifaceted information. Likewise, students are independently able to discern a speaker's key points and request clarification if something is not understood. They ask relevant questions, build on others' ideas, articulate their own ideas, and ask for confirmation that they have been understood. Without prompting, they observe language conventions, determine word meanings, attend to the connotations of words, and acquire new vocabulary.
* They build strong content knowledge.
Students establish a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance. They become proficient in new areas through research and study. They read purposefully and listen attentively to gain both general knowledge and discipline-specific expertise. They refine and share their knowledge through writing and speaking.
* They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline.
Students consider their communication in relation to audience, task, purpose, and discipline. They appreciate nuances, such as how the composition of an audience should affect tone when speaking and how the connotations of words affect meaning. They also know that different disciplines call for different types of evidence (e.g., documentary evidence in history, experimental evidence in the sciences).
Here's more on some of the concerns about the standards, again from Education Week:
"The last thing we want is a one-size-fits-all [curriculum or assessment]," Mr. Linn said.
But that is exactly what some see in the common-standards draft. Paul E. Barton, a senior associate at the Educational Testing Service's Policy Information Center, said the standards reinforce the flawed idea that one shared set of goals suits all students.
"It conflates the idea of higher standards at the high school level with standardization of high school curriculum," he said. "We need curriculum opportunities that recognize the diversity of students, how different they are when they enter high school, their different goals, learning modes, and ambitions."
A better approach, Mr. Barton said, would be building a more varied menu of options for students by having educators and organizations develop a broad array of rigorous courses with matching exams for districts or states to adopt.
Skills Debate Resurfaces
The completion of the public draft sparked a repeat of earlier criticism from some quarters that the common standards demand skills such as critical thinking without the underlying subject-matter knowledge required to learn those skills.
Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based research and advocacy group, said the common standards are "skills-based standards without any real content to speak of." He said he is worried that Massachusetts' own standards will be "dumbed down" if the state adopts the common standards.