Education Leaders Weigh In On White House Education Plan

Governors and state education officials released a draft of new standards for K-12 public school education. The newly written benchmarks are expected to be adopted my most states, and are intended to provide a national framework for what students should learn in math and english. Host Michel Martin talks about the new "common Core standards" with two education advocates: Michael Cohen, President of Achieve, a bipartisan education reform organization; and Michael Wotorson, Executive Director of the Campaign For High School Equity.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, to what could be an important development in American education. A panel of educators brought together by the nations governors and state school superintendents released a draft of new standards for K-12 education. They are being called the Common Core Standards. President Obama has given the proposed standards his stamp of approval. And the initiative is being held as a breakthrough in a long fought battle that has historically fallen and stalled along political lines.

Traditionally, states and local governments have created their own standards, which means that expectations vary wildly across the country. And while states are still free to reject the proposed standards most are expected to embrace them. We wanted to know more. So weve called two education advocates who have been involved in the process of creating the new guidelines.

Here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio is Michael Wotorson, executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity. Thats a partnership of civil rights and education organizations focused on high school education reform. Also with us from New Jersey is Michael Cohen. He is the president of Achieve, thats a bipartisan education reform organization based in Washington, D.C. But we caught up with him today in Newark, New Jersey, at member station WBGO. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MICHAEL WOTORSON (Executive Director, Campaign for High School Equity): Very welcome, thank you for the invite.

Mr. MICHAEL COHEN (President, Achieve): Nice to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Michael Cohen, Im going to start with you. First of all could you just give us a little bit of history: How long have this standards, these new national standards been in the making? And why do people think that they are necessary? Why do educators like you and the other Michael think that they are necessary?

Mr. COHEN: Well, thank you. First of all this has been in the making for about a year which is a very short time to develop something as ambitious and important as this. But there's a real sense of urgency to do it, so the work was moved as quickly as possible. They are important because foundations standards provide a foundation for the school curriculum and for everything else that happens in school. They define what students need to know and be able to do when they complete school and at every grade level along the way. And as you pointed out that right now, wildly different expectations for students from state to state and from community to community - thats not good. First of all...

MARTIN: But why isn't good? Tell us why.

Mr. COHEN: Well, first of all it doesnt reflect the fact that when students complete high school, in the 21st century, they need to be prepared for some kind of further education or training: two-year college, four-year college, workforce training. They need to be ready to go to work, and they need to be able to compete in a global economy. And those real world demands that students face dont vary from community to community or from state to state.

They are if anything international and global not local. So, having expectations and standards set by 50 different states in 50 different ways leads to inequities. Students in Mississippi need to meet the same demands that students in Michigan and Massachusetts do, and they're not necessarily held to - I don't mean to pick on Mississippi, but from state to state you see a lot of variations. So, we really do need to hold students to high standards that will prepare them to compete in the modern world.

MARTIN: Michael Wotorson, thats a good opportunity to turn to you. Why do you as a person who has been involved in civil rights feel that this is important? Before this role you were previously the national education director for the NAACP. Why do you feel this is a civil rights issue?

Mr. WOTORSON: The urgency is every bit as serious perhaps as it was in 1954, or even prior to 1954, around the Brown v. Board decision. The essential fact of having so many kids, particularly kids of colors, receiving an education that is qualitatively different, based solely on their zip code, is a very urgent situation before our country. And quite frankly when you stretch that to its logical conclusion and think about the economic impact, the long term economic impact of kids being undereducated, were losing somewhere in the neighborhood of a million kids per year in our high schools.

When you think about what that means to our country economically in terms of lost revenue, lost wages and the like, we are rapidly under-educating ourselves out of economic self-sufficiency and out of economic or democratic stability.

MARTIN: Michael Cohen, why has there been so much resistance to this new - the tradition in this country has been local control of schools. In fact, states have traditionally been the key players in education, to the point where the Republican Party at one point had in its platform that the department of the federal Department of Education should be abolished. So, first I wanted to know is do you expect that, more broadly, the idea that there be some national standards is achieving more acceptance and why has there been so much resistance to this to this point?

Mr. COHEN: Well, there is typically been resistance to the idea of national standards because people equate that with a federal effort, and dont often trust the federal government to define a curriculum for students. Whats very important for listeners to understand about this effort is that it is not the federal government doing this. The federal government didnt start this. It didnt pay for it. It didnt write a word in the standards.

This is a group of states coming together to work collectively to draw on the best experience theyve already had, the best standards theyve written, the best research thats been done to try to define a new set of standards that really reflects the conditions it seems we'll be encountering. So, this will lead this should not receive the same kind of political resistance that previous efforts have had because this is not a federal effort. This is the states coming together, really as laboratories of democracy, taking what they've learned and applying it collectively to the next step.

MARTIN: Well, I've actually heard sort of two objections here. One is that, as I think, you know, Alaska and Texas have already said that they didnt participate in this new standard-writing effort. In fact, Texas Governor Rick Perry said that he feels that Texas students should be taught under standards that are written only by Texans. So, thats one. And Texas is not considered one of the sort of highest-achieving states in the country. But on the other hand, I think there are states like Massachusetts with high standards who are concerned that these standards will lead to, what is it, an undermining of their efforts to achieve the excellence that theyve already attained.

So, Michael Cohen, if I could hear from you first on this and, then Michael Wotorson, I'd like to hear from you also.

Mr. COHEN: Sure. You picked two very interesting states. Massachusetts has the most rigorous standards in the country, and they are right to insist that they will not adopt anything that causes them to be watered down. Their approach to this has been to roll up their sleeves and work with the other states and make sure that these standards come out, so that they are as rigorous as they need to be, and theyve been excellent partners in this.

Now, this is a voluntary effort. No state has to be involved in this, but there is some danger to saying only people in my state will write the standards. Because if you think your students might ever move out of the state, they want to be prepared for where theyre going to go, whether its the college or whether its the job some place out of the state. You cant have quite that parochial a perspective and prepare your students for a global economy.

MARTIN: Michael Waterson, what do you think?

Mr. WOTORSON: I would just add that, you know, we live in an increasingly small world. We live in an international world, and the decision to deny your students an opportunity to have access to higher, more rigorous standards is essentially a decision to deny your students a significant part of their future. But from a civil rights perspective, part of what concerns me about that is, again, the vast majority of those million kids that I talked about earlier who are dropping out of high school for a variety of reasons tend to be black and brown kids.

And so, when the governor of Texas or the state of Alaska, or any state for that matter, says that they are not going to participate in this voluntary effort, what they are really doing is shutting the door once again on the future of millions of kids of color. From a civil rights perspective, that is alarming and that is something we have to oppose.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were talking about these newly proposed standards for K-12 education. A public draft was just released earlier this week. A group of educators were convened by a group of the nations governors and state superintendents who write these proposed guidelines.

And were talking with two education advocates, Michael Waterson, executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity, a civil rights group a coalition of civil rights group, and Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a bipartisan education reform organization, about all this.

Michael Wotorson, are you at all concerned that these kinds of national standards might, in some way, however laudatory, might kind of push against the innovation that sometimes works to the benefit of minority and low-achieving students, creative approaches that may work well for them but arent needed by other students?

Mr. WOTORSON: Actually, quite to the contrary, Im particularly encouraged by the way the process has unfolded because by its very design, by the nature of its very design, the process has sought to include the best ideas, the best practices, the most innovative practices and approaches as it relates to curricular development, as it relates to things like profession development for teachers. So, at the end of the day, the idea is that kids of all colors, by virtue of this process, are actually having access to the best kinds of thinking.

MARTIN: So, the standards are about the what, not the how? If you can teach kids particularly well using hip-hop, theyre not saying dont teach the kids that, but if they need to know the difference between, say, what a genre is...

Mr. WOTORSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...for example, or what then the standards say: this is what you need to know, but were not going to tell you how to teach it.

Mr. WOTORSON: And Ill give you a slightly more concrete example. Right here where we live, you can go to a high school in Bethesda and walk into an algebra class, and find kids actually doing algebra. You can find kids actually doing quadratic equations. Now that doesnt necessarily mean that by the time theyre 30 years old, theyre going to be doing quad equations every day at work. But it does say something about the way theyre being prepared mentally.

And then you walk right down the street in Prince Georges County or in some parts of Montgomery County, and you will find kids in algebra class learning to balance a checkbook. So, that gets really at the how.

MARTIN: Okay. So, what about - Michael Cohen, what about you? As weve heard a number of educators express concerns about the national standards, as expressed by the No Child Left Behind initiative by the Bush administration, and people will say, well, we agree with the objective of not leaving any child behind, but there is a real concern that states have either watered down their standards to meet these objectives or theyve squeezed all the creativity and excitement out of the curriculum. So, what about that?

Mr. COHEN: Well, two things. First of all, on the issue of states watering down their standards, many people think that No Child Left Behind actually exerted downward pressure on state standards because of the way that law was designed. This effort is actually exerting upward pressure, is looking for more rigor. And its happening because the fundamental question that the team that wrote the standards asked is: whats the best evidence about what students need to know and be able to do when they complete secondary education and go out into the real world? What do we need to do to make sure that they are well prepared?

And it turns out that, again, in a global economy, in a knowledge-based economy, the preparation that students need is more rigorous than ever before. So, this is exerting upward pressure. Secondly, in terms of, you know, the creativity issue, you put it very well, this is about the why, not about the how. So, you want to leave - and this whole effort leaves a lot of room for local school systems, for individual teachers to be as creative as they can be in the classroom, but you dont want that creativity to occur at the expense of students learning what they need to learn.

So, by being very tight on the expectations, so that everyones accountable for them, you can leave lots of room for creativity, experimentation, and innovation, which is exactly what our schools need right now.

MARTIN: And Michael Wotorson, Im going to give you the final word. Do you think that schools have the resources to put these standards into place right now? I think every day that people who follow the news are finding stories about school systems under tremendous pressure from the economic conditions of the country. Its now when you find schools systems across the country firing teachers, firing specialists particularly, hiring long-term substitutes to do the work that classroom teachers were doing. Its a very real issue. Do you think that schools have the resources to put these standards into practice?

Mr. WOTORSON: In short, yes. When you consider whats happening right now, you have 50 states writing 50 standards that in many cases are ridiculously deep. So, there are untold amounts of money being spent already. What this process will allow for is significant economies of scales. Frankly, states will actually be saving money in terms of now adopting a common set of standards and implementing a common set of standards.

MARTIN: And when will these go into effect?

Mr. WOTORSON: Thats a question that Michael knows a little bit better than I do.

MARTIN: Michael Cohen, will these go into effect?

Mr. COHEN: That will depend on each state. Each state has its own timeline for adopting them, and I expect there will be a period of years before they are implemented. This is not a change that happens overnight. Theyll need to get the teachers ready, the curriculum ready. So, this will unfold over a period of years.

MARTIN: Years? Do we have years?

Mr. COHEN: Well, we have to go as fast as we can, but you dont want to just weigh standards on people and say, now you need to change everything that youre doing overnight...

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. COHEN: ...you need to prepare them for it.

MARTIN: All right. Michael Cohen is the president of Achieve. Thats a bipartisan education reform organization. Michael Wotorson is executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity. If you want to find out more about the standards were talking about, well have links on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you.

Mr. WATERSON: Thank you.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.